Garden Planning: Q&A with a Soil Expert

Soil is the MOST important part of a successful garden. Read that again. That’s why when we decided to share our gardening planning and progress with y'all, we knew we needed to dedicate a post just to soil. While we’ve had our own lessons in soil over the years, we asked an expert to give us the dirty details and answer some common soil questions.

Q&A with Nathan Rutz, Director of Soil, Rust Belt Riders

What's the most important thing to consider when it comes to soil prep?

  1. If you are working on an old lot or with soil of an unknown origin, a soil test for Lead is the first place to start. You do not want to risk poor plant growth or the health of your loved ones by not testing your soil. That soil test can tell you so much more, like how much organic matter you have, what elements are missing, and what your pH is. UMass Amherst offers an inexpensive soil test that includes testing for lead, which is very important for Cleveland area gardeners. We recommend the routine test plus soil organic matter and soluble salts.
  2. Keep your soil moist, not wet. Dried-out soil is dead. Living things, all the way down to microorganisms in soil need water to survive. Keep your soil thriving by keeping it moist. Moist soil remains crumbly when you squeeze it in your hand; wet soil wring-out water and remain in a clump; dry soil will completely fall apart.  Also, once you plant seeds in your soil it needs to remain moist for them to germinate.
  3. Weed before you see weeds. Constantly disturb your soil with your fingers, trowels, tine rakes, and hoes BEFORE you see weeds (make sure to go around your seeded areas or transplants). If you see the weeds you're already in for more work. By disturbing the soil weekly, before the weeds have a chance to fully develop, you are saving yourself time, effort, and giving your plants a better opportunity for success.

Should I use raised beds?

Raised beds are always the best option if you've got the budget to build them and fill them. They save your back due to less bending, they have less weeds because they aren't in contact with the native weed seed bank, you get to control what type of soil you're working with, and they look great. Planting directly in the soil is a low-cost way to get your hands dirty and try out gardening with less of an initial investment, but it will always be more work.

If using raised beds: how and when do I start working with neutral "virgin" soil prior to planting?

When starting a new raised bed, native soil is usually on the bottom, and the raised part is filled with a nutrient-rich bed mix. If it is 6" or greater in depth we highly recommend filling the bottom 2/3 with compost, like Rust Belt Rider’s NOP-compliant "Wendell" compost, to start with a great base of slow-releasing nutrients and drainage.  After that, you should top off the remaining 1/3 with "Grow" for a super friable seed and transplant substrate that encourages weed-free growing and root development.  Additionally, raised beds will need to be top-dressed every year followed by amendments or composts to continue supplying fresh nutrients for garden growth.

What is the difference between a seed starting mix and potting soil? 

These terms are used synonymously; you can purchase either and expect the same results.

Thank you so much for your insights, Nathan!! If you’re looking for nutrient-rich soil to get started, we are so happy to carry Tilth, both a seed starting mix and a house mix perfect for your indoor plants. Tilth Soil is made with living compost from Cleveland’s food scraps.


Jennie & Andrew
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