Best way to quickly amend fresh topsoil

williammorgan(6b)May 7, 2014

Just got 8 cu yards of loam dumped. I'd characterize it as being heavy, a little wet(not dripping)and clumpy at times.

I'm filling a 16x10 foot bed for tomatoes and peppers.

Normally I'd resort to peat moss but since the soil is already a little moist I don't want to add more moisture with planting time in 2-3 weeks.

Home Depot doesn't have any gypsum and I wouldn't dare add sand unless I wanted a new patio.

I've used this stuff before and turned it into nice soil. Time is running out though.

Should I just focus on the planting area? I figured to plant two rows of tomatoes and 1 row of peppers so things can breathe. Yes a lot of work for so few but I want my tomatoes to stretch since I'm not one who believes in pruning. I was going to just dig holes and working cow manure, slow release etc and have them grow in hills and be well king of the hills as they would reside above my neighbor's raised range second floor(which is fine by me). That is approximately 20" high bed without amendments.

I will mulch with straw which will eventually improve the whole bed but should I just avoid too much involvement over all and just stick to the holes where the plants will be?

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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

What about some conifer (usually pine) bark fines? The particles would be a lot smaller than "mini nuggets " and would bring some good porosity to your soil. I can't say anything negative about pine bark fines. The container mix I use is mostly bark.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2014 at 8:20PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

Ditto on the bark fines if you can get them. Or if you have a place that needs some mulch buy the bulk bags of pine bark mulch and sift out the big stuff for the mulch spot and the fine stuff to the garden. Hardware cloth sifter works great.

My personal preference is always some good compost if you can get it - adding about 20-30% to it could be ideal (I shouldn't say that without seeing it so use care). Any local nurseries or landscapers selling any reasonable priced?

If all else fails the bagged compost and manure mix Walmart is selling this year seems to be pretty good quality and cheap. I had to buy about 20 bags of it since my largest compost pile was still far too wet to spread yet.

I'm always hesitant to just focus on the planting area since the roots never stay where you want them to and it can create some drainage problems just like layering does. But it would allow you to get them planted sooner and then you can go to work work on amending the unplanted areas around them.

Hope this helps.


Edited to add - if you go with the bark fines than plan to supplement with some additional nitrogen too.

This post was edited by digdirt on Wed, May 7, 14 at 21:09

    Bookmark   May 7, 2014 at 8:49PM
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seysonn(8a WA/HZ 1)

I think, when you are just starting to build/fill a bed, DIVERSIFY:
Add some topsoil, some cow manure , some chicken manure , some pine mulch. I saw this MG organic garden soil the other day in HD ( there was a broken bag). It was mostly pine fine mulch with beautiful texture @ $5 for 2 cubic ft. That was a good stuff and deal if I needed. Earthgrow also sells some Steer Manure Blend @ $1.47 per cf. That is another good amendment along with topsoil. I just mixed in couple bags of that into one of my raised beds today. NOT as a source of fertilizer but as an amendment

    Bookmark   May 7, 2014 at 10:19PM
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I had thought about mulch but then again that was my original intention but could not get any help(ride) so I quickly switched to plan b. I'm a bit concerned about pine bark though or any wood added to the soil. I am not going to say it's totally bad(from experience)but do wood eating pests ever go after the stuff? Would cedar be better? I imagine pine has some resin in it but does that turn off the termites enough?

Pine bark fines are no where to be found in my local vicinity.

I like cow manure and it works well with this soil. This is my 4th 8 cu yd pile in the last 7-8 years.

Great thing about top soil is I don't have to worry about anyone stealing the 2 cu yards or so I didn't finish! lol Then again I spent a few hours gathering cinder blocks and boulders and stones to form my bed then 3.5 hours wheel barrowing the stuff some 100-120 feet away. The thieves just know better if they were casing me ;)

Haven't seen much at Walmart but Home Depot mostly has the usual stuff. I'll avoid the bags of things called compost because they're mostly dirt or basically what I just carried around with some organic matter. Funny though this loam was named loam with compost. That's a joke because I couldn't see any and especially found not one worm. Had there been any organic matter there would have been worms. The robin was so disappointed.

I was thinking of another idea of manufacturing compost in my greenhouse by combining bark mulch(if I can find any not wood shavings)mixed with peat and some nitrogen supply(was thinking a rural place like an Agway dealer might have some chicken based fertilizer in 50 lbs bags or something). Then I would just compost the stuff the side dress the rows, add some worms and let nature work her magic. I don't want to use a urea based fertilizer though to break things down.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2014 at 10:27PM
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I'm in a city, we don't have many rural ingredients. Chicken manure is non existant. I used MG organic from time to time but it would be pretty costly to amend a whole bed with that. We don't have a pine fine supplier until you venture out and I don't drive and hauling stuff in my bike trailer can be pretty rough. I might take a trek but I'm gonna need rest after what I just did.

Too bad I didn't have a rototiller, I'd rototill straw in this compactable soil. That would loosen it up.

I shouldn't forget about the big fire ball in the sky either. The sun will get the soil more manageable being up so high.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2014 at 10:38PM
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If you are planning on getting a substantial amount of amendments, are there landscape material places that sell them by the cubic yard? Does the place that supplied your top soil also supply compost, manure, or other stuff by the cubic yard?

    Bookmark   May 7, 2014 at 11:31PM
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The top soil supplier has mulch but not pine bark fines. I asked about manure before and they only have fresh horse manure.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 7:57AM
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You don't necessarily need "pine bark fines." "Mulch" could be anything and the right kind may in fact work. Did you describe what you want to do and ask the supplier what it has that may suit the purpose? Not sure what your supplier or others in the area have but the landscape material places near me (Southern CA) tend to have a pretty big variety of stuff. Some of the cheap sources of material for them around here are tree trimmings and yard waste, which they just grind up and compost. This works pretty well as soil amendment.

For example, below is the product list from one such place:

Otherwise, bagged cow/steer manure at the Home Depot/Lowes tend to be the cheapest thing they have. They aren $1 per cubic foot bag here. Not sure what it is in your location.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 9:01AM
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johns.coastal.patio(USDA 10b, Sunset 24)

"I was going to just dig holes and working cow manure, slow release etc and have them grow in hills"

This sounds good to me. Suggestions above all try to move the bar higher ... but it is perfect vs good, IMO.

If the simple solution starts to look weak, you can use liquid fertilizer, right?

I'm sure many commercial tomato fields start the season with poorer conditions.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 9:41AM
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I have been growing successfully in containers for quite awhile. There are some principles of growing that are exactly the same for in-ground and containers. That is: adding amendments that too large and are different sizes is just not an effective method to improve drainage or improve structure. The truth is: no matter how many bb's you add to a cup of can not improve the texture or drainage. The smallest structure in the mix (growing medium) is the defining structure. This is why all knowledgeable container growers do things like sift/separate out the "dust" and smallest of particles from pine bark when using that in a mix. There are some physiological advantages when planting in-ground...opposed to containers, but you get the point. Understand why clay does not move water...but sand will. Why is it that clay is usually mineral rich...and sand needs much more fertilizer? Planting medium used/improved is probably the single most important consideration for a gardener.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 10:04AM
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johns.coastal.patio(USDA 10b, Sunset 24)

fireduck, I'm happy that your methods work for you, but I can't really sign on to absolute statements like "all knowledgeable container growers do things like sift/separate out the 'dust'"

Not all do.

What IS important is that your methods and watering watch your soil.

Update: I was reading in a permaculture site that a family only sifted down (1/4 inch and below) rotten logs, and called that their seed starting mix. It worked for them.

Here is a link that might be useful: Permaculture Potting Soil

This post was edited by johns.coastal.patio on Thu, May 8, 14 at 10:58

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 10:08AM
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What I would do, would be to find a landfill that does separates green waste and processes it onto compost. Buy a truckload of that (around here it costs $25 for a truckload), and then use that to amend the soil. If that were not available, I would probably look in the classified ads under fertilizer. Where I live, many people give away horse manure for free or maybe a cheap load fee. I would use that along with peat moss to amend the soil. I knew a guy once who filled his boxes 100% with a 50/50 mixture of dried cowpies (collected from rangelands) and peat moss. Then all he would do is add another layer on to top off the box each year, no tilling involved. From what you described you likely have a clay loam, which is still pretty good soil, and adding organics fixes or mitigates almost any soil issue.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 11:38AM
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johns.coastal.patio(USDA 10b, Sunset 24)

I like the idea of using what's available. It could be applied as found, around the original hills. Then in fall or spring plant a pea or fava bean crop to send down deep leguminous roots. Cut them off, summer crop, mulch, repeat.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 11:52AM
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In my immediate are we don't have too many exotic ingredients. What you have is the urban amendments.

I like black cow cow manure which is $5 for 50 lbs bag. Cow manure in general works this clay loam nicely. I'm confident there.

However I really can't get my hopes up too high. Still gotta finish wheel barrowing it. I'm at the scrape off the tarp point.

I would avoid landfill type of compost or yard waste because of what people put on their lawns around here. If I knew for sure it was leaves and grass clipping from just a field I'd take it because just mulching the rows and letting the tireless earthworms go to work does wonders. Perhaps I should really try and find a person who has piles for the taking on craigslist. Some people are not into herbicides and other things.

We've got some nice warm weather going on right now. Wish it was a bit more sunny but my accessment is this top soil came from low lands. I also agree with organic matter this stuff can be tranformed into something good. It's sifted, it has lots of mineral contain waiting to be exploited.

I do really want to avoid peat moss this time but I might have to change that because time will quickly run out. Really don't want to create a swamp. There is time to slowly develop the soil though and not fuss too much.

This soil went from the muck to a 20" high bed. Already I'm amending the soil by allowing it to breathe. Although it's compacted i didn't ride over it with the wheel barrow after it was dumped. I'm pitching the last of it now.

I'll definitely use cow manure and will see out some clean yard waste.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 1:00PM
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johns.coastal.patio(USDA 10b, Sunset 24)

My gut feel is that municipal compost is safe because (a) there is big mixing process, and the likelihood of getting "straight lawn" is low, and (b) I think the half-life of permitted chemicals is pretty low now. Anything that's been through the compost process probably started in low concentration and ended lower.

Oh, in my area compost yards, perhaps fed more by tree services and the utility companies than homes, are STA certified. I see that those promise "no curbside."

Kind of crazy to have "certified compost" but I have to admit it raises the comfort level.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 2:18PM
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I wonder if they sell the stuff around here to some company? Not that I'm looking for their unspecified finished product just that nothing is free. In a city as small as it is there are landscapers up the wazoo. I find it rare to see gardens. Landscapers are rather dubious types around here who will not even think twice about blowing sand in your eyes. Lots of liquid fertilizer trucks roaming around. Houses have shutters that are ornamental....I'm not too inclined to trust anyone in this city. Why in fact I trust no one here as far as I can throw em. People do seem a whole lot different outside the city though. I'm gonna have to network. If I take things in small loads it might be worth it over the long run as I get in very good shape and get my new bed in shape but over time. Might be impossible to cure it overnight.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 4:54PM
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Around here horse manure is free for the hauling but it varies from steaming fresh and running with urine all the way to stuff with no animal smell whatsoever. However, this being desert, straw is relatively expensive so you will tend to get a lot of un-composted wood shreds in the manure. But whatever you get, as long as you feel the need to prepare today for the garden next year, any manure is valuable to have.

Bulk composted plant waste will frequently have manures in it and it's almost guaranteed to stink, which means it's not quite ready. Including delivery, it may be cheaper per cubic foot than those dollar-ten-cents bags of steer manure from the big box store. However, steer manure is full of enough salt to make things difficult if used heavily. I say that a lot...

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 5:11PM
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-Not sure how "exotic" our available ingredients are in Los Angeles. I mean, you got trees where you live, no?

If so, then your local tree services/arborist and whoever is in charge of street and park trees will generate a large amount of tree trimmings, leafs and wood chips. And if you have those, then it's not that hard for some landscape material place or government agency to grind them, put them in a pile, maybe mix in some manure, turn them once a while and generate some compost to be sold in bulk.

If the place that sold you the topsoil doesn't have them, look for a similar business.

- From what I heard, one issue with fresh horse manure is that horses don't digest seeds very well, so that if they ate seeds (either foraged or within bales of hay), the fresh manure may have seeds ready to germinate.

- I have used municipal yard waste mulch (partially composted) without any signs of pesticide damage to my plants (or to the bugs and weeds in the yard). The ones generated by Los Angeles gets tested and the result is posted on the Sanitation Department's website.

As mentioned by johns.coastal.patio above, chances are that the portion of yard waste that contains remaining pesticides is fairly small and the composting and natural dissipation process does away with much of it.

I think that, for example, animal manure used in bulk may well be more risky if all the animals ate the same feed and the feed contains pesticide. See here: They yard waste would seem to have more of a diverse source.

But of course, each city does things differently. So, it's up to each of us to decide our comfort level of using municipal free mulch/compost (or any commercial product, for that matter).

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 10:23PM
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And you have to consider that most of the bagged materials that are available at the store, as well as bulk materials that you can buy at local nurseries, all has to come from somewhere. I am 100% certain that the local nursery I have down the street gets their compost from the green waste landfill then sells it for twice as much. Same with any other product out there available commercially. The only way to guarantee that you don't have the chems in the compost is to make it yourself, which I do, but I can't generate enough on my own to meet my gardening needs. So although I do consider that the landfill materials likely do have some herbicide residues, I weight that against the benefits that organics have in my soil. So far I have never had adverse effects on the plants themselves.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2014 at 10:41AM
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By exotic I was trying to say the custom mixtures. I'm in an urban area and hauling things from far away is not practical when I don't drive. So I'm basically stuck with what's here and some things that can be delivered. None of the landscape companies had pine bark fines. The bagged stuff can get pretty expensive fast.

I think i'll have to be a slower process than I want. However I figure if I dig holes say 2x2 and work that soil with cow manure the plants will do fine.

As you can see it was make shift but I go for functionability and immediate resourcefulness over $$$. It's a giant container and I'm letting my tomatoes look at it right now. It's cloudy and drizzling. This is their first day out. Warm weather starts tomorrow and I'm tempted to harden them off fast.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2014 at 10:56AM
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Well, we all gotta use what's available to us.

Have you considered mulching with woodchip, often available for free from tree services?!/home

    Bookmark   May 9, 2014 at 11:30AM
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I'd be concerned about termites or other wood loving pests. I have used rotted wood bark and the soil turned into something really nice but that was more the result of cleaning up an area and planting a garden where wood had been laying around for years.

Another thread gave me an idea to contact area farms who might have old straw. Straw is safer and gives soil a great feel after it rots. In that post the guy got 36 bales for $10. New straw is about $8-$9 around here.

So far I picked up 2 bags of cow manure.

Tell you one thing I can hoe most of the bed without stepping on it.

Saw another thing at Home Depot I want to look into, high desert sand. I was thinking maybe in small doses mixed with cow manure and some peat might give my tomato and pepper hills nice drainage.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2014 at 2:19PM
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