Get your own soil to help the garden grow

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The path to ideal spring weather is never a straight line.

Decomposing leaves

Like the journey to the Stanley Cup playoffs, there are some wins, losses and overtime contests that have to be had before we know where we stand. 

As we take this journey through the spring planting season, I am here to remind you of the most important garden activity of the year. The soil, in which all of your garden plants put down roots, needs attention. 

As Oliver Twist once famously said to the bossy school monitor while on bended knee, empty plate in hand, “Please sir, I want some more?” your garden plants are asking the same this time of year. 

The nutrients that all of the plants in your garden depend on for life is at the root zone and in the soil. There is no substitute for proper soil preparation this time of year where garden health is concerned.

April is soil month around my place. I turn my compost, order a couple truckloads of the finished material, and spread it over existing soil all in an effort to produce a foundation for this year's garden. My entire perennial bed [all ½ acre of it] receives a centimeter or two of 70 per cent finished compost/30 per cent sharp sand mixture. Vegetable beds [another acre] receive a more generous allotment of the same stuff. 

Last year's fallen leaves are left in place and the new soil spread over them. As temperatures rise and rains fall, the leaves break down naturally, providing a wonderful, all natural bed for veggies and cutting flowers alike. If your goal is to produce your best looking garden ever in 2014, I recommend that you do the same. 

Consider the Source

One of the ‘secrets’ to a great looking garden is to acquire the best quality soil in the first place. If you are buying soil by the bag, this is easy: purchase from a supplier that you respect and can depend on. Look for soils that are blended for specific purposes:  vegetable garden soil, tree and shrub soil, lawn soil and triple mix differ in their make up and composition, but not in dramatic ways. When in doubt use ‘triple mix’ in the garden to plant most anything. Container soils are another matter: again, you cannot go wrong with well-known brand names. Avoid cheap, unrecognizable labels and remember that they are usually ‘cheap’ for a reason. 

Don’t overlook the finished compost in your compost bin or pile. If it has been ‘working’ for a few months and if you turned it over last fall, chances are that it is ready to spread over your garden.

Buying quality soil in bulk is a trickier matter. There are many suppliers who mix all kinds of stuff together, fluff it up through a soil shredder and deliver it to your door for cheap. There is that ‘cheap’ word again. Reread my previous advice: ditto for bulk soil.  If you are new at this, I advise that you go to a local garden retailer that you trust and ask them for the contact information of a recommended source of material. Once you have made contact, received a quote for the desired volume of triple mix or ‘lawn soil’ or whatever, ask for a couple of references. Call the references and ask what the results were like from this particular source. Like hiring new staff, checking out references is key to a healthy, long-term relationship. And every gardener wants a great relationship with their soil.  

Plant Above the Ground

If you are starting out, I recommend that you consider building wooden boxes to plant this year's veggie garden. Fill them with the aforementioned quality growing mix and sow your seeds or plant your transplants with abandon. This method eliminates many weed problems in the short term and is an effective shortcut to ‘soil improvement’ which can take years to do well. 

I started my garden eight years ago in a field that had been used for growing soy beans and corn for six generations. Before that it was a hardwood bush. Today I can say that the soil in my garden is not bad, but it is not ideal. And this is after I have spread my 70/30 compost/sand mixture over it every spring. 

Don’t assume that last year's soil is ‘good enough.’ When the garden puts down roots and pushes new growth later this spring, it is important to have done your ground work this time of year. 

Mark Cullen appears on Canada AM every Wednesday morning at 8:40. He is spokesperson for Home Hardware Lawn and Garden.  Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at


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