Recipe for Dirt

So, I’m putting in a garden. I’m removing the top several inches of soil (and all the grass, weeds, etc. therein) and will replace that with a mixture of clean topsoil, manure and peat moss. Problem is, I can’t find anything in my gardening books about a good ratio of those ingredients. Suggestions?

Composted and bagged manure is not pure composted manure, so you don’t have 100% organic material in those bags. I will expect that is what you mean.

Keep the finished soil mix to no more organic matter than 50%. The milled sphagnum will hold the most moisture, but it repels moisture for a while if it completely dries out as a top dressing. It also will combine with the nitrogen in the soil to decompose, so using it may mean you need to add nitrogen. Organic peat is the dark black partially decomposed peat.

I would use the organic peat instead of composted manure, in a half and half mixture with the top soil. I’ve found that to give me the best mixture for garden beds.

Had you needed to break up a clay soil the sphagnum is a good additive. Any organic material is actually.

Use what you like though, just remember to keep the mix at 50% mineral and 50% organic.

I’m no gardener. I recently dug a hole for a young tree. The tree was a free-bee from my utility district. It looked healthy when they dropped it off in a little plastic pot.

When digging the hole pursuant to the instruction sheet, the soil was really hard and I had to run a lot of water to soften it up. The water seemed to have difficulty penetrating the soil. I’m thinking it’s like clay.

I installed the tree and back-filled the hole with the same dirt, adding a bunch of loose leaves, grass, and other plants as mulch.

A few weeks later, the soil seems to have settled and compacted back to the point where it looks like the water just runs off the top without much soil penetration.

The tree looks like it’s dead or dying (leaves brown, leaves falling off, no other leaves in the neighborhood are falling yet).

I’m thinking of calling them up and asking for a new free tree, but this time, I’d like to get some new soil… or something… instead of just back-filling with a bunch of clay-like dirt.

Tips? Thanks!

Use milled sphagnum and some organic peat. I don’t know how big the tree is. Dig the soil out double the root ball size, that includes depth too. For a small 2 foot tall or smaller tree dig at least a foot out. Mix the soil with 50% additives. Once the tree gets going for a few years the roots will get through the clay soil when they expand.

You can buy a bag of better potting soil instead of the other stuff. I prefer the other, but the difference isn’t worth the extra price for extra you won’t need.

Try a new gardening book, “Square Foot Gardening”, or just google for information. I was a convert about five years ago and still amazed and happy. Essentially, raised beds filled with a growing medium composed of compost, spagnum and vermiculite in equal thirds.

Grows like a raped ape, holds water and never have to till it. A bit expensive if you have to buy the compost, but look at it as a lifetime investment.

European Hornbeam currently about 8-10 ft. tall

Fifty percent, huh? That’s rather more than I expected, but it sounds like you know what you’re talking about.

I was figuring on adding some nitrogen to help break down the peat (manure would supply some of that). I also intend to work in some bone meal (mostly in the subsoil when I get around to turning it).

By the way, anyone know what your 40-pound bag of top soil is in terms of cubic feet? It looks like about one cubic foot to me, but the bag doesn’t say. . . .

Trees that are planted tend to have an early leaf drop, so it’s not necessarily dying.

Good advice above, and here’s an article more specifically for clay soils from Steve Bender of “Southern Living”.

BJ, hopefully you are tilling this in rather than just spreading all the components out. Using a tiller really helps to incorporate all the components into the bed. I’m a big believer in compost, because it has a good dose of the necessary microbes for soil health, in the same manner that probiotics are good for our guts. Most purchased soil amendments are rather sterile by necessity for commerce. Healthy soil is an amazing constellation of all kinds of beneficial bacteria and mycorhyzzia, and compost can help get your soil going toward that.

Bearflag-- a tree that size demands watering attention for the first year. Best to water deeply rather than often. Did you do that? For newly planted, especially that large, lay the hose on with a regulated nozzle of some sort, at a steady just above a drip for 45 minutes, once a week after planting. To check on the status of the tree at this point, try to bend a branch. If it cracks off, dry, that’s not good news. Check a lower branch, and see if it just bends, or has a layer of green under the bark.

Take a look at The Garden Primer. It’s a very good basic gardening book. She has sections on all kinds of basic gardening topics related to every aspect of gardening, including bed preparation and tree planting. In many cases she explains more than one technique for a task.

There’s now a second edition, but I haven’t looked at it, so I’m linking to the edition I own.


I believe 40 pound bags are around 2 cubic feet. Find out the bag dimensions and do the math to be sure.

Don’t waste bone meal by putting it below the root growth zone. Nutrients sink into the soil with the rain. I recommend it go into the top foot of soil. Unsupplemented bone meal takes time to break down and I would use it when you do this. Any other fertilizers should be applied in the spring, so they don’t just leach away during the winter.

Unless there is something wrong with the soil besides lots of weeds You might wish to spend the money on the amendments. You’ll have weeds regardless of replacing the top layer. I recommend you use black plastic weighted down on the edges with tuned over dirt or bricks, in bright sun for a couple weeks to kill weeds. Till or spade afterwards.

The way the weather is now, it might be to late to use the plastic weed kill method.

Um. If a 40 pound bag has 2 cubic feet, then one cubic foot weighs… 20 pounds… sounds awfully darned lightweight, loose, aerated soil notwithstanding. Water itself weighs 62.4 pounds per cubic foot - I’d bet that a 40 pound bag holds only 1/2 cubic foot, for a unit weight of 40 divided by 0.5 equals 80 pounds per cubic foot.

Maybe. I said I wasn’t sure. I know they can be almost unmovable when water seeps in through a tear.

Guess I could build a foot-square box and measure the stuff (Lawd knows I have enough scrap lumber laying around).

Thanks all.

The instructions said to saturate twice a week. I was afraid that much of the water was not penetrating, so there’s maybe a thin layer of wet on top with bone dry underneath. Not sure.