close up photo of person holding sand

Garden Dirt – The Dirty Truth

We have two “yards” – so to speak: a Southern Ontario lawn and garden (which we have been neglecting this year) and a “Near North” Ontario island of rock and pine needles. Wherever we are, I stew about dirt. My husband often thinks that I am thinking deep and meaningful thoughts, when I am often just looking at the soil thinking “I wonder how long it will take for that to compost?” If I watch the dirt long enough, I know it will evolve, and if I watch the grass will it grow faster?

The following post is all about dirt, and sharing my love of dirt is like spreading it around my garden. I hope you don’t mind if I shovel in some dirty puns at the same time.


Southern Ontario Dirt

In Southern Ontario, we have been applying topsoil and triple mix to our yard every year. Each year we apply a little bit of a top dressing of soil and grass seeds over our lawn and fill our raised vegetable garden beds with a mixture of soil. We also apply a layer of mulch over our flower beds. These beds are on a steep slope which face quite a bit of erosion of the soil when the snow melts.

We are blessed with a regional landfill station with a composting facility. Throughout the season we are able to shovel and fill large bins of compost and bring them home to apply to the garden and lawn. In Southern Ontario we are “rich” with dirt!

Setting up raised beds at the base of  a steep slope to fill with soil
Setting up raised beds at the base of a steep slope

I accused my husband of adding compost to our yard. He denied it….. the plot thickens.

A dirty pun.

Northern Dirt

We try to minimize what we bring back and forth to the island from the mainland. It’s a lot of effort to load up the boat and takes time and we’d rather just enjoy the day. The island property is a few acres of rock with a shallow layer of pine needles and moss.

towering pine trees
Towering pine trees

Massive white pine trees, and a few birch have grown everywhere, but they are shallowly rooted and over the years have fallen here and there. Blueberries and moss have happily taken up root in the shadow of the trees. The evolution of the Northern rocky landscape fascinates me!

Lowbush blueberries over decayed pine needles
Lowbush blueberries over decayed pine needles

Evolution of Northern Soil

The large and shallow lake was created by a series of ice ages. The Laurantide Ice Sheet covered most of North America. It began to retreat about 20,000 years ago. About 10,000 years ago Conifers, like the White Pine trees began to return – they can take root on even bare rock.


The White Pine and other Conifers drop layers of pine needles. The pine needles slowly rot to form acidic soil. Canada’s boreal forests as a result, have acidic soils which at first only some species of plants can tolerate. The lowbush blueberry thrive here – and we have many! Over the years, white birch, saskatoon berries and a few other trees and plants that can tolerate shallow, acidic soil and harsh growing conditions have filled in the gaps. Acid tolerant mosses and lichens have covered the shady layers of pine needles, providing a substrate for the blueberries and trees.

Gardening in Pine Needle Soil

I have been trying to plant perennials in this pine needle “dirt”. It is very shallow, and I would say that 60% of the perennials that I have brought from the south have taken root. We will see what survives the winter. The locals tell me that anything that I plant will be swept off the island by wind, rain, snow or waves – but this is just a challenge!

Having a rich earthy garden is a bold endeavor. Having a giant rock is a boulder.

Another dirty pun

In the meantime – some details about soil and dirt!

Soil vs. Dirt

What is the difference between soil and dirt? I read somewhere that soil is the stuff in your garden while dirt is the stuff we have to clean up. I’ll worry about cleaning the dirt later, I just need more soil. Dirt and soil are all the same to me, but I thought it would be nice to lay out the facts about soil (or dirt).

Soil is a medium for growth of plants. It is more than just that – it contains minerals, sand, silt, clay and organic materials. Plants need enough weight to hold them down and support their stems, but their roots need air and water.

People say I should stop focussing on the dirt – but I’m holding my ground.

Another dirty pun


Clay is made up of very small particles which are compressed tightly together and so clay soil has poor air circulation around plant roots, but holds the water.


Grains of sand are larger and so water drains quickly from around plant roots, but minerals and nutrients also are depleted quickly from this soil.

The dirt asked the sand – How are you? The sand responded – I am fine.

A Sandy pun.


Silt is granular, in between the particle sizes of sand and clay. It’s made up of quartz and feldspar. It holds the water well around the roots of plants but is not good for aeration.

I was going to get rid of my silt collection – but then I decided not to because of the sedimental value.

Another dirty pun


It is possible to have the pH level of your soil tested and to augment it if necessary. I don’t personally worry about this, unless I am having trouble with a particular plant. I know that my Northern soil is acidic, and my Southern soil is fairly neutral.

Soil is generally going to return to its original pH level over time, and so any augmentation must be ongoing. My Southern soil is rich in compost and we just top up as often as we can! Plants require different pH levels. pH is a 14 point scale – from 0 to 14 where 7 is neutral and anything below 7 is acid, and anything above 7 is alkaline.


Blueberries for example like a soil of 4-4.5 pH – so acid! Evergreens, dogwood, magnolia, azalea, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, garlic, sweet peppers, pumpkins, winter squash and tomatoes do well in mildly acidic soil. Composted fruit, composted pine needles and pine bark, elemental sulfur or a soil acidifier added to the soil will increase acidity.

Cabbage family plants, garlic and beets can tolerate mildly alkaline soil, as well as forsythia, weigela, watermelon and asparagus. Ash and lime added to soil increase alkalinity.

When the no-burn order in our Northern area ends in the fall, we will burn some of our decayed trees and create some ash – which can hopefully augment the soils alkalinity. The pine needles will always fall though – so it would be silly to expect to have anything but an acidic soil on the island.


Garden centres offer many types of soil and soil additives for sale – by the bag or in bulk.

Dry topsoil garden
Dry Topsoil


Black soil can be just any type of topsoil or triple mix. The key is that it is often labelled and priced higher than other soil mixes, when it may be the same soil for more money! Any soil CAN be black or dark. However, black or dark soil absorbs the sun and warms more quickly for spring planting and germination.

topsoil dirt
Photo by Lisa Fotios on


Topsoil is the top layer of soil. When a field, construction site or forest are cleared, the top layer of soil that is excavated is top soil. This soil is considered to be the best quality because it has the most organic matter from composting life forms. The quality of the site though will determine the amount of organic matter and texture in the soil. Generally, topsoil is screened to remove rocks.

How much dirt is in a hole that’s 1ft deep, 1ft wide, and 1ft long?

None. If there was dirt in it, it wouldn’t be a hole.

A dirty joke


Triple mix is generally composed of 1/3 top soil, 1/3 peat and 1/3 compost. This definition and composition can vary – sometimes/often the compost is manure.


Compost is decomposed plant and animal material. It is generally a good source of fertilizer, and continues to decompose and release nutrients into the soil.

When we had room in our rural garden, we created our own compost in recycled plastic composters. We regularly added kitchen waste, grass clipping, leaves, occasionally wood ash and garden clippings, and pulled our compost out of the bottom of the bin.

In our Southern yard, we have the village rodents to contend with (racoons, possums and worse!) – they love garbage and compost – so sadly we do not compost there. However – we regularly take home free piles of compost from our local landfill. There are some ground wood fibres in this free compost, but it seems to give the soil a nice light texture.

topsoil at landfill
Digging compost at my local landfill

In the island, we have made a compost bin, from a garbage can that was already here. There were no bins to be found in the spring in the local stores – so we created one with what we had.

I prefer a sealed bin – to keep creatures out. We drilled holes in the bottom of a plastic garbage can for air – and we add layers of coffee grounds, banana peels and vegetable matter – alternating with the only “brown matter” that we have – pine needles. We will never run out of pine needles to compost.

Homemade compost bin - plastic garbage can - pine needles layered over vegetables
Homemade compost bin – plastic garbage can – pine needles layered over vegetables

Pine needles break down VERY slowly – so I occasionally chop them up with my cordless Whippersnipper. This HOPEFULLY speeds the breakdown. I dream of rich compost in the spring.


Peat Moss is available in large bales, and may be added to soil to lighten it’s texture. It creates air around the roots of plants and absorbs and holds water. It does not add many nutrients to the soil, but lowers the pH (addes acidity). I had noticed that Peat Moss was highly unpopular in UK gardening, but receives less bad press in Canada and was curious as to why.

Peat Moss is essentially dead sphagnum moss which is decomposing. Peat moss dies and forms deep bogs. As moss dies it forms very deep boggy areas full of the material, which is harvested and packaged into bags or large bails. Peat bogs develop over thousands of years and cover approximatedly 3% of the earth’s surface, with Finland leading the way, followed by Canada, Ireland and Sweden.

shovel in garden soil
Photo by Lukas on

Peat bogs are wetlands or ecosystems which naturally purify water. They contain unique wildlife, and native plants which may be threatened by harvesting of peat. The acidic ecosystem results in a very slow decay and unique species. They filter and estimated 10%of the world’s freshwater, and are important in flood prevention. When peat bogs are harvested, trenches are created to drain the water. This can effect local waterways and drainage patterns.

It is theorized that peat bogs help prevent climate change by cooling the earth. Vast bogs of living sphagnum moss absorbs carbon dioxide. It is believed that the carbon dioxide is then contained in the peat (decaying sphagnum moss). In theory, if the peat is harvested it could release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

In the U.K. it is estimated that heavy industrial pollution is stored in the peat bogs, and that if they are harvested and the bogs are dried out, this carbon will be released into the atmosphere. The government is tasked with preserving the country’s peat bogs. In Canada, bogs are required to be returned to functioning wetlands after the peat has been harvested. Canadian peat producers log the wildlife and plant material before the harvest, harvest only part of the bog, leave a layer of peat in hte bog and restore the water table after production.


Potting is another mixture of soil – and can generally be top soil with peat moss, but might also contain perlite and or vermiculite. These minerals and peat moss, lighten the texture of the soil, making it easy to work with in pots.

I recently lost a bag of dirt. – I can’t believe I’m dirt poor.

Another dirty pun


Perlite is a volcanic glass with  a relatively high water content which expands when heated.


Vermiculite is produced by the weathering or water and heat treatment of the minerals biotite and phlogopite (mica). It is light like perlite and also expands when heated. Pure vermiculite does not contain asbestos, but it had been associated with asbestos contamination until the early 1990s. Vermiculite mines are now regularly tested for asbestos and are supposed to sell products free of asbestos.

The dirty truth is that we can only guess what’s in our soil based upon how it looks and what’s on the label. You can’t beat well drained dark soil with lots of compost though! More rich soil and compost means more plants – and you can’t beat that!

(That’s the knitty gritty on dirthope you didn’t mind the dirty humour!)

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12 thoughts on “Garden Dirt – The Dirty Truth

    1. I’m glad someone appreciates my silly humour. I didn’t find the compost accelerator in our Northern stores but I thought it was a good idea. I noticed at the end of the season that the pine needles that I had broken up with the whippersnipper seemed to have decayed a bit – so we will see what we see in the spring!

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