rebuilding garden after sewer repair

Waukegan, IL(Zone 5a)

We have a lot of clay in our soil here but I was horrified to see just how bad it is when they dug a 7 foot deep trench for our sewer repair this spring. After the first 6 to 10 inches, it's nothing but yellow clay all the way down.

Oh well, can't fix that, but over thirty years I have added lots of chopped up leaves, compost and peat moss to my garden beds. I also dig the soil from last yearís container plants into the garden whenever I plant something new or move something. I now have 8-12 inches of pretty good soil in my gardens.

The workers will be coming back in a week or two to spread some black dirt and grass seed in the lawn area but I am concerned about my garden bed. I want my 8-12 inches of good garden soil back but it has all disappeared. I just cannot rebuild the soil myself. I am too old and too impatient. I want an instant garden bed with great soil so I can replant as soon as possible. The bed is about 10í by 10í.

I donít know if the company who did the excavation and sewer repair will be able or willing to get me really good garden soil as opposed to plain old black dirt for the garden area. If so, what exactly should I ask for, and if not should I just go to a garden center that does landscaping for help? I would appreciate any advice or experiences youíve had in this regard. Thanks!

Anne Arundel,, MD(Zone 7b)

Might be best if you can see the soil in person before you order it or agree to it. Some people's idea of topsoil isn't a gardener's idea, as you hinted.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

Almost any kind of clay or "dirt" can be made into good soil with enough compost - though if you can't afford a 6"-8" layer of compost, something granular will help maintain aeration and drainage - fine bark nuggets or medium bark mulch, crushed stone, grit, or very coarse sand.

You might buy a truckload of compost and then pay someone to till it into your bed.

10'x10' = 100 square feet.
12" deep soil is 100 cubic feet = 3.7 cubic yards

If you buy 2 cubic yards of compost this year, you could make soil 12" deep that is 54% compost.

But it does decompose in the soil, and you have a lot of "catch-up" to do if you've been reduced to subsoil / subclay. You might have to buy another cubic yard next year, then 5-10 bags of compost per year to keep "pure clay" fertile and aerated.

That's why I like to add something coarse and long-lasting, to provide mechanical aeration.

I donít know if the company who did the excavation and sewer repair will be able or willing to get me really good garden soil as opposed to plain old black dirt for the garden area.

I wonder if they hauled your good garden soil away and sold it? Would that be theft if they did it without your permission? 10'x10'x8" is 67 cubic feet of GREAT soil. Try telling them its cash value was 67 x $6 = $400, or whatever price you can find in a pricey nursery.

I bet you don't find ANY bagged soil as good as what you cultivated over years. Not even at a "dirt yard". From an organic farm, maybe.

You could "offer" to let them replace the soil with "as good or better" so you could forgive the $400 they owe you. Since they won;t be able to find "as good", allow them to replace yours with 30-50 cubic feet of soil plus 30-50 cubic feet of compost. Not "compost-scented sawdust", COMPOST.

The rule of thumb in New Jersey, for a consumer that has been treated badly, is to be SO annoying and SO threatening to the thieves that they are GLAD to give you what you ask for just to get you off their back and away from small claims court.

Anne Arundel,, MD(Zone 7b)

Going back to the original post- if you really want an instant garden bed with 8-10 inches of great soil- talk to a landscape or soil amendments company. You need the right product and someone to bring it and till it in and level it. Around here, compost etc goes for about 30$ a yard. So thanks Ric for the calculations, you might get a nice bed for $150 (2 yds plus delivery and tilling?)

My moms yard was basically clay because they had the top taken off to level it. Lots of things grew. We never amended anything. But I can't say the situation was really identical. It was a decade or so after the soil removal before I started noticing what was growing.

Waukegan, IL(Zone 5a)

Thanks so much for the information and advice. At least I now know what kind of materials to ask for. The guys haven't been back to do the work yet as it has been raining so often.

As for my nice old soil....I know where it is. It is somewhere mixed in with the 7 feet of clay they dug up. If I had known better I probably could have asked them to scoop it off and set it aside for me. So I learned something but it is a lesson I hope never to have to use in the future.

So, thanks again. I really appreciate the help.


Hobart, IN

When doing raised bed gardening, a mix of 50/50 black dirt and compost is good for new beds. Might work well for you. You'll want garden waste compost if you can find it.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

If your soil is clayey or needs better aeration and drainage, another coarse material to add is shredded bark, like bark mulch or bark nuggets.

If the bags of bark that you buy are too coarse, dump them on a driveway and then run your lawn mower over it. All of it should pass through 1/4" hardware cloth, and I think it's OK if most of it also passes through 1/8" hardware cloth. Part of what you are doing is "diluting" the clay by spreading small bark fibers all through it. Hence bark fines help soften clay soil and make it less sticky and pliable.

The other part is adding chunkiness for aeration and drainage. Bark chips from 0.1 inch up to 1/4 inch help with that.

Bark will last in the soil much longer than compost, and even longer than wood chips of the same size. Bark causes much less "nitrogen deficit" that wood of similar size.

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