Container Culture: Soil Is Very Boring But Also Very Important

Soil, fertilizer, and mulch: three very important and boring things.
Soil, fertilizer, and mulch: three very important and boring things.

Right now I'm listening to an audiobook biography of Ulysses S. Grant and it's like pulling teeth. The specifics of the Civil War never especially grabbed me until I heard this one statistic: at the Battle of Antietam in 1862, 22,717 people died. Almost twenty three thousand! That's so many people! On both sides! For one battle! That made me want to learn more about not only war that these guys believed in, fought, and died in, but also the guy who helped lead the the winning side to victory.

And oh my God is this book the worst. It's very long and very plodding, and to top it all off, Grant didn't even become head of the Union forces until a year after the Battle of Antietam, but I didn't realize that until too late and now I'm in over my head and because of my dumb pride I must finish this book.

So it's any wonder that I found myself the other day begrudgingly listening to how Grant begrudgingly led a team of Mexican pack mules pre-Civil War while I begrudgingly prepared garden soil for some Dragon Tongue bush beans when it hit me:

I'm doing the most boring thing I could ever think of right now.

In this one TED talk about glamour, Virginia Postrel explains that something seems more glamorous when when the actual mechanics to get it to that final state remain hidden from public view. Those pictures on gardening blogs of smiling people holding up their huge carrots seem super glamorous. And the Civil War held for me a kind of morbid glamour. But in reality to get those carrots here I am, mixing fish bone meal with dirt by hand and as far as I can tell, before he led Union forces to victory, the bulk of Grant's military career was spent sitting around hoping he didn't catch TB or smallpox.

Boring and unglamorous, such is the bulk of the life of a soldier, and such is the preparation of potting soil. "It can be very tempting to skip over the job of preparing your soil in favor of the more exciting job of choosing and installing the plants," writes Alice Bowe in her book, High-Impact, Low-Carbon Gardening. "But this is always a mistake and will always cause you problems farther down the line." Soil is important because it's where your plants get all their water and nutrients. It needs to be light enough to allow for air circulation, but still needs to adequately retain moisture. It's so boring. It's so important. It's the worst.

The first rule for creating good soil is don't just dig up soil from your yard/weird space between your apartment and the street. Ground soil has stuff that can harm your plants unless you test it and find out otherwise. Plus, it might not let enough air flow through, the soil will get compacted, the roots won't get enough oxygen, and then everything will die. So, first rule is buy good organic potting mix from your local nursery.

Second rule is add stuff to the soil. Yes, that means add it when you first plant your stuff. What kind? This is where it can get daunting, so here are some basic categories that will help.

Fertilizer: There are organic fertilizers that help your plants be all they can be. Essentially, your plants need three things in the soil to grow: nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. On bags of fertilizer, it'll have a group of numbers like 3-6-5. That's the proportion of those three things. Different plants require different proportions.

Story continues below

Why do you need fertilizer? Plants, since they're taking their nutrients from the soil, are constantly changing the nutrient make-up. This is especially true for plants like cucumbers and peppers. The easiest way to figure out which fertilizers are going to be best for your plants is to ask your local nursery. I say this because look at this list. It's best for beginner gardeners not to troubleshoot the merits of bat guano over arctic humus and vice versa. If you're trying to grow organic, I'd suggest not going to a place like The Home Depot. Sunset Nursery is really great, but my favorite is Sego Nursery because the workers can be a little sassy and plus they have a lot of cats.

Mulch: I hate the word, "mulch." I also hate the words "loamy" and "moist." But mulch is good because it keeps your soil from drying out too quickly. Mulch is spread over the top of your soil. Mulch can be in the form of matter such as wood chips, bark, or straw. I'm in the city and don't really trust stray leaves/wood chips I find in the alley, so my absolute favorite mulch is Trader Joe's Premium Pine Cat Litter. The compact size makes it easy to pick up on a casual run to the grocery store. How do I know it makes a great gardening mulch? Because it says so on the package. So I trust, so I believe.

Compost: Compost is many things to many people. Essentially it is a catch-all phrase for thoroughly decomposed organic matter that contains nutrients that enrich the soil. Compost is both fertilizer and mulch, and according to Michael Pollan, it is a state of mind. Due to copyright laws, I'm unable to reprint or link Michael Pollan's essay, Cultivating Virtue: Compost and Its Moral Imperatives. However, it is available through a subscription to Harper's or as a chapter in his book, The Botany of Desire.

To sum up: a good vegetable container should have organic potting soil, fertilizer, and mulch. The bad news is learning about these things can be boring and tedious. The good news is it will make your plants more productive. The other good news is we never have to have this talk again.

And if anyone can recommend an engaging Ulysses S. Grant biography, I'm all ears.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading