Let’s Talk Dirty – The Difference Between Soil and Dirt

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I promote gardening almost as much as I promote The Word and get about as many “converts.” I hear everything from, “Whatever I grow ends up dying” to “I’m just no good at gardening.” The problem is not a lack of talent; the problem is a lack of knowledge and perspective. The want-to-be gardener is trying to “grow” what’s above ground rather than trying to “grow” what’s below ground. Maybe if we homesteaders start “growing” our soil then the plants will follow. Let’s learn the difference between soil and dirt.

Feed the Soil

What’s the difference between soil and dirt? There is no universally accepted, defined difference between the two. After many years of gardening on the homestead, I have developed my own paradigm of the differences between soil and dirt.

Dirt is the life-less medium that makes life possible. It is the substance that holds the elements that life needs to flourish. Considering micronutrients and macronutrients with micronutrients being things like vitamins and minerals (dead stuff) and macronutrients being things like proteins, carbohydrates and fats (live stuff). Dirt has many of the nutrients in their raw form sitting there and locked up, waiting on moisture and life to enter in order to unleash the power of it’s bounty onto the world of flora that lives in soil. Dirt is usually dry and mineral-like containing magnesium, salts, potassium, calcium, and other fine minerals that the life in soil needs to thrive.

Dirt can be classified in one of three consistencies:

Dirt Type Size Characteristics
Sand 2.0 mm – 0.05 mm Loose, granular medium that looks like little, tiny rocks. Sand promotes water drainage (good or bad). To compare sand to the other dirt types, the size of sand would be like comparing the sun to Jupiter (silt) and the Earth (clay).
Silt 0.05 mm – 0.002 mm Silt is much smaller than sand and has a nice water-retaining nature yet will allow for sufficient drainage.
Clay < 0.002 mm Clay is made up of very tiny particles that are so packed that even the molecules of water have a hard time making their way through the spaces between the clay particles.

difference between soil and dirt difference between soil and dirt Let’s Talk Dirty &#8211; The Difference Between Soil and Dirt Planets Sand Silt Clay

For the most part (with the exception of charged ions and their ability to hold onto H20 (water molecule) and the vessel-like nature of clay), dirt does not have the ability to store water effectively. Beyond this information, we’ll end up getting too technical. Let’s talk about soil

Nature’s Way to Grow.

When you take dirt and mix it with live, organic matter, you began to create soil. The once-living matter (your compost) is now the medium in which provides the other nutrients for soil-borne life to feed and live. There can be more living beings in a single teaspoon of soil than the total human population of the earth (google it!). That life uses the minerals in dirt and works them over to a bio-available form (molecularly speaking) and prepares the nutrients for the the plants. A dense piece of calcium is not biologically “available” for your tomatoes. You may have added a calcium supplement to help out your tomatoes that are suffering from blossom-end rot but are still having blossom-end rot. Why? The calcium particles that you added to your dirt may be too large for adequate absorption into the roots and therefore into the plant.

Eggshells are made almost entirely of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) crystals. You want to add them to your soil (that’s not a suggestion). They are a wonderfully organic method of increasing the calcium in your soil. However, the egg shell you throw out this year will mostly be unavailable to the plants this year. The calcium surfaces have to be “worked over” by the life in the soil in order to “break off” the calcium in its molecular form to allow for the molecule of calcium to be absorbed into the root and plant.

Nature does this year after year. The nutrients are drawn up from the depths of the earth by the trees and other plants, they produce during the season and lay down a season’s nutrients onto the surface in the fall in order to provide the nutrients to maintain the soil’s biological cycle.

As a gardener and homesteader, waiting on Mother Nature to turn our garden dirt into soil takes way too long. We want veggies and fruit NOW dog-on-it! Now is the time to be a partner with the environment because what you’ve got is not waste…it’s soil.

Clean Up Your Act. Compost!

Most everything you need to create soil is on your property already and is just sitting there waiting to be “manipulated” on an expedited timeline in order to create the garden and homestead of your dreams. In order to create soil from dirt, you will have to add lots of organic material. The best way to add organic material is to compost…pure and simple. You could add organic material that you purchase (I often do when in short-supply of home-grown compost). Here are the steps to take in order to begin creating the soil of your dreams:

  1. Too good to waste. Become a “nutrient nark.” Seize everything that you use to throw away and convert it into a usable fertilizer for your homestead. We keep a composting pale on our kitchen counter. We don’t allow the scraps to rot right there on the counter, no way Jose’. Because we eat at home so much, our pail fills up about every 2-3 days…then off to the compost tumbler, compost bin or compost pile. Because What You’ve Got is Not Waste.
  2. Grow your fertilizer. There are plants that you can grow that have been created to “mine” for the minerals and nutrients down deeper in the dirt than your garden plants are able to reach (and deeper than any hole you’d enjoy digging). There are plants that can thrive even when urine is used as fertilizer (though you may want to consider the pros and cons of using your pee pee as a fertilizer before taking a whiz on your plants). The “other stuff” would need some consideration as well.
  3. Be a partner with the environment…and your local community. What you can not save, find or grow on your homestead could be found next door. You’ve all got that neighbor with the grass-catcher on their lawnmower. They have the garbage can opened and frequently stop to dump the grass. Don’t think of the neighbor as cutting their grass; think of it as “your neighbor harvesting grass YOUR GRASS in the neighboring field that you neither pay rent on nor wages to.” Right? They’ll be GLAD to give you their leaves and grass; otherwise their garbage will get too full and they won’t be able to cram all the other stuff they shouldn’t be throwing out. Caution: Don’t be too eager for the clippings or the “terms” may change to you having to “harvest” the grass if you want the clippings.
  4. Don’t burn your future. Though adding wood ash to your soil and compost is a GREAT thing to do, burning much of what needs to be naturally broken down in the compost or soil is a no-no. Burning is the result of a violent chemical reaction and the sudden release of energy. Everything has energy of some form or fashion. That heat energy would serve the compost pile better if it were gradual and was slowly released by microbial, biological processes.
  5. It’s time to start taking crap off people. No, not their “personal” people poop-ey but from what their farm-type animals make. I have a fellow that raises rabbits. He and his family are allergic to chicken and other meats that are grown commercially (don’t know the specifics…it was just the reason he gave me when I asked him why he has so many rabbits). Rabbits do a lot of things other than being cute and scratching you when you try to pick them up. One of those things is manure. Horse, goat, rabbit, llama, cow and many other animals that chew the cud produce manure that will be a wonderful component when trying to transform your dirt into soil. I don’t take pig, dog, cat or other manure from animals with that “kind of” poop (with the exception of chicken). And I’d never use another person’s fecal matter…though using my own has crossed my mind…but only crossed…never implemented.

A lot of people do not believe me when I tell them that there is a book that shows them how to use their own fecal waste and turn it into something good. Head over to Amazon.com and get your copy (you won’t loose your place; a new window will open).

Greening the Hill

Composting is a sped-up method of what happens in nature. When you focus on growing soil, your plants will just happen. Composting is as simple as piling stuff up and letting it rot. Yes, it’s just that easy. Once you add that compost to the dirt, you have created pathways in which soil life travels, water pathways being developed by fungal strains that reach dozens and dozens of feet all under the surface of your garden and avenues for your plant’s roots to burrow deeper and wider setting up its nutrient-acquiring roots.

On the next composting article, we’ll talk about the specifics of composting. How do you start? How Big of a pile to make? Other composting tools and some gimmicks. How log does composting take. 


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On future articles, we’ll discuss:

  1. Testing your soil
  2. How to ID your soil type
  3. Methods of composting
  4. And much, much more

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