Gardening Tips: Dishing the Dirt

Editor’s Note: This column first appeared on 1 February 2017.


What to do this week:

When you think about what seeds need to germinate, the main thing is soil, obviously. You want your soil to hold water, but not too much. Roots need air too, just like us. So you want something that holds water but doesn’t get soggy, holds together and has nutrients. There are ways to go about getting this perfect mix. I make my own because I have a farm and I need it by the bucket.


By M Tullottes (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

(Photo by M Tullottes, Own work, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

My recipe is:

THREE PARTS peat moss
TWO PARTS good garden soil
ONE PART really well finished compost
ONE PART vermiculite or perlite.

Peat moss is very acidic, so add a bit of garden lime to cut down on that.

It is very important that your compost is well finished, otherwise it will have hormones in it that suppress seed germination, and you don’t want that! You can tell if there are no chunks of anything recognizable in it: it should look like soil and smell great.

You can buy compost or manure but it is often uneven. Once I bought some and it seemed to have gravel in it. With commercial manure you don’t know what the animals were fed. Steer manure can be really high in salt because it comes from large feed lots and they give those animals lots of salt. It is better to use your backyard compost. Worm castings are ideal too. If you have to buy in small quantities, it is not going to make a big difference. Get composting for next year, though.

Perlite is preferred over vermiculite because there is a danger that vermiculite can be contaminated with asbestos. You can get both at the garden center or the farmers’ co-op but if you use vermiculite, dampen it first. Don’t breathe the dust.

When I say PART, it can be any measure. Mine is a five-gallon bucket. Yours can be a cup. Whatever you need to get the volume you require.

It’s a bit like cooking — this your basic recipe, but you can alter it. If you’re mixing for onions, which are very heavy feeders, go heavier on the compost and maybe add some kelp meal or some blood or bone meal. Onions need a really rich soil.

Sometimes I leave out garden soil when I am making my first mix, but when I move the seedlings on to bigger pots or blocks I add that in the new mix.

Maybe you just have a small home garden and you don’t want to mess with all of this, although I can’t think of anything more fun for a winter afternoon than getting all muddy. If this intimidates you, get a good plain perlite mix at the garden centre and mix it TWO PARTS to ONE PART compost and you will be fine.

Then you plant.

Next week, I will cover different seeding systems from peat pots to little pots to soil blocks and my recommendations on all of that.

snowflake border



Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.



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