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super soil not so super?

Little Rock, AR

I decided to splurge and hired a landscaper to create border beds in my back yard. I wanted to do it myself, but don't have the time. They dumped "super soil" in the bed areas, and I noticed several sharp pieces of plastic, some glass, and lots of plastic bag pieces. It's dark in color, but it seems to have a very high percentage of sand, with some shredded bark, but it has no body. Also, the "sand" is weird. It's unusually sparkly, and it feels more like powdered glass. The stuff hasn't been incorporated yet, and I have a really bad feeling about it.

Also, the existing soil is clay.


Any thoughts?

Contra Costa County, CA(Zone 9b)

In this post I am using the word 'Organic' in its original meaning: It came from something alive.
While I know there are other uses (sort of analogous to 'non-toxic') that is not my meaning here.

I googled and found out there is a company selling something called Super Soil near you. Looks like composted garden wastes, perhaps picked up in the neighborhoods as part of a recycling program. Then composted, and blended with other things to make different products.
One is straight compost. (this is the best for mixing with existing soil)
Super Soil has some sand in it. (40% sand + 60% compost). This might be a reasonable potting soil, (no matter what the label says) or use it to fill raised planters.
Do not add potting soil to garden soil.

Good soil is made of a mineral fraction (sand, silt, clay)
and an organic fraction (compost, soil amendment, humus, worm castings, manure...)

A bag of potting soil is a combination of the minerals (usually sand)
and organic matter (usually sawdust or peat moss).

In your garden all you need is the organic matter. You have plenty of clay. Clay can be a very good soil when it is treated right.

Have them remove the 'whatever' they put there (sand? broken glass? shredded plastic?) Someone did not look at the material before they purchased it! Complain also to the store/supplier. If they are selling things with garbage in it that is not right. If they are starting with the garbage pick up from the neighborhoods you have no idea what people are putting in their green waste cans, and this is where the plastic etc is coming from. Interesting concept, but it needs some fine tuning.

Get composted manure from a horse barn that beds with shavings or rice hulls.
Chicken manure (not much, it is pretty strong)
Soil conditioner- but make sure it is just organic matter- sawdust, manure and so on. No sand, silt or clay, no perlite, vermiculite.

If you are doing a large area you can usually buy this material in bulk. Look for places that sell rock, mulch, soils and other materials in truckload quantities. Go there and talk to the people, find out what is in the products.
If you go directly to the ranch you can talk to the people there about what they bed their animals in and how long the manure has been sitting. You can go see the manure pile.
1 cubic yard covers 100 square feet at 3" deep. Till this with 6" of your soil and you end up with 9" of prepared soil, plenty for most perennials. Then top it off with some mulch. Mulch is coarser organic matter and will help out over time by continuing to decompose.

If you are doing some prep for next year then fairly fresh manure is not a problem. It will compost, even when tilled into your soil, by next spring. If you are doing this for planting right away then you want manure that has rotted to the point that you cannot tell what it is.

Little Rock, AR

Thank you so much Diana for your fabulous investigative work. You're good, and so right. I know how important organic matter is, and while there's some in this mix, it doesn't hold together, the texture is very sandy.

Unfortunately, they've dumped a really huge amount of the material in beds that cover the perimeter of my back yard. I took a photo of the kind of plastic shards (upper right) and plastic bag remnants in the mixture. I will talk to the landscaper, armed with the information you've given me, and I hope that he will remedy this mess. My stomach is in knots.

I have a question about the sand. I've read that adding sand to clay soil makes it even worse, like cement. And this sand is very, very fine, which would seem like the worst kind to add to clay. If he refuses to take this stuff away, would adding manure and organic matter remedy the sand problem?

This message was edited Sep 28, 2014 10:21 AM

Thumbnail by jojob Thumbnail by jojob
Contra Costa County, CA(Zone 9b)

If the landscaper won't remove it:
1) Do you have a written contract?

I would keep on fighting it. Take him to court if he won't fix it. At least small claims court and claim for the cost of hiring more help and a day off of work to supervise them in the removal of this stuff.

2) Will the contractor rake through it and hand remove every bit of garbage? Does not solve the sand issue, but at least gets rid of the crap.

Here is some information about adding sand to clay soils:
First: my own memories from Soils 101
DO NOT add sand to clay soil. They do not blend well unless so much sand is added that you really and truly are changing the textural class of the soil. When small amounts are added the sand sort of masses together in pockets and the clay keeps on being clay in the rest of the area.
If you are adding enough to really make it work you are adding perhaps a foot deep of sand and blending it with 6" to a foot of existing soil. You would then end up with 18"-24" of a sandy clay sort of soil. Your soil level is a foot higher, and you still have not added any organic matter.

The proper way to amend clay soil is to add organic matter.
Clay soil is made of very small particles that clump together into flat plates. This can form as slick and tight a material as potters clay. It can clump together into massive clumps that are very hard to break apart. It does not allow water or air into the soil. Roots have a hard time growing into this sort of material.

When you add organic matter the clay and organic matter attract each other and the clay does not take on that plated sort of formation. It clumps together in fairly fine clumps that are easy to work, stay loose, allow a good exchange of air and water. It is open enough that roots grow easily in it. Microorganisms also benefit from the good balance of air and water, and thrive in such soil. There are still clay particles, and these are very good for holding fertilizer in a way that plants can get it (called Cationic Exchange Capacity). The organic matter is constantly decomposing, so you do have to keep adding more. (Annually mulching permanent plantings, and tilling in more compost in annual plantings)
The only problem with this is when the soil is walked on. A quick step and off is not so much of a problem, but constant traffic can break down the wonderful structure and the soil goes back to being horrible old clay. Especially if you have not been adding organic matter annually.
A big concern with clay soils is working them when they are too wet. This also can break down whatever good you are getting by adding and blending soil conditioner.

Here are some links to support this:
First 2 Q & A:
http://cagardenweb.ucanr.edu/Vegetables/?uid=26&ds=462

http://www.sunset.com/garden/garden-basics/improving-soil-structure

http://vric.ucdavis.edu/pdf/soil_managingclay.pdf

Here is a link to finding out more about the soil you have. Do a few of the tests (scroll down). Especially the jar of water and soil test.
http://www.ext.colostate.edu/mg/gardennotes/214.html

Little Rock, AR

You have helped me so much, Diana. I can't thank you enough! I'm meeting with the landscaper tomorrow, and telling him to take it away. There's no way he could remove the non-organic plastic, glass, rubber and other rubbish that is incorporated throughout this stuff. I wish I'd done the work myself.

Contra Costa County, CA(Zone 9b)

I know I have a hard time hiring someone and telling them 'Go for it!' unsupervised.
I have done almost every trade that is part of landscape installation, or been part of a crew helping the craftsman who is doing the work, so I already know the details about what material choices there are, where to get them and so on.

I have hired day laborers to help out when the muscles are needed, but I select the materials, buy them or arrange delivery...

Natick, MA

Jojob,
Have read yr and Diana's posts and hope all goes well w the landscaper....pls keep us updated.

Little Rock, AR

Update. After talking to the landscaper, I feel much better about the super soil. He has an excellent reputation and has been using the same super soil since the 1980's, from the same supplier, and he says plants love it. He told the supplier about the debris, and they're investigating whether their screening process might have malfunctioned. They test the ph, and have several quality control procedures in place. Also, I didn't realize when I started this thread that the landscaper planned to mix in top soil. He did that today, and it's completely different now. I'm sorry, Diana, that I caused you so much work, but I will refer to great information you gave me throughout my gardening life. You are so right. It's important to investigate and select the materials before hand. It would have spared me a weekend of worry.

Natick, MA

Glad to hear the the landscaper added topsoil which really made a huge difference, and that you addressed the issue to your satisfaction. Now we need to see photos of your garden when you get it planted :)

Contra Costa County, CA(Zone 9b)

Were you raising the soil level in those areas? That is the only reason for adding more of the mineral fraction of soil, whether it is called Super Soil, Topsoil or anything else.

If you are not raising the soil level, then just add organic matter.

Did you see a test report about the "topsoil"? What is it?
% Sand, silt, clay and organic matter?
Where did it come from?

Ayrshire Scotland, United Kingdom

We had the same problem here in UK with regards the rubbish found in composted materials on the market for sale to the public as organic.
I make my own compost and the bins are being filled from one year to the next, is become a habitual routine that everything that can be composted down, goes into our compost bins however, IF it's man made in any shape or form, it goes into the garbage bins, weed seeds cant be composted either as there is perhaps not enough heat in the bins over a long enough period to kill off the seeds. IF they are allowed to germinate, they could get put into your beds / borders etc to grow on. The sterile stuff I like as a safeguard against disease, etc when planting seeds or filling pots, more expensive but used for pots and seeds, NOT put into borders or beds.
THIS STUFF IS NOT CHEAP HERE IN UK AND IS A MONEY MAKING BUSINESS.

My problem here is, I have always used good reputable named companies, multi purpose compost that can be added to beds / borders etc as organic matter, I also like to use sterile seed compost HOWEVER, when I opened the large plastic bags and put spade loads onto my potting bench, I discovered the same results as jojob has experienced, within the bags are plastic packaging, coloured electrical cable covers chopped up, glass, some as fine as light bulbs and very dangerous, painted wood in various colours, large lumps of tree bark un-composted, lots of grit / gravel and various other items were found.
Never had I purchased such absolute rubbish under the name of plant compost, either multi purpose OR potting, both were very poor AND not SUITABLE to be used in a garden that has been organic only for over 60 years.
As the stuff was purchased in 75 kilo bags, I had to get help to put it back onto the truck, return it and this took 2 trips (I always buy bulk) I informed the manager that I had a huge problem with the amount of man made items that showed up in the compost (SAME COMPANY SUPPLIER, AS I USED FOR YEARS) the store / garden centre manager felt he was not at fault, I'll skip the next conversation BUT he agreed to have the bag's already opened & tested, he was shocked.
Anyway the excuses that flowed back and forth with manager of garden centre and manufactures were unbelievably stupid, like, it was no ones fault, because when the big machine scrapes along the ground to LIFT up the composted material and put it into the machine that bags the stuff, the driver of the big machine MIGHT have scraped up some stuff that was NOT meant to be in the composted material, YEH I know, Most men think females are dumb LOL.
Anyway, after several days of to and fro, it was accepted that new family had taken over the original composting company, and MAYBE had added some improper material without realising this was a problem, who's dumb EH ?????? However the department of weights and measures, along with Consumers rights dept, decided the owners had added stuff that was going to add weight/ bulk to the bags, THE BAGS had less composted material than the description by law that qualifies as ORGANIC composted materials for garden use was NOT met by the company, and bulkier materials added means larger profits as they use less organic matter. bigger profit.

The company should NOT have been accepting painted wood, glass items, even parts of rubber foot-ware was present along with what was though to be disposable nappies / diaper's, amongst other stuff. To the NON experienced gardeners they said they has sold loads of this compost, however, I have a huge garden where I use home made compost plus store purchased, have done for many years so know just by feeling and smell IF there's lots of organic material used.

The gardening explosion over here that has sprung up because many more folks are growing their own food, gardens are getting smaller but people still want to grow food in containers and that helps sell compost. I think it's sad that some dishonest people have entered this market and give reputable companied a bad name, Moral of the story is, always ask if unsure, OR check the product with gardening friends or neighbours.

Hope this helps some other to make sure there are rules and regulations even for composts when being sold as organic.
Good luck with your garden, do remember you can build up the texture, add humus and fertilising materials over the years, the soil becomes depleted after a couple of years growing in it.
Enjoy many years of pleasure and always ask questions IF your unsure, we all had to start from the same point as you.
Kind Regards.
WeeNel.

Dale, TX

yes it is very hard to get good soil,i had gone to a place here in BASTROP TX.they deal in plants ,trees veggies,and SOIL,they told me that they have their blended soil for raised beds,got about 1 cu.yard,planted my tomatoe plants,soil is so bad ,will not hold water,looks like complete sand,plants are weak and poor looking and have very little small tomatoes,i used horse compost/coffee grounds with out any help,i put some plants in our ground and they are doing much better,so don't be fooled if you go to a place that say they have a special soil.

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