Organic Garden Soil / Raised Beds?

m1chaelMarch 21, 2012


Just ordered a few raised garden beds using composite material and would like to know what kind of soil to put in them? I am trying to be all organic but am confused on what constitutes organic and what does not. For example, I am not sure if all organic means not to use pesticides / herbicides and animal manure or what?

I was planning on buying some regular top soil and then adding some type of all natural compost to it to make it organic but I am unclear on what additives are considered organic. If I buy the bagged organic additives from the local home improvement stores, I will have to use many, many bags to fill the area I need so I am looking for an alternative. I called around to a few garden centers and they offer just top soil (no added nutrients) but they also offer top soil with added manure or you can by mushroom soil. I am not sure what to buy or what to do?

Assistance please...



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Without a soil test of your native soil, or of the purchased soil, you won't truly know what additions you need, but a good rough guide would be to add 1 bag of compost to each 8 bags of topsoil. This is assuming that the "Compost" doesn't already have a large amount of soil in it - often there is. In that case, composted manure would be a better choice.

If you want to be strictly organic, you should look for that certification on the label. Without that label, you won't know if it is truly organic or not. This raises the question of why you want to have an organic garden, because it generally necessitates more labor and more involvement in the process of creating and maintaining healthy soil.

There are organic pesticides and herbicides, just as it is possible to have non-organic compost. The definition is complex, but a simplified one would be that an organic garden relies on natural inputs and systems to create a healthy soil that supports growing healthy plants without the addition of man-made, short-term synthetic solutions.

"Top soil" can encompass a lot of variables, it may have some organic matter already in it, or it may be a mix of sand, silt, and clay, in almost any number of different ratios, with no organic material at all. It may be sterile, or full of weed seeds, or even contaminated. Unless it is labeled, you won't know - but we take these kinds of chances every day when we buy anything.

I suspect that the mushroom compost would be the most affordable thing in your area, and it is generally a very beneficial addition. OMRI lists mushroom compost as acceptable UNLESS it contains uncomposted animal manures, in which it is Disallowed for food crops for human consumption. If your crops won't be harvested for at least 120 days, even mushroom compost with animal manures is permitted. If you can buy it in bulk (most of it comes from PA) it should be very affordable.

In the meantime, it might be helpful for you to wade though some of the threads on this forum about why people choose to grow organically and what advantages "synthetic" gardening can provide. Many new gardeners end up with a hybrid of the two, but it is entirely possible to start organic and succeed. You just have to understand the limitations and possibilities.

    Bookmark   March 21, 2012 at 7:42PM
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I would just go to a local, reputable construction yard and look the stuff over and have a truckfull delivered. There's no guarantee that the soils you buy will be absolutely chemical-free, but the same is true of anything you bring in. :)

    Bookmark   March 21, 2012 at 9:51PM
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To add to what bi11me said, I'd get it by the pickup load instead of from bags at a big box store. I don't know what size your bed are going to be, but, a 40 pound bag won't go too far. I'd also look for my own source of organic material to make compost. Leaves in fall; lawn clippings from lawns not treated with weed and feed products in spring, summer, and fall; kitchen waste.

    Bookmark   March 21, 2012 at 9:52PM
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What most everyone considers the best soil is loam, a soil that is about 45 percent sand, 25 percent silt, 25 percent clay and 5 percent organic matter. This soil type is not very readily available although many people appear to think "topsoil" is loam. You could mix those soil types togehter and come close to having loam and we have a nursery here that does that and the soil they sell comes close to loam, but it is not loam.
The soil I garden in is sand with about 8 percent organic matter, compost and other forms of vegetative waste, in it and I have worked in gardens with clay soil to which 6 to 8 percent organic matter was added.
All soil is organic and you can add animal manures to any soil, just use care since the potential of disease exists when manures are not handled properly. Organic gardeners should be trying to use only enough of certain pesticides to maintain control of insect pests, keeping in mind that many, even the "organic" pesticdes, are very broad spectrum poisons that kill many insects that can aid in control if the pests, predators, as well as the beneficial insects such as the bees that pollinate our crops.

    Bookmark   March 22, 2012 at 6:32AM
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Thank you all for your input, I appreciate the help. After considering all of the options, it sounds like my best option is to buy soil that is already mixed with some level of compost matter then begin to add my own organic compost to it going forward. I will plan on visiting my local nursery this weekend to get the best mix available.

Thanks again,

    Bookmark   March 22, 2012 at 12:30PM
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I have had bad experiences with what garden centers call topsoil. It is screen and almost powdery. It had very little organic matter. I later learned that it is the ideal choice for landscaping projects that involve setting stones in the ground or changing levels, it's not for growing vegetables, unless amended.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2012 at 3:34PM
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billme & kimmsr said it best.
Because you never know for sure what you are getting in a store bought mix.
You should start a compost pile as soon as you have time (IMO).

    Bookmark   April 7, 2012 at 1:22AM
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Have you done a google search to see if there is someone in your area who delivers quality garden soil, not just top soil? I have a company that delivers garden soil that has composted horse manure and I'm not really sure what else. It's great stuff and only $32 a yd and the minimum is just 4 yds. with no delivery fee. It would be a lot cheaper if you could buy it in bulk rather than by the bag. You'll need a lot of bags.

We just set up new beds on our new property so no way could we afford the bags. Our native soil here is packed down from the equipment, etc. and nothing but grass can grow in this stuff right now. 4 yds. worked out just right for us.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2012 at 9:34PM
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leira(6 MA)

I just ordered some topsoil for raised beds. My options in the area seem to be either topsoil or loam (though whether it is really, strictly "loam" I don't know), or those things mixed 50/50 with compost.

The 50/50 compost blend sounds attractive, but I've had trouble before when I filled raised beds with too high a percentage of organic matter, since the organic matter gets consumed, and the level sinks so much over time. This is especially a problem with perennial beds.

Ultimately, I chose to get the plain old topsoil (or maybe the place I got it from called it loam), and I will amend it myself as I see fit. I've had great success amending my native soil and my other raised beds, so I'm sure it will be fine.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2012 at 8:49AM
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Topsoil from unknown sources sometimes has weed seeds, so I like to fill the containers and level it out and water it good, then wait for weed seeds to sprout. Scratch up the surface good without tilling too deep will kill off the first crop of weeds. Sometimes I do it twice before setting any plants out.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2012 at 7:50AM
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