Friday, May 23, 2008

Can This Garden Be Salvaged? (A Dirt Rant)

The vegetable seeds I planted a couple weeks ago are starting to sprout, so I decided that I'd better get my other raised bed put together so I can get the last of my garden planted this coming Memorial Day Weekend. This newest raised bed is where I'm going to put out the individual plants: squash, zucchini, tomatoes, etc. and by Memorial weekend, our danger of frost is (usually) past.

So Mr. Johnson helped me assemble the boards on Tuesday and I called to order my dirt for delivery on Wednesday. Here's where the disaster begins. I had 3 choices of places to get black dirt, mixed with compost and delivered, but because I had a budget, I went with the cheapest place (black dirt = $19 per yard and I needed 4 yards). When I called the garden place and gave my order to Wendy, she asked me what I planned to use the dirt for and when I said a vegetable garden, Wendy said the black dirt I was ordering did have some chunks in it and she would advise that I use the pulverized dirt instead (at $11 more per yard). I told her it just wasn't in my budget and I could probably break the chunks up (because I assumed they would just be chunks of black dirt) and that was pretty much the end of that discussion.

So the dump truck finally came about 6 PM on Wednesday and what he dropped on my driveway was awful. The chunks were HUGE! (we used Penny as a comparison with one of the chunks here--since she's a pretty full-figured kitty, I think you can get an idea of how big this chunk is, and there were many chunks larger than this!)

I tried breaking a chunk with a rake--couldn't be done. Then I tried it with my hands and this is what was inside:
A solid clay core!

Well, I'll tell you what.....I was SO disappointed I could have cried. Mr. Johnson helped me by loading the wheelbarrow and trying to pick out as many of the big lumps as he could. As he dumped it into the raised bed, I continued trying to break up chunks so I would have something usable to plant in. Finally after 2 hours, I was satisfied with the amount of dirt we had in there. I added a couple blocks of peat moss to the bed and started trying to till it and break things up more. Here is the final result.
Still quite a few lumps but I think it will work for the planting. I don't think the way this is now would work for planting any seeds in row crops, would it? Any advice from the garden bloggers? Would adding some sand and trying to till it into this mix help me at all? What about compost? Or am I just screwed?

I called Wendy back the next day to express my disappointment and she pretty much said I'm just stuck with what I've got. She said she told me on the phone that their black dirt had chunks in it -- which I heard her say and acknowledged that I would just try to break up the bigger chunks (I had no idea the chunks would be the size of a small schnauzer!) She said she tried to emphasize to me that this dirt had a lot of clay mixed in with it and that it would be hard to use for a garden and that it was more suited for filling holes. I never heard her say that during our phone call and told her that, so it becomes a matter of "she said -- she said." She told me we could bring the big chunks back some time if we were headed out their way and I said I would be happier if they would just come and take back what was left since I was going to have to throw the rest away into the ditch. She apologized again that I didn't fully understand what kind of dirt I was getting and the reason she hadn't been more forceful in trying to discourage me from getting this dirt was that she was trying to be polite and didn't want to make me mad (so mad after the delivery and not before is a better thing??) I advised her that if this situation ever came up with another customer she definitely should be more forceful in telling the customer that this dirt should only be used for filling holes!

This whole situation makes me so mad (mostly at myself) I could just cry. Mostly because I wasted over $200 on this crappy dirt and because I made a mistake. Mr. Johnson and I spent another 2 hours yesterday afternoon loading up the remainder of this dirt from the driveway and dumping it out in the nether regions of our yard. I'm telling you this whole pathetic story not to make you feel sorry for me, but for two reasons: 1) if anyone has any solutions to help me fix up the dirt in this garden, I would really appreciate the help, and 2) to get this "off my chest" and get on with my life--I don't want to put any more bad mojo on my new garden this year!


KGMom said...

An army of earthworms?
No, seriously, how very maddening. I feel your pain, literally, after trying to break up chunks. My guess is that after a year or two of growing, it will turn into wonderful dirt, but maybe this year your rows will be not too much like rows. According to this website, you should treat heavy clay soil with lots of organic matter.

barefoot gardener said...

Oh, hon. (((((HUGS)))))

Okay, take a deep breath. All is not lost, I swear to you. The dirt wasn't what you had hoped, and you are right in thinking she should have been a bit more specific about what the problems with the dirt were. I don't know how they could sell something with that much clay in it as "black dirt", but obviously it isn't breaking the law so I suppose we just have to work with what we got, right?

The first thing is: your plants will grow in what you have. Truly. They will have to work harder, and they may not yield as large of harvests as if they lived a totally cushy life in perfect soil with perfect watering etc, but they will grow and they will produce with the soil you have.

I had a garden one year in clay city, and the first year I tried to put the garden in I only had time to put one pickup load of compost into the soil. So imagine a 20x30 ft garden of solid clay that I turned by hand (oh, I ache just remembering) with just a top dressing of compost from my Dad's place. It was way worse than what it looks like your soil is, and I had a pretty good yield that year. My carrots were crooked, but they tasted fine.

The second thing is: "compost". This summer just dump all your clippings, weeds, veggie trimmings, etc into a pile and work it in come fall. Even if it is not all broken down yet. It will continue to break down, and the chunks will help break up the clay. kgmom is right about that. The more organic matter you can shove into that clay the better it will be for next year's garden.

Third: Keep an eye on it over the summer. I don't think you will have too much trouble, but with clay you have to really watch that the soil doesn't get compacted. Remember that plant roots need air and water. If you notice that the top of the soil is getting crusty, just rake it or something to loosen it up. I would usually use my garden claw for that kind of thing, but if you don't have one there is no need to go out and buy one.

I know this reply got long, but I wanted to make sure I helped as much as I could. It just makes my heart hurt that you are so disappointed. I want you to know that things will work out just fine. And think of how proud you will be in a couple of years when you have built up the soil to fabulousness and the seeds jump right out of your hand with eagerness to grow in it!

I look forward to seeing all your beautiful plants growing as the year progresses....

Anonymous said...

Those chunks look like something prehistoric, close to rock. If that is black dirt what was your next choice, I can't believe they sold that as black dirt. I'm sure you are very disappointed with your order, maybe lots of compost will help and add some earthworms, quite a few of them. Do they sell earthworms like mealworms? I'm surprised you have a pretty nice raised garden, but it must have been back breaking work to get it to look as good as it does. I hope you can get all your planting done this week-end, the forecast lookks good for us.

Beth said...

Oh RuthieJ, I feel so bad for you--how disappointing. But, it looks like you got some good advice on the organic matter. I am betting you will have lucious carrots even if they are crooked--and you'll have some good stories about turning that soil into the good stuff.

Lisa at Greenbow said...

What a disappointment Ruthie. My advise is Compost Compost Compost and any other organic matter that you can find. NO SAND. Sand + Clay = Concrete.

It will become a good bed. It will just take more time. Hang in there.

I used to garden where a mine had stripped all the top soil. Pure clay. It was that yellow clay. UGH It did eventually get better.

Meggie said...

Oh Ruthie, how know that you paid for such crap! My soil in one of my beds was similar. I did mix in some sand which seemed to help a lot. I can imagine how sore you're feeling after trying to crush those darn clumps. I've been burned a few times on such I go and look at the product before having anything delivered. Don't beat yourself up too much. We've all been there...we're trusting people...but not stupid!! You won't do that again, I'm sure.

Jayne said...

OK, the difference between you and me is that I'd have spent the majority of the time just sitting on my dirt and crying. ;c) You rolled up your sleeves and made the best of what you had.... good for you Ruthie! I won't pretend I know what to tell you to do, so I'll just say "ditto" to the smart gardening people above and offer up some warm hugs instead. :c)

Marsha said...

As a contractor I cannot believe they sold that clay loam stuff as black dirt! We are more honest than that but even real black dirt can clump up if it is piled when wet thus landscapers usually use pulverized black dirt.

You'll have to put your first batches of compost from your new tumbler on this bed first and you can also mulch with clean grass clippings (no seed heads or dandelions) which will help keep the soils moisture and will be able to be tilled in this fall.

Good luck - I'm glad you had the opportunity to rant and get this off your chest. I would have been really mad too!

April said...

Oh my goodness!! But all is not lost, Ruthie. We have clay soil, here, "naturally", and over the years we've had to add conditioners and organic matter - lots of peat moss, compost, manure. It really helps. Best of luck with this. :)

RuthieJ said...

Thanks Donna, Earthworms are an excellent idea! It's supposed to rain tonight and there are always quite a few that crawl out onto the driveway and street after a hard rain that I can pick up and re-locate to the garden.

Thanks Barefoot--you've made me feel so much better!
I used up the compost that was ready on my other raised bed, but I've got the compost tumbler started right now and am also adding to the other emptied compost bin. I also have a small tiller and my new garden claw, so I'll just keep working on it per your instructions and guidance.
Don't worry about your comment being too long because all your advice is really helpful and you know so much more about gardening than I do. Watch for periodic progress reports.

Hi Mom,
I guess I learned a lesson the hard way, but it sounds like all is not lost! I hope my tomatoes, squash, broccoli and peppers will do OK in this garden and I'll just have to keep working at it.

Hi Beth,
I think I got some good advice too and I'm so happy to know that my garden situation isn't hopeless. I even went out and bought some new veggie plants today. In 6 months, I'm sure I'll be laughing about this story.....maybe!

Thanks Lisa, I was sure hoping you'd have some advice for me too, and you did. I will continue to work on this garden and keep you posted on the vegetable progress thru the summer.

Hi Meggie,
You know my neighbor told me the same thing, "we've all done it." It's still hard to admit though that I did something stupid--sometimes it really sucks to be a perfectionist! ;-)

Thanks Jayne--I needed hugs as much as advice! The other hard thing for me was that Mr. Johnson got dragged into this mess too and worked even harder than me to shovel and haul (plus he had to listen to me bitch about it!) But I'm sure glad he was there to help me.

Hi Marsha,
Thanks for the advice. My phone call order may have been the problem, but Rochester's a strange place too, so I can sort of understand Wendy's reluctance about telling me what to do and I'm inexperienced on dirt anyway, so I think I was doomed from the start. At least I'll know for next time!

Hi April,
Thanks for your advice too. I'll keep working on this garden throughout the summer and hopefully, it will be in much better shape by fall.

mon@rch said...

Ugg, I see every reason for you to rant! I can't believe this happened!

Mary said...

It'd be sitting next to Jayne, wiping the tears off my mud-caked face while Michael would be shouting like a wild Italian, "What in the hell were you thinking????"

Take the advice from the gardeners because I still plant in hunks of clay but not ones the size of a fat cat.

Robin (Bumblebee) said...

Oh yeah. Garden boulders. Love em.

Peat is good for lightening the soil. I would add lots and lots of compost. And then add some more. I prefer leaf compost.

Did you wet the peat moss before working it in? Hope so. It can really soak up the water until it's hydrated otherwise.

Robin at Bumblebee

Julie said...

Yikes! I scanned through your post earlier and thought this was going to be about Ms. Kitty going potty in the new garden spot! I was mistaken! I have no advice - sorry, but I do believe your garden will still grow. We don't have dirt here, only clay and still we've had gardens. I think it will work.