Manufacturing Dirt

I am trying to manufacture dirt. Lots of it.

While doing so, I’m playing the mad scientist, finding ways to get the most decent dirt, without spending money, and getting some exercise as an added benefit.

The results of all this experimentation will better enable me to help my landscaping clients and others to establish nice properties and gardens without resorting to expensive, albeit fun, garden centers to get things going.  That’s my niche, offering ideas on do-it-yourself, frugal property maintenance.

The first spring I lived here in St. Albans, in 2008, I tried to plant a garden. I knew the soil was bad, but it was even worse than I imagined. The garden plot was pure clay.   I didn’t know if I was planting radishes or making pottery.

When dry, the soil hardened so badly it made concrete feel like soft, plush pillows.  Root plants couldn’t expand, so I got attempts at radishes that looked like extremely skinny red carrots. Red onions looked like dying, purple, dirty string beans. Actual string beans halfheartedly flowered, then produced a few sickly, tiny beans.

I could have gotten expensive loads of dirt and compost to solve the problem. But part of the point of growing a garden is to save money. A lot of dirt would have me paying $100 per snap pea, it seemed.

I’d already stacked up leaves from the previous autumn, and they were rotting nicely. I had other compost piles going, and a woman helped me out with some sheep manure.

I guessed all this wouldn’t translate into perfect garden loam, but it would leave me with something better than I had.

My experiments are bearing fruit. Last fall I built two immense piles of leaves from my yard. Each was about seven feet tall and 12 feet wide. In the first picture, you see how the piles compacted into three foot high mounds by this week.

It helps to turn piles, but it was hard to do over the winter. I did add kitchen waste to the piles over the winter. The quality of the soil resulting from the piles improves if there are other things besides leaves in there, like kitchen waste, lawn clippings and the like.

Things were snow covered and frozen until recently. But by yesterday, things had thawed out enough to turn them, so I did so.

It was warm inside both piles, and steam rose as I dug in. A good sign. The material was rotting into dirt. But I also saw the importance of turning the piles.  Way down near the bottom of the piles, the leaves were as pristine as they were when I piled them in November. Those leaves needed to get into the mix. 

Grabbing a pitchfork and turning everything over moves the process along nicely. It also helps prevent odors. Nothing stunk as I worked on the piles yesterday. As you can see in the second picture, after I turned and mixed the piles, I had  a mix of dirt, half rotted material and intact leaves. This will all become  nice soil sooner than you’d think.  As long as I keep mixing the pile every once in a while, I could have decent soil in a little more than a year.  Yes, that’s awhile, but good things come to those who wait.

In the third picture, there’s a smaller, brown pile on the left.  Those were leaves in the fall of 2008. That pile’s almost ready to be mixed into the garden soil this year. A previous batch of soil went into the garden last year. That improved the 2009 crop somewhat from the previous year, and it will keep getting better as I produce good soil and add it to the mix.  

All this is unorthodox. At least the brochures that insist on Martha Stewart perfection don’t do it my way.

But making everything “just so” turns it more into a chore. You spend so much time decorating the compost pile, you don’t actually make or add compost. My idea works if you have a discreet corner of your property that isn’t so visible. I wouldn’t suggest doing it this way on your front lawn. You know how neighbors are.

So if you have a somewhat hidden corner of your property, and if you live in northwestern Vermont, you can press me into service to organize these informal compost piles. Start with the debris from the spring yard cleanup.

Or you can do it yourself and ask me for more suggestions.  Either way, the job is great exercise, and doesn’t cost a thing. Who needs a gym membership?.

I can already taste the vegetables my garden will produce this summer.

4 Responses to “Manufacturing Dirt”

  1. kim Says:

    Good luck with your garden this season. It takes a long time to get good loamy black stuff but it gets better each year.

  2. Candace Page Says:

    Matt,
    An additional way to go at this that is a little quicker is to pile leaves on the garden in the fall, run the lawnmower over them, then dig the chopped up leaves into the ground. My garden had the opposite problem (it was like dust) and this really helped.

  3. Jeff Says:

    I see a new H&G TV show in the looming…..
    MATT SUTkOSKI: THE DIRT MAN (bib overalls, boots and a pitchfork…don’t forget your sunblock). Martha Stewart, move over, here comes Matt and he’s dirty (but it’s good dirt). Love the article

  4. mattalltrades Says:

    Candy: Your idea is tried and true and it’s an extremely good one. I did a bit of that last fall myself.
    The problem comes when you have an enormous volume of leaves and it’s too much to put in the garden at once. So I put the excess in my big compost piles. I should have mentioned all that in the post.

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