The Urban Homesteader: Good Dirt

By Cara Cooper | June 01, 2015
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An environmental consultant by trade, Cara Cooper started her garden with citrus and avocado trees plus a few herbs … all the makings of margaritas and guacamole. Here, she shares the lessons she’s learned as that “party garden” has grown into a full-fledged urban homestead.


When we bought our old house in the city, we had visions of enjoying a view of an edible landscape. Once we finished remodeling, our plan was to dig in and get started on our garden.

But during the course of our renovations we discovered old aluminum cooking pots, asbestos siding and many other buried treasures in the ground … which led us to look at growing food in a whole new light. What else was in our soil after 90 years of habitation on our lot?

Since it’s not uncommon for there to be lead and asbestos around very old houses like ours, we decided on raised beds with fresh soil and compost.

This was more labor and resource intensive for the first year, but it gives us peace of mind because we know exactly what’s in the soil that’s supporting our plants. Plus, raised beds help the garden look tidy and are more efficient for growing food than Florida’s sandy soil, which lacks some essential nutrients and tends to allow for water to filter away from roots too quickly.

That said, the first year, our plants struggled. We bought soil to fill our beds but didn’t let it rest long enough. We didn’t have the right balance of nutrients. We learned that the first layer of dirt is just the beginning – you really need three different elements to build rich soil full of helpful microorganisms: organic matter (such as plants and/or animal manure), minerals and water capacity. Get the balance right and you have a strong foundation for healthy plants and productive vegetables and fruits, without the need to fertilize constantly.

We now have an annual summer ritual of replenishing our soil so it can feed our plants in the fall. That begins with letting plants do the work for us: We grow a nitrogen-fixing legume cover crop in the summer (beans like black-eyed peas or field/cow peas are one of the easiest, but peanuts work too) then turn the plants into the soil before the fall planting season to let them compost directly in the garden.

If you’re just getting started (whether in the ground or in raised beds), here’s a recipe for healthy soil. Note that factoring in a couple of months to let everything compost together before planting is ideal, though we’ve rushed things by tucking small pockets of organic bagged garden soil into the beds for seeds … by the time the seeds needed the extra space, the surrounding soil was ready for them!

goodDirt_Dirt 1 Dirt
Start with good dirt. You can buy a truckload for larger areas (search online for topsoil or organic composted soil) or bagged organic garden and potting soil at your local nursery if you’re using smaller beds.
 goodDirt_Organic 2 Organic Matter
Compost is the absolute best thing you can do to turn good dirt into great soil. Rich soil comes from a balance of composted animal manure and plant matter. You can buy it, which is convenient if you’re in a hurry to get started, but it’s easy to do it at home. Check out our quick composting guide at edibletampabay.com/compost.
 goodDirt_Minerals 3 Minerals
Rotate placement of vegetables each season to prevent your soil from being depleted by heavy feeders such as tomatoes or broccoli. If you need to boost mineral content, the Espoma brand of organic amendments and fertilizers is our favorite. For trace minerals commonly missing in Florida soil, try adding Azomite or Espoma’s Green Sand.

 goodDirt_Drainage

4 Drainage
Plants need water, but especially in our hot and humid climate, it’s important to find the right balance of retention and drainage to grow healthy plants. Try asbestos-free vermiculite or coir (coconut husk) to improve water retention, both of which can usually be found at local nurseries.

 

TIP: Avoid adding fertilizers or minerals
before a heavy rain – preventing extra nutrients
in wastewater helps keep our seagrass meadows healthy!

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