Newbie vegetable gardener needs reassurance about soil

chicago, IL(Zone 6a)

I have a new 47 ft x 3 ft sized raised vegetable bed on the north side of my house. The landscaper built the bed with a depth of 6". He filled it with topsoil mixed with an equal amount of mulch blended organic bark. The soil has lot of clumps, many of which seem to be made of clay soil, along with quite some stones as well. The raised bed is filled to the brim with this soil mixture. I sowed some seeds in the bed today and felt that the soil texture is apparently not right, with all the bark and clumps coming in my way while installing the seeds.
This soil mix was recommended to me by a reputed garden center I bought it from. Please tell me there is nothing wrong with this mix. As it is filled to the brim, the vegetable bed has no more space for any soil amendments to be added. Will the bark pieces decompose and improve the soil texture by next spring?

Hopkinton, MA(Zone 5b)

neeshera, I've often added bark mulch to soil and never had a problem with it. The bark slowly decomposes into compost. However, I don't know much about growing plants from seeds, but I think you need a finer texture soil for seeds.

Nancy Groutsis

Ayrshire Scotland, United Kingdom

As DoGooder has just informed, the bark chippings will decompose BUT, it takes a good few years
for this breakdown of wood chips to take place therefore, this is NOT the correct stuff to add to any soil that you want to grow veg in. Wood chips were meant to be used as a mulch material to help keep weeds down while shrubs or trees were being established, however, it seems these days people are using them in flower beds etc which does keep the deeded weeds at bay for a while BUT the small plants never get growing to there full potential.

Perhaps larger seeds like shrubs / tree's etc COULD germinate in this type of soil mix BUT, not veg, these seeds are annuals, that is the seeds are sewn, they germinate within a few weeks, then allowed to grow on until the veg reaches maturity and ready for eating, all within a space of months so, they need a finer grade soil with added Humus, (Humus is like home made compost, horse manure well rotted, store purchased bags of compost, or other materials that will add feed, help retain moisture, give the seed and small seedlings the environment they require for a growing season that is very short)

I'm not even sure that the bed being placed on a NORTH side is the best for growing veg as they do need good light, some parts of the day they require sun for a couple of hours as this helps make for nice greens and enriches the goodness held within the skins of the veg,

if I were you, I would go down to your local Library or book store and look out for any books on
a making and soil amending for growing Veg, I was always taught that a veg bed should run from North to South, this allows for good light, air flow and the veg get an even amount of light.
These books will tell you how and what to do to ament your soil to requirements different veg require, some need more lime in the soil and others dont like new limed soil so when you add lime 1 year to grow say cabbages, and things like carrots would be safe to grow in that spot, this is called rotation of crops.

There are many good books on this subject, and to be honest, unless you can amend your soil you will be hugely disappointed, lot's of new gardeners are put off re-trying there veg growing simply because they got it all wrong first time round, without knowing MOST folks make lot's of mistakes at the start However, unless we learn from our mistakes, it's hard to get it right the next time around.
Hope this gives you some idea's on how to get started.
Good luck and Kindest Regards.

Hopkinton, MA(Zone 5b)

WeeNel, vegetables can grow in soil mixed with bark mulch. I got hundreds of tomatoes from a plant that was growing in a bark mix but I put it in the mix after it as a small plant, not a seed. However, you mentioned wood chips, and there's a big difference between inner wood chips and outer bark chips. I only use bark, and never wood chips. Greenhouses often add bark to their potting mix. However, they prefer bark fines which are small pieces, not large chunks.

neeshera, you mentioned that the soil is filled to the brim, but maybe you could create furrows for the seeds and put some finer soil in the spaces. Or perhaps you could find a place in the garden for a few buckets of the soil to leave room for adding potting mix for the seeds? I would also research what type of soil the specific vegetable needs. If you want really fabulous inexpensive soil for next spring and are willing to sow the seeds in pots till they're plants with roots, then I recommend putting a layer of hay over the bed and letting it compost over the winter. - NG

chicago, IL(Zone 6a)

Thanks. Here are some pictures of the soil.

Thumbnail by neeshera Thumbnail by neeshera
chicago, IL(Zone 6a)

I am a new member here and now that there are a few responses, it is becoming interesting. For a while I thought, it was a dead town here.:)
WeeNel and DoGooder, thanks for the enlightening info. If I had just waited one more day to put my seeds in that soil, I would have been able to make use of the lovely suggestion of putting potting soil in furrows just for the seeds. The fenugreek seeds that I just sprinkled on the soil have germinated and are doing well. I will wait for a week or so to see what happens to the remaining. I already have a veg, bed on the south side of the house (running from East to West as that is the only way I could have it) and that is doing well. I decided to have another bed on the North side of the house (again running from East to West), as it does get 2-3 hours of sunlight and the grass in that area is growing quite well which suggests it is not a gone case altogether. Just as an experiment, I have planted spinach seeds, mustard seeds, mesclun seeds, italian lettuce seeds, long and short carrot seeds, cilantro seeds and fennel seeds. Even though it is on the North side, it has a lot of brightness but not too much direct sunlight.

DoGooder, as you are from zone 5b as well, can you tell me which flowers and vegetables can be planted in this bed at this time of the year?



Hopkinton, MA(Zone 5b)

neeshera, when you said the soil had some stones I figures one stone per square foot, but looking at the first picture it appears that the soil is full of stones and I don't know how the landscaper thought this was appropriate for a garden bed. Maybe it will work since the reputed garden center recommended it, but if I wanted to fill a bed with soil I would get plain loam or compost, or if I was willing to wait would fill the area with hay and let it compost for half a year. Rocky soil is very difficult to work with and it tends to have less nutrients and doesn't hold as much water as plain soil. I recommend you research plants that can grow well in rocky soil. - N.G.

Hopkinton, MA(Zone 5b)

neeshera, I noticed you and I posted at the same time so I will answer your question here. I rarely plant vegetables. The only vegetable growing in my yard now is pumpkin that was an accident. Last year I buried a 15-inch Halloween pumpkin in my compost last and this summer I was surprised to see about 10 pumpkin plants growing in that area, but the deer ate most of them.

WeeNel can provide you with much better information about seed starting. I almost always buy plants from nurseries. I've only grown grass and begonias from seed. So the best information I can give you is what transplants will thrive in zone 5b.

The Internet says Lincolnwood gets 37 inches of rain per year, and my town Hopkinton gets about 48 inches of rain per year but you can just add more water and get similar results I think. Hostas can be planted now but they won't flower till next summer. Mums will flower in one or two months so that would be a good choice for Autumn. - NG

chicago, IL(Zone 6a)

DoGooder, thanks. When the soil was delivered to my house, I couldn't believe that this was the quality recommended to me by the nursery. I spend $240 for this soil and don't know what to do now. This is the second time the soil in this veg bed has been changed. The first time around, the soil had too many glass pieces, but was from a different place.

I have been toying with the idea of composting but am still hesitant. I do not have a very roomy garage and neither do I want to go outside during winter to add scraps to the pile and turn it around. What is your method of composting, may I know?

Hopkinton, MA(Zone 5b)

neeshera, I think $240 for a few cubic yards of rock-filled soil is outrageous! This is where I get my soil products:

I know it's vulgar to show the price list, but I wanted to show you the proof that loam, etc. is really much less expensive at some companies. According to my calculations you only need three cubic yards for your raised bed. The loam/compost mix is $39 per cubic yard, so you can get gardening soil with compost for only $117 including delivery. Pine mulch is $47 per cubic yard so you could create a 1/3 bark and 2/3 loam/compost mix for $125.

I'm wondering if maybe the loam company made a mistake and gave you the wrong mix? It looks like the soil they gave you is 50% crushed stone. By the way I get hay for $4 a bale and about six bales would be enough for your raised bed I think ($24 total). I suggest you do more research and call companies and ask questions before getting high-priced gardening products, because my family has saved a lot of time and money from learning about what's available.

Nancy G.

chicago, IL(Zone 6a)

DoGooder, you really are a do gooder.You have provided such valuable information.

Here's the whole story to this issue. The guy who does my regular lawn moving - the mow and blow guy, the 'landscaper' - charged me $550 to create this 47 ft long x 3 ft wide x 6" deep raised vegetable bed. This included digging, putting lumber around, nailing everything and adding soil. The soil he brought the first time around had better texture than the one I have now but was full of glass pieces. He refused to take responsibility for that but agreed to give me a credit of $240 for the soil and would charge me the same amount for buying new soil and delivering and installing it. So it was like an equal exchange. The receipt shows $ 40.35 for "Bulk, Top Soil Pulverised" and $59.25 for "Bulk, Mulch blended organic bark". So it comes out to be $100 for the soil and $140 for delivery and labor.

I feel quite let down by the landscaper as well as the nursery, but what is done is done. I did some image search on google for what pulverised top soil is supposed to look like and here's an image of one that looks very similar to what I have. The company descibes it this way: "This soil is a screened material, usually very fine which provides a rich enhancement for planting, top dressing for seeding and sodding."

Thumbnail by neeshera
Hopkinton, MA(Zone 5b)

neeshera, the photo of the pulverized soil you just posted is very different than the soil in your raised bed. I copied the images and placed them side by side so you can see the difference. The top image is your raised bed soil and it's gray and filled with stones. The entire top of the soil is covered with gray rocks.

The bottom image of pulverized soil is a rich brown color and the tiny clods on top of the soil look like clay. I checked the internet and all the images of pulverized soil look the same:

Notice how crushed stone looks gray:

I'm sad to say you were conned. Your receipt says pulverized top soil, but you were given a mix consisting of at least 50% stone by the looks of it. Perhaps you want to let bygones be bygones but if this happened to me I would show the pictures to the gardener and prove to them that they did not give me gardening loam, but cheap stone soil that most gardeners think is the worst soil of all: difficult to work with, low in nutrients, and can't hold much water. The nursery was right that pulverized soil is okay to garden with but if you brought them a bag of your raised bed soil and they can see it's half full of rocks I'm sure they would blame the gardener. - NG

Thumbnail by NancyGroutsis
Ayrshire Scotland, United Kingdom

Can only agree with Do Gooder when she said you have been totally screwed by the gardener.
Any trained gardener would take one look at the soil and send it back, in fact, IF he was a gardener, he would have went to look at the soil he was supplying to you and refused it. Especially AFTER the first load was rejected, a decent gardener would NOT want the be embarrassed the second time by supplying soil worse than the first lot.

Ask yourself, you wanted this bed to grow EDIBLE plants and I'm sure the so called gardener was told that when he was asked to build the bed, who in there right mind would even contemplate supplying soil with glass chards in it, you could get diseased hands from working soil that could cat your skin when working it AND, some VEG plants CAN uptake objects from within the soil, believe me, not the first time someone has found a ring etc while chopping up carrots. Did he really think this would be safe for your garden ????.

To add insult to injury, the next load of soil is every bit as bad for the purpose you wanted it for. May I suggest this so called gardener is no more a gardener than I am Beauty queen, sorry but these type of " gardeners" give good guy's a bad name. He should have looked at the soil when it was delivered (BEFORE) it had been tipped from the delivery truck.

This by the way is NOT your fault, you hired a person who you believed to be a gardener, he has taken complete advantage of your lack of knowledge re gardening.

I know maybe you dont want to continue with the problem or blame BUT, if I were you, I would find out where he got the soil from, take your pictures and a container (Sample of the soil over to his supplier and tell them your NOT happy with the type of soil, the quality of the soil and certainly NOT accepting of the structure of the soil for the purpose you asked for it, that purpose was for a VEG bed.

A veg bed needs loads of humus, this comes either from composting all your own kitchen refuge, like all peelings, coffee grounds, shredded paper and any other household stuff that is NOT man made, or cooked food.

The best and in most cases free of cost is the type of humus you can use is horse manure.
That is well rotted manure, most horse keepers/riding schools / stables etc will be happy for you to take as much as you want, they have a daily supply they need to get rid off.
Look out for manure that does NOT smell of new dropped poo, it should be odourless, brown like compost AND if you rub some between your fingers and thumb, it should crumble.
This added to the soil early spring or late summer will be the best tonic for any VEG, it helps ease the digging of the soil, helps hold moisture, is a feed for the plants, AND it allows air into the soil helping the structure improve as you work the soil, every winter I lay about 4-5 inch layer on top of my veg plot after everything is harvested, my age now dictates a smaller amount of veg growing BUT the methods used is the exact same as I started gardening over 50 years ago and believe my there is NO quick fix, no amount of chemicals can improve the soil structure for holding onto moisture and IF there was short-cuts, believe me I would have found them.

Please dont take this whole experience to heart, you and we, all learn from our mistakes, there's always people out there who think they can pull the wool over your eyes, dont take all the blame for NOT knowing the difference between cheep waste soil and garden loom, you have learned a good lesson and IF you have the energy, go after the gardener and as said before, show him the pictures, the soil structure and tell him you want it removed and replaced with good quality LOOM SUITABLE FOR GROWING edible FOOD PLANTS with NO extra cost as he has caused you enough strife already. OR get a soil test done at your local office who deals with that type of problem. A gardener cant argue with these results.

So sorry for all your worries and the amount of effort your faced with trying to get yourself better read up on the new supposedly enjoyable hobby of gardening. It's not supposed to be all this worry for you.

Try get this sorted out NOW, it may be toooo late for veg growing this year as we are half way through August, and the season normally ends September October depending on your zone temp. but, the time you spend this year getting the soil right for spring next year will give you time to reflect, plan what you want to grow AND take a deep breath from all the problems you are still facing.

Best of Luck and Kindest Regards.

chicago, IL(Zone 6a)

DoGooder and WeeNel, you both have provided a world of info and support to me in this trying situation. I was inspired by you to call the supplier of this lousy soil, the 'reputed' nursery, and convince them to compensate me for misinforming me about the quality of their soil and the subsequent problem I have on my hands now. They insisted that things do grow in this kind of soil and that it will be fine for the purpose I have bought it for. It took me a while, but I finally did manage to get them to pay me back for the cost of the topsoil and blended bark, along with tax which amounted to $110. I had paid the gardener, $240 to buy the soil, deliver and install it. So I still have a loss of $130, but it is still better than nothing.

This gardener I mentioned is my weekly 'mow and blow' guy. I don't want to fire him because he is a replacement for someone I just fired before him. I have some 12 evergreens that I need to be planted in my backyard which he has said he can get them from home depot and install them for me for $350. There is no warranty for the job from him but Home Depot does provide a 1 year warranty on the trees. He wants to charge me $125 for buying mulch to put around the evergreens. So it would be $475 to plant 12 evergreens. The cost of buying the evergreens will be mine, which would be $44 x 12 = $528. Do you think this is reasonable or should I look elsewhere to hire? I also looked into a nursery (not the one from where I bought the soil) and there the cost of each 6 ft evergreen is $130 plus half of that price would be the cost of installation. So about $195 for each tree, and I need 12 of them. The total seems scary. Any suggestions for a reasonable way of getting this job done? I know, this is a new topic now, but I have come to rely on your sound advice. :)

Hopkinton, MA(Zone 5b)

Neeshera, Iím so glad you got a refund for the soil even if it is just a partial refund. Basically, the product on the receipt (pulverized loam) is different than the product that was delivered (stones), so you should not have had to pay for it. Loam companies screen rocks out of pulverized soil. When I called my local loam company the receptionist described screened loam as loam that has gone through the process of screening all the rocks, sticks, etc. out so there is nothing but plain loam.

I understand that you need someone right now to plant trees, but if I were you I would start searching for a more honest gardener for the future. And you donít have to worry about asking me another question, because Iím an MBA student so Iím fine talking about financials and I like to help out with gardening advice because I love to garden and Iím a Capricorn (the teacher of the zodiac).

Regarding the gardenerís $350 fee to deliver and plant 12 evergreens, I would need to know the size of the trees to determine if itís a fair deal. Last year my family got a 13Ē emerald green thuja for about $30 (including shipping) from an online store and it took me one minute to plant it with a hand rake. Now itís over 2 ft. high (first picture). If we had gotten 12 it would have been $203.40 with shipping with the bulk discount/free shipping deal. That is a lot less than the $878 you are considering spending for 12 trees ($528 trees + $350 delivery and planting). How tall are the Home Depot evergreens (and pot size if you have access to that information) and did you get a chance to look at the trees or are you shopping from their online store?

Planting a large tree is much more expensive. My sister paid $600 to plant a human-size cherry tree (including the cost of the tree). Therefore, the $195 (per tree ) price the nursery quoted for the 6 ft. trees seems fair. You can save a lot of money by planting young 1-ft. trees than if you got a human-sized tree, and often the smaller trees grow at a faster rate and look healthier in the long run.

I suggest checking Daveís Garden Watchdog to find a reputable evergreen tree seller. We got a 10Ē Hetz Midget shrub from Home Depot that did well, so I guess their evergreens are fine, but for the same price we got a 2 ft. Juniperus chinensis (blue shrub on left side of 1st photo) from a local nursery. I found at the Watchdog site, and got several plants from them this year for about $6 each (see the photo of the potted tomb thumb and forsythia). Their big evergreen sale is in the winter, but you can get deals on the Deal of the Day page.

Basically, my advice is to shop around. Iím a medium sized woman who is not very physically fit but I can easily plant a one gallon potted plant in 10 minutes, so my family wouldnít budget $350 to pick up and plant a dozen 2 ft. trees. However, if you want instant large trees then the gardenerís fee is probably the best deal. Also, when planting trees space them so that there is room for them to grow to maximum size unless you plan to chop down ever other tree in a few years to make room for the others to grow.

Nancy G.

Thumbnail by NancyGroutsis Thumbnail by NancyGroutsis
chicago, IL(Zone 6a)

DoGooder, the trees at Home Depot are atleast 6ft in height for a price of $44, including tax. When Costco brings in similar sized evergreens, they are priced at around $25 and sell like hot cakes. I have inquired several times at Costco, but they don't know if or when they will have them. I intend to go and see the trees myself before having them brought over for planting.

We plan to put the trees 3 ft apart. They are Emerald Green Arbor Vitaes, so they are quite slender. What should I be supervising for when the planting is done by my gardener? Does the mulch go in the hole or around the planted tree and what kind of mulch should I have him buy? Now you can definitely tell what a total novice I am! I want privacy screening in my backyard around my patio, so that I can start enjoying sitting outside. The houses here are quite close with no backyard privacy at all.

Hopkinton, MA(Zone 5b)

neeshera, $44 for a 6 ft. Emerald Green thuja is a great deal! The closest nursery to my home sells 4 ft. ones for $60. It's smart of you to go to see the trees before buying them. Emerald Green thujas are known for being very hardy but it's still a good idea to make sure the Home Depot ones are healthy, and maybe they will let you select and buy the 12 best ones set them aside for the gardener.

I'm not an expert on planting trees but I think it would be helpful to water the roots before the trees are planted. Also, tell the gardener to mark exactly where the trees will be placed and check to see if the measurement is 3 ft. from tree to tree. Or perhaps you wish to do that yourself to make sure beforehand. The next thing I am going to recommend is controversial, and I don't wish to offend anyone who has a different way of planting but this is what I believe will help you. I read on Dave's Garden front page news that the best way to transplant plants and trees in the ground is to backfill with the existing soil and not add any amendments like peat moss, humus, etc. because the surrounding soil will draw out the moisture and dry out the roots of the transplant. They said this was scientifically proven, and in my own experience the big shrub that I added the most amendments to has fared the worst and those planted in the surrounding soil have done well.

YouTube has a lot of videos about how to plant emerald green thujas:

If you want to add mulch on top of the ground that's fine. I guess any kind would work well except flat leaves because they block water and air from reaching the roots. If it was my choice I would choose a natural mulch that will add nutrients to the soil when it decomposes, as opposed to a plastic mulch that is toxic, and I would choose a mulch that matches the rest of the garden. I wish you luck and you have chosen a good species for your region, and my final suggestion is to setup an irrigation system before the trees arrive. - N.G.

chicago, IL(Zone 6a)

Thanks. The lawn already has a sprinkler system. I went and checked the trees at Home Depot this morning and they had just arrived last night, so they looked really fresh and healthy. Should I let the gardener wash his hands off the job once the trees are in the ground or does he have some responsibilty of atleast offering to deliver and replant a new tree if one of them dies by October? Home Depot would replace them for free for one year. I don't want to exploit the gardener but at the same time I want to make sure I am putting in some smart clauses if things go wrong.

Hopkinton, MA(Zone 5b)

neeshera, the only tasks the gardener is going to do is deliver the trees and put them in the ground. So they are only responsible if they damage the trees during transport and planting or smother the trunk, therefore, it might be wise to ask them to replace a tree if it's damaged on planting day and check to make sure the trunk is showing. If the tree looks healthy and whole after it's planted and it is at the right level with no roots exposed but the trunk is uncovered with any mulch starting four inches away from the trunk, then the gardener has done their job. If a tree dies and Home Depot gives you a replacement, then, in my opinion, the fair thing to do would be to pay a gardener again to deliver and plant the tree because it's not the gardener's fault if the tree dies if they planted it correctly and you saw and approved how they planted the tree.

I do not intend to hurt readers' feelings, but I think it has to be said that from what I have observed when plants die about 90% of the time it's the buyer's fault, not the store. The first year I started gardening almost every plant I got was dead by the end of the year, and now I buy from bargain stores with low Garden Watchdog scores and almost all the plants thrive. Case in point: last year I got a Fire and Ice hydrangea from (cheapest most low quality store I know) and they sent me a dead-looking plant with 1 inch roots and two little stems that looked like pieces of hay, and I put it in some rich forest soil covered with hay mulch and it sprouted leaves in a few weeks and now it's almost three feet high, has six thick stems, and has produced a month of flowers. What I'm saying is if something goes wrong with the healthy thujas it will probably be your fault or something bad in the environment like pests, so give the gardener a pass if the trees don't do well.

I have four emerald green thujas, and they're all happy. Don't worry if the leaf edges turn orange in the winter, because they will become green again in spring if they have enough water. Also, thujas love sunlight so the planting area should have at least 6 hours of direct sunlight. And finally, check the plant tag and/or receipt to make sure it says Emerald Green instead of Green Giant which looks similar but grows to be 30 ft. x 10 ft.

Nancy G.

chicago, IL(Zone 6a)

Thanks! I will make sure the trees are planted well and watered regularly. :)

Dale, TX

sorry i am new here,i dig a row in to the soil,follow seed package direction,cover seeds with seed starter soil,pat down,water lightly,also can use egg cartons with seed starter,both ways worked great for me,transplant from cartons after third set of leaves,once your plants are in the soil wait until the plant stems are tall and strong enough so not be damaged by mulch,do no crowd the planet,

Yankton, SD

Quote from Michaelnotgreen :
sorry i am new here,i dig a row in to the soil,follow seed package direction,cover seeds with seed starter soil,pat down,water lightly,also can use egg cartons with seed starter,both ways worked great for me,transplant from cartons after third set of leaves,once your plants are in the soil wait until the plant stems are tall and strong enough so not be damaged by mulch,do no crowd the planet,

=P you just dug up a 3 year old post

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