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How to Find Inexpensive Soil for your Urban Farm

Updated on August 12, 2014

A Request from a Good Friend

Last week I posted an article about frugal urban farming, and I received the following comment from a good online friend of mine:

“I love this article, but I really wish you would cover a little more about the soil. We have grown a lot of plants. We've used pallets and penny pinched everything, but even with compost we have always found our largest cost is soil because once we put in the raised bed (pallet planks in a square) There is never enough soil to fill it up. Not minimizing this great article by far! Just one of our struggles with our frugal planting.”

Milisa, your wish is my command.

I’ll be honest, I never really thought about the cost of soil, mainly because we always borrow from Peter to pay Paul on our urban farm. I know, that’s a bit confusing, but you’ll understand as I continue.

Without a doubt soil can be expensive. Let me amend that statement a bit…good soil for farming can be expensive. I can take my pickup to the lawn and garden center and get a half-yard for twelve bucks, but the soil is nowhere near ready to use for planting. It might be good for landscaping or filling, but it certainly lacks the nutrients for planting.

So, really, Milisa’s question is a two-parter, whether she planned it that way or not.

Where can you get inexpensive soil, and what do you do with it so it has the nutrients necessary for planting?

I’ll discuss the nutrients at the end of this article. First let’s talk about finding soil “on the cheap.”

A handmade dirt-sifter
A handmade dirt-sifter | Source

Turf to Soil

The first time I tried my hand at gardening, I went to the same lawn and garden center and purchased something like twenty bags of nutrient-rich soil. I don’t remember what that cost but I know I cringed when I paid for it.

That’s the last time I did that or will do that.

So when we were planning our latest urban garden I miraculously remembered back long ago to my dad preparing a garden at our home in Tacoma, Washington. I must have been about six or seven when he taught me a nice little trick, and that trick has come in handy many times over the past few years.

Take four 2x4s and screw them together in the shape of a rectangle. You don’t need it to be very big…maybe about 2’x3’ in dimensions. Next, get some very fine metal screening and tack that screening (mesh) to the top of your rectangle. You now have a soil-sifter.

Now choose the site for your garden. Dig up the sod, and sift that sod through your metal mesh. What drops out of the bottom is beautifully sifted soil. Yes, this is work, and it is slow going, but Bev and I were able to sift sod from a 10x10 section of lawn in about three hours, and we gained great satisfaction at the end of our labor, knowing we hadn’t spend a penny for that beautiful dirt.

Construction Sites

Believe it or not, many construction sites are more than happy to have you haul dirt from the site. New homes, new apartments, whatever, but where there is excavation there is soil, and it is costly for the companies to haul that soil off-site. If you know of construction going on in your area, stop and ask them if you could haul a pickup truckload out of there for them.

One word of caution: make sure you know the history of that particular area. If there has been a factory there in the past, then I would suggest you pass on the free soil. It might be contaminated and that just would not do for your new garden.

God Bless Craigslist

A related idea is to check Craigslist under the “free” category, or under “gardening.” I have run across free soil on that site, as well as free rocks, free bricks, and free lumber. People do a project but have no way to haul off the end results of that project.

You might also consider putting an ad on Craigslist asking for free soil, or bartering something for soil. I’ve done both and been successful doing both.

More Online Help

You might be surprised to know there is a site online called “Tons of Dirt,” and there you can see an interactive map where dirt is being given away across the nation. Follow this link for that site.

There is also a site called “Free Dirt.” Just plug in your zipcode and they will tell you who in your area is giving away dirt. Follow this link for that site.

A healthy garden
A healthy garden | Source

And Now for Amending That Soil

Take it from one who knows: dirt is not the same as dirt is not the same as dirt. There is dirt and then there is good dirt, and in gardening we call that dirt soil. Yes, you can quote me on that.

Let me say this, first, and then we’ll get to the nitty gritty of soil-amending.

In a perfect world, you will choose your site for a garden in the spring, amend the soil, and then let it sit a year for best results. If you want, plant potatoes that first year. I’m convinced that potatoes will grow in just about any soil, but other vegetables need that year of hibernation to properly transform into life-giving soil you can count on.

So, how do you know if you have good soil or bad soil? The only way I know is to have it tested. You can do this one of two ways: either test it yourself using a home-testing kit, or take a sample of your soil to a nursery and have them test it for you. Usually they are more than happy to do this because they hope you will buy your vegetable seeds or seedlings from them. I test my own, but I’m a DIY kind of guy.

So now the soil-testing is done and we have our results.

How is the pH?

If you need to raise the alkalinity, then add lime. If you need to lower the alkalinity, then add sulfur. How much? Start with five pounds of lime or sulfur per 100 square feet of existing garden. Give it awhile and test it again, then adjust accordingly.

Adding Nutrients to the Soil

I’m an organic kind of guy, so I won’t talk about inorganic material in this article. I don’t like inorganic fertilizer, don’t believe in it, and don’t recommend it.

So let’s talk about the organic stuff.

Organic fertilizers are slower-acting than inorganic, but I like that, because they release their nutrients over a period of time. A good organic fertilizer will have nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. If you have had your soil tested then you’ll know what you need. Supplemental nutrition can be found from items like manure and fish emulsions for nitrogen, bone meal for phosphorus, and wood ashes for potassium.

Use wooden pallets to make an inexpensive compost bin
Use wooden pallets to make an inexpensive compost bin | Source

Adding Organic Matter

I love organic matter because you not only feed the soil but also the environment at the same time.

Do you compost? If not, why not? Any gardener serious about gardening should have a compost bin. If you can’t afford a fancy one, and no frugal farmer would have a fancy one, then make your own. You can make them out of wooden pallets or even a large Tupperware container. There is an article to the right with instructions on compost bin construction.

If you are going to add manure to your garden, then my recommendation is rabbit poop. It is, hands down, the richest manure you can give to your garden, and it is odorless and not messy at all….just nice little pellets you can work with without being grossed out. I have found best results when I have added my rabbit poop to my compost. This way I’m in no danger of burning my plants from adding too much ammonia.

I have also found grass clippings and leaves to be good additives for your soil. I put them in my garden in the late summer when the harvest is done, and let them work their magic over the winter. Just make sure the grass clippings are free of seed.

The other thing to consider is planting a winter crop. Things like clover or vetch are from the legume family and they are very good at adding nitrogen to the soil during the winter months.

Backyard livestock for fertilizer
Backyard livestock for fertilizer | Source

There Is Much More

I could write five articles about this topic, but let’s call it quits for now. That’s enough to get you started.

Milisa, I hope I’ve answered your question. If you are energetic, then dig up the sod and sift it. Heck, if you have a lawn, then dig that up since the lawn is doing you absolutely no good. All the soil you need is right underneath that green carpet.

Happy gardening to you all!

2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

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    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Milisa, try these ideas first. Buying topsoil is damned expensive. Remember, though, that you'll have to treat that soil. Invest in a soil test kit and measure Ph.

    • peeples profile image

      Peeples 2 years ago from South Carolina

      Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!!! How did I miss this?!? Since buying this new house we are starting over. Our yard is quite hilly in some areas, and that makes mowing a pain! So I think I may take your advice and just dig up all those hills and sift some! I also didn't think of construction sites. I know in the past I have seen giant piles of dirt at home sites. It never occurred to me to actually ask them for some, but I think I will give it a try. The worst they can say is no! Great article and much needed because I was not looking forward to the cost of filling our new raised beds!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      People in urban areas especially can use this article. Buying dirt for a garden or farm can be pretty darned expensive. Anyway, thank you once again, Glimmer.

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 2 years ago

      I've never really thought about where to get dirt, but I always see signs out here at construction sites for free dirt if u haul. I'm sure it needs lots of sifting and amendments, but hey, it's free. Very useful article!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Pawpaws, I can't imagine a gardener not having a compost bin. Thanks for the visit and have a great weekend.

    • Pawpawwrites profile image

      Jim 2 years ago from Kansas

      Great information on cheap dirt, dirt cheap. The compost bin is a great idea. I would hate to think about gardening without ours.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Deb, that makes as much sense as anything...and they definitely got out of hand. :) Thanks my OK friend.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Great material and it will help a lot of people. I wonder if lawns originally came about to protect soil erosion, then got out of hand. What do you think?

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      vkwok, that's because I've lived a long time and paid attention part of that time. LOL

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Alicia. I figured if it worked fifty years ago there was no reason to believe it wouldn't now.

    • vkwok profile image

      Victor W. Kwok 3 years ago from Hawaii

      You have great tips for any subject, Bill!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a very useful hub for gardeners, Bill. I like the idea of sifting soil. Thanks for the instructions.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Hi Sally. It's always good to hear from you. Thanks of course...and yes, we do have several sites that are similar to freecycle.

      bill

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 3 years ago from Norfolk

      Billy,

      Great article and I love the ingenious idea of sifting soil. I wish I had thought of that one myself. I will try to forget the times I have sifted soil with a tiny round builders sieve - think it was probably made for sifting the lumps out of cement.

      In the UK people do advertise free topsoil, usually when they are doing a bit of building work and need the soil shifted, not unlike what happens in your neck of the woods. A good place to look online is on freecycle - I imagine you have something similar.

      Voted up and useful, google+

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      My pleasure, Denise. I hope these ideas work out for you.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 3 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      I've been looking for a way to get some free soil! Thanks for the tips!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks Flourish. It was a good question, one I had never thought of before.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      That was a good question she posed, and I'm glad you answered it. Dirt is definitely not dirt.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I agree completely ChitrangadaSharan. Thank you!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you DDE!

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 3 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Great suggestions in continuation of your earlier hub about farming!

      Soil is so important for a better yield and if the costs are within budget, nothing like it.

      Great hub and thanks for sharing your ideas!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Great ideas and always a new thought from you

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      And thank you, Faith, for stopping by so late at night. I know nothing about the south, but I do know it is possible to amend soil no matter where you live. It might take some effort but it can be done...unless you live in the Sahara, and then all bets are off. :)

      sleep well my friend.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 3 years ago from southern USA

      Hello there, Mister Man of Many Talents, Bill,

      Good soil is expensive indeed, so thank you very much for sharing in finding good soil for cheap or ways to make your own good soil! I would have never thought of Craig's List. You have gone above and beyond in answering Milisa's question, and many others will reap the benefits.

      Thank you, Milisa, and dear Bill.

      Peace and blessings always

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Ruby, put an ad on Craigslist and people will haul that dirt away for you...and the next time you have bricks give me a call. They sell for a nice price.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks Marlene. I was actually going to mention that and then, believe it or not, I forgot. LOL

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks, Bill. That actually means a lot to me. :)

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great job, Bill. That's nature's way of fertilizing...leaves and grass clippings. What could be simpler? Thanks my friend.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      LOL...Maj, I love your sense of humor. Who would have ever thought to sell manure, but it's actually been sold by companies for decades...they just dress it up and call it a fancy name. :) Thanks for the laugh.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks MizB! No way would I use human manure, but I know people who have done it. I'll stick with my little rabbit droppings. Those have been used successfully, and safely, for centuries.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 3 years ago from Southern Illinois

      after i bought my house, i had a pile of bricks in the back yard, i paid a young man thirty dollars to haul them off. I have a long raised dirt area that i want leveled. I wish i knew someone who needed the dirt. Lot's of great tips here. Happy gardening....

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 3 years ago from Northern California, USA

      I hope you don't mind if I step in with an additional free source of dirt that my husband and I have used to our satisfaction... the county recycling center. It's not available in every county. You'll have to call and ask if they have such a service. We learned this little secret from the local farmers. Now, each year February to March, we load up our truck with free dirt for our raised beds.

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Our farmer forefathers would be so proud of the hub. Thanks for sharing!! ;-)

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      Great tips Bill. I filled my boxes with grass clippings and mulched leaves, then added a blend of yard soil and garden soil that I did buy. I just didn't have enough soil to fill the two boxes. I will be prepared come next spring for the next set of boxes. I must say it's been great fun this summer with the garden and the tomatoes are starting to ripen faster than we can eat them. Have a great week.

    • travmaj profile image

      travmaj 3 years ago from australia

      I really ought to come by again with bags of cow dung..(.pet cows can be useful) Folk around here place it in bags on nature strips, sometimes free sometimes a few dollars - usually the kids hoping to earn a bit of pocket money. Saw some sacks of horse dung the other day with a sign - $2 -

      Horsesdoeuvres - talk about creative. Cheers Maj.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 3 years ago

      Thanks for putting in the websites for getting soil free, or maybe dirt cheap. I would never have thought of that. Years ago when I was in radio, a listener kept calling me offering to haul me some free topsoil because he worked for the city and was hauling it away for some reason. Alas, I lived in an apartment then and couldn’t accept his offer.

      My parents refused to have a garbage disposal because all leftovers went into their garden. What the neighborhood dogs didn’t eat, parings, peelings, spoiled fruit, etc. went on the garden. He would have someone haul some chicken “litter” for fertilizer when it was available, so your rabbit poop must be a good thing.

      I do not recommend humanure because people’s bacteria can contaminate the soil. That is one of the reasons we are told not to drink the water in Europe because it is contaminated from the runoff of human waste that is put on gardens. Europeans are immune to it because it is their waste. Anyway, I’ve read that somewhere. Somebody please tell me that I’m misinformed. Good hub, Bill. Voted up++

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Oh goodness, Jo, I never said I excel at this....I just stumble and bumble my way through stuff until I find something that works. LOL Besides, excelling seems terribly boring to me.

      Good to see you my friend. I hope you are well. Blessings coming your way.

      bill

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 3 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Percy Thrower, I presume? Bill, Is there anything you don't excel at? :) Great article, blooming good advice, Loved it!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      My pleasure, Pamela. I hope you can use some of these suggestions. Thank you!

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 3 years ago from United States

      Great suggestions in this hub. We have a problem with the sandy soil in FL. My husband even went to somesone we know and got a load of chicken manure and we added "expensive" dirt to get staterd. It helped but it didn't totally fix the problem, and it was more than we could afford also.

      Cnstruction sites are a great idea as they are doing a lot of building around here. Thanks for such a useful hub.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You bet, Vickie. Get one of those testing kits...you can find them for under ten bucks and they are invaluable for any gardener.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      you betcha, Eric, and thank you.

    • Victoria Lynn profile image

      Victoria Lynn 3 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Thanks for writing this, Bill. My little raised bed did fairly well its first year. Now I think it needs help with some nutrients as it will hardly grow anything. I think I need to test the PH for starters. Thanks!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Great Hub, thanks for all the tips.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Dianna, rest-assured that these chickens are quite spoiled. LOL They have a great life here.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Very cool, Sha! So looking forward to it.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Dora, it really is my pleasure. Thank you for your kind words.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 years ago

      I think I would have all those chickens spoiled by now. They look so adorable, if that is possible. My son had a compost container for his garden and the garden produced fast growing and nice sized veggies.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      I'll be making some videos, too Bill. I don't know when we'll get started. We have our seminar this Saturday on organic gardening for beginners. Once we discover what to plant now, I think the families will get together and start the building process. That is, after Kesia and I drum up some pallets.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 3 years ago from The Caribbean

      Bill, your service to this Hub Community is unparalleled, I think. In the process, you're becoming expert in several areas. You're a great example for all of us. I'm learning lessons that benefit me personally, and in the case of this article on soil, lessons that I can share. Thanks, man!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Very cool, Sha. I love hearing about your gardening co-op, and I expect articles to follow once you get the project going.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      Your timing couldn't be more perfect. When my neighbors and I build our raised bed for our co-op, we're going to build them on top of the ground. That means we won't have any soil to add to the beds. I will keep this article for the links you provide for obtaining free dirt. We have construction going on behind me, so that's an option as well. Fortunately, my neighbor has a pick-up truck; I don't. I was looking for dirt before my neighbors and I decided to create a food garden for our two families. I found some on CraigsList, but had no way to pick it up. Now that's no longer a problem.

      Thanks for the info, Bill. Right on!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Breakfastpop, I am honored that you thought of me. Thanks for that image....I'll go shopping with you any old day.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Brie, something tells me I may not be trying that, but you are right of course. A never-ending supply of manure is our for the taking. LOL Thanks and have a great Tuesday.

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 3 years ago

      In lieu of growing my own, I stopped at a local farm yesterday and bought some amazing tiny pink and white eggplants. I swear I thought of you while I was shopping! Up and useful, interesting and awesome.

    • Brie Hoffman profile image

      Brie Hoffman 3 years ago from Manhattan

      Humanure is the cheapest and I must say most prolific :) substance to benefit your garden. I wrote an article about it awhile back. It's wonderful and amazing how God has provided all we need.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Janine, and tell your dad hello for me. You are always appreciated dear friend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Ann, full marks from a teacher of your stature, is very gratifying. Thank you. I like to stay busy...it keeps me out of trouble.

      Enjoy the rest of your Tuesday my friend.

      bill

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 3 years ago from New York, New York

      I seriously had no clue about this and you know I am going to tell my dad, who may or may not know some of this, but still always appreciate you sharing what you do know on this topic always, Bill! Have a wonderful Tuesday now.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 3 years ago from SW England

      I never knew soil could be so interesting! We're lucky here in that we have a peat 'farm' on the Somerset Levels where we can get large bags of good soil extremely cheaply. Peat extraction is restricted but they manage to generate enough 'bricks' for heating and bags of seed compost, all round compost and general soil.

      I've sifted soil to get large stones out before now but it is time-consuming! Composting in France was easy; lots of grass to mow.

      We had a comedian here, some years back, whose catch phrase was 'The answer lies in the soil' (spoken with a west country accent) and it appears he was dead right!

      You are so busy; full marks (from one teach to another) for writing, gardening, photographing, mentoring, helping the environment and just plain living all at the same time!

      Enjoy the rest of your day, bill.

      Ann

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Jackie, thanks for mentioning your father-in-law's technique...it's a good one. Everything composts under the cover....and it works magically as you said.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Shanmarie, that's how I've learned everything in gardening. The trial and error technique. :) Thank you.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Debra...and letting the soil rest is always a good idea...except, of course, we get no fresh vegetables. :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you, Nel, and I actually love that smell you described, but I'm a farm boy at heart. Give me about ten years and I'll probably be standing with those old dodgers dispensing advice. LOL

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 3 years ago from The Beautiful South

      I remember my father-in-law composting his garden and he didn't have a compost pile, he just put scraps, fish, etc here and there and covered it. He must have had a system though because he had the very best veggies I have ever seen or tasted. I have never to this day tasted such good sweet cabbage. Thanks for bringing up Craigslist that is a really good idea and I have something local just about giving and getting that you reminded me of! You have to give something first and then you can ask for something. Isn't that a great idea? Lots of members and I haven't been there in years. Shame on me!

    • shanmarie profile image

      Shannon 3 years ago from Texas

      Very interesting. I want a garden some day, but I will be learning as I go.

    • Lady Guinevere profile image

      Debra Allen 3 years ago from West By God

      Yes, you could write many articles are gardening here. There is so much information on the internet about these things. It is great that some of us have pulled together some of that information. Thanks for this article. I am going to be letting my gardens rest next year.....well that is what I have said every year for the past two years.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

      Hiya, great advice as always. We are lucky, if we do need to know about the right sort of dirt we have an allotment right next door with lots of older guys, typical English oo ar as we call them! just listen to a video of their voices, they sound all coontry!! lol! that's how they say it! they are all experts, there in the middle of winter, growing their spuds and cabbages! they used chicken poo, well some of them do, I followed one of the ladies carrying the cans into the gardens a while ago, and my goodness, at two in the morning the smell seeps into the house! LOL! mind you its not bad, it's a mixture of poo, earth, cold air or warm air, and veg! good luck with your farm, nell

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Carol, you are always welcome. I wouldn't last a month in Arizona...and I'd be depressed during the time I did last. LOL Thank you my friend.

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 3 years ago from Arizona

      i am probably not going to set up shop here with soil as we have solid rocks in our yard. I am always amazed at how creative you are and how you come up with fabulous ideas. So I will be over for my beans, peas and berries from your fabulous soil