Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Importance of Dirt

There is no soil where I live.

There is a little bit of dirt but nothing that could actually be called "soil".

We live on the western edge of Austin, which happens to the the eastern edge of Texas Hill Country. "Hill Country" might sound like lush, green, rolling hills but in Texas it means limestone jutting from the ground, jagged little hills, cactus plants, scrubby live oaks and ash juniper, and almost no soil. It is beautiful, to be sure, and I love it here. But we are not blessed with soil.

I lived and gardened in Wisconsin for three years and that place has gorgeous, amazing soil. Several FEET of topsoil, which means you can double-dig your garden beds and your plants grow like gangbusters even if you don't water them. I get weak in my gardening knees just remembering those soils.

Here on our 1.3 Texas acres we have between 0 and 2 inches (INCHES!) of topsoil. In fact, right after we moved into this house one of the pond goldfish died and the kids wanted to bury it. I grabbed a shovel and we went to dig a hole in the yard. I jammed the shovel into the earth and-CLANG- hit limestone. I moved over a few yards. CLANG. Over again. CLANG. CLANG. Finally we gave up and threw the goldfish in the garbage can. We couldn't find enough soil to dig a hole for a dead goldfish.

Last year our sweet old dog Penny died. Our vet, who is an old-time visiting vet, came out to the house and put her to sleep right here in our living room with all five of us around her. It was a really peaceful death and we wanted to bury her out back. It would have seemed weird to take her body away after she had lived and died here with us. So Mr. Chanclas grabbed the pick axe and headed out back. After a couple of inches of soil he hit rock. BIG rock. It took him over three hours but he finally had a hole big enough for a 50-pound dog. ("This isn't a grave. It's a crypt," he said when I came out to examine the rock-walled hole.)

When we got our current dog, Zeus, we were talking about how long he might live (ten years or more) and Mr. Chanclas looked at Zeus' rangy 80-pound body and said, "I better start digging his grave now. I could just work on it a little bit every weekend for the next ten years."

Because of our dire soil situation any vegetable gardening I do has to be in raised beds with soil trucked in from outside. I have been slow to develop new gardening spots on my property because of all of the work and expense associated with moving soil. I have a new gardening site in mind and have resolved to build some raised beds out there this winter. Then, the other night, I spotted an ad on the Craiglist "free" section: "10-15 cubic yards of dirt with free delivery in SW Austin". Ten to fifteen cubic yards of dirt is a LOT. About three dump trailers worth, to be exact. I was worried this was dirt from a pool dig, which would mean it was gross subsoil not suitable for growing plants. But it turned out to be the first 12 inches of topsoil in somebody's backyard (somebody who preferred a concrete pad over a lawn, apparently). So the guy came out the very next day and dumped the first load exactly where I wanted it. I plan to make a berry bed along the edge of the yard here.

Then he came out again this morning and dumped a second load. Vegetable garden! He's bringing another 1-2 loads out this afternoon, as well as some very large limestone chunks I will use as barriers or borders somewhere. (No plan for those yet, but they are useful materials.)

Did I mention that all this soil is free? This guy needed to get rid of it and I needed to obtain it, so it suited us both. It's not the rich, compost-laden garden soil that you would get at the gardening center (for $46.95/yd). But it is decent, dark topsoil and I will be able to amend it with my own mulch, compost, waste hay, chicken and goat manure, and cardboard. Bulk topsoil goes for about $20-30/yd around here and I am getting about 15-18 cubic yards, which means I'll be getting $300-$540 worth of soil. It's a good starting place!


  1. DUDE. Major Score.
    That type of ground is hard to deal with - the limestone and what not. I can't say I've had the pleasure up in our area, but I DO know the wonders of lasagna gardening and I think that's where it's at for you.
    There is a story of a dude in New York who has a farm that is directly over CONCRETE. He just trucked in tons of soil and organic matter and farms on top of the concrete - it's amazing. Of course he has to stay away from certain root crops, but there is a way around that.
    Have you thought about Hugelkultur beds? You could put some branches down in the raised beds, leaves, straw, and soil and then plant into it? That might help with long term fertility.
    Or, you know, you could just move up here and keep me company. Oh, the fun we would have....! :-)

    1. I am all into the lasagna gardening idea! I can't wait to try it, actually. And I have a little Hugelkultur bed that I've been meaning to talk about. I haven't planted anything in it yet but it's looking interesting. I have dreams of finding people to bring out truckloads of leaves, woodchips, etc, to amend my soil!

  2. Huge score! We've been saving up for a soil delivery. Need to scout the Craigslist free section more often!

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