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  • Writer's pictureMary White

Don't Overlook the Importance of Building Soil

Updated: Aug 1, 2022

There are a lot of things I know now that I wish I had known about when I first started gardening. There is a long list of things I learned the hard (and expensive) way, but the importance of building soil is at the very top of that list. If you're new to gardening, I hope you'll take the benefit of what I learned only in hindsight and decide to focus on building soil sooner rather than later.

When I started gardening, I was under the impression that it would be easier to grow in containers using bagged soil purchased from garden centers than to grow in the ground. I knew this wasn't the cheapest option, but I was also convinced - for whatever reason - that it would be an easy path to gardening success. In my mind, I could just poke holes in buckets, add some magic $20 per bag soil in it, put my plants in it, and they would grow and produce.

Containers Are Not Easy to Grow In

In my mind, I thought that I'd start growing tomatoes in containers to make sure I could do it, then move on to raised beds or in-ground gardens as a next step. What I didn't realize is that it's a lot harder to grow tomatoes in containers full of bagged soil than in properly amended soil that is fed on an ongoing basis.

Even with properly amended soil in containers, in my opinion it's still harder to grow tomatoes (and other stuff) that way.

  • Plants dry out faster in containers than in the ground, so they have to be watered more frequently.

  • Their growth potential is limited in containers because they can't put down deep roots, which they need in order to grow tall.

Don't get me wrong - container gardening can be a great way to grow food and/or flowers, but it's not easier than other options. Container gardening is a great option when you don't have a lot of space or - in my case - when you do have a lot of space but it's all full and you still have more plant starts that need to go out.

I still grow in buckets in addition to multiple raised beds, fields, etc., but I now know that containers aren't a shortcut, and that bagged soil on its own isn't a substitute for properly amended garden soil that is rich in organic matter. As the buckets I started buying a few years ago start to break apart every time I try to move one, I'm not replacing them. Instead, I'm developing long-term growing areas. The resin in the buckets is good for only two to three years in the sun. The ultraviolet rays destroy them quickly.

Soil Building Makes a Difference

It took me a long time to figure out that dirt occurs naturally on the ground, but soil is what you garden in. No matter what kind of soil you start with, ongoing care and feeding is a necessity. Bagged soil can be beneficial, but it's not a cure-all. It may have certain nutrients in it to start with, but it may not have everything your plants really need. Even if it does, you're still going to have to amend it over time.

Key lessons I learned as a new gardener,

  • As plants grow, they deplete nutrients from the soil. Those nutrients have to be replenished.

  • With know-how and effort, even hard, impossible-to-dig red clay can become rich, fertile soil.

  • If you plan to garden on any scale at all, there are much cheaper options for building the quantity and quality of soil you need than buying small bags from garden centers.

If I Could Turn Back Time

If I could go back to being a beginning gardener, armed with the lessons I learned over several years, I would not spend a lot of money (you don't want to know how much) purchasing multiple dozen buckets and bags of soil to use for container gardening since I lived (and still do) on a large piece of property.

Instead, I would have redirected those funds to raised bed gardens or hügelkultur beds, both of which will be discussed in detail in future blog posts. I would also have started large-scale composting (also to be detailed in future posts) much sooner.

Share Your Lessons Learn

What lessons have you learned about soil building since you started your garden journey? Share your favorite takeaways in the comments below. Like this post? There are more to come! Be sure to subscribe.

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