As you all know by now, the Grow Appalachia program is designed to help families grow more of their own food; the goal being healthier food and the ability to stretch the family’s food budget. To that end at St Vincent Mission we are teaching not only how to grow the produce but how to save money doing it.
It seems to me that we spend an awful lot of money in our country buying new things when we have plenty of perfectly good used stuff laying around. Like dirt. Each spring we run to the big box store and plop down our hard earned cash for plastic bags of dirt, also know as potting soil. Now I know that just any old dirt isn’t the best thing for sprouting seeds and nurturing baby plants but really, do we have to go buy special dirt to do those things? I think not. And by the looks of the many hits I got online when I searched for “making your own potting soil” neither do a lot of other folks.
My favorite lesson was an article in Mother Earth News by Barbara Pleasant because it not only taught me the process but also told me why I should do it. “Potting soil self-sufficiency is good for your pocketbook, your plants and the planet…” It ends up that the components of “most commercial potting soils are based on some combination of peat moss, perlite and vermiculite—all of which contribute to land degradation and pollution as they are mined, processed, packaged and shipped.”
The good news is that there are sustainable, local alternatives to all three of these products. Peat moss, which comes from bogs in Canada and Michigan, can be replaced by leaf mold, composted sawdust or a mixture of both. Leaf mold, rotted sawdust or lots of garden waste compost can replace vermiculite, a mined mineral which has been found to contain asbestos in the deposits in Montana and Virginia. And perlite ore, a mineral mined from mountain plateaus from New Mexico to Oregon, can be replaced by clean sand.
Armed with this knowledge, a bucket of garden soil, a bucket of compost, a meat thermometer and other odds and ends from the kitchen I proceeded to make dirt. The process is fairly simple. You screen your soil and compost, moisten it and put it into an oven proof pan covered with aluminum foil. Stick the thermometer in the middle of the tin foil and put the whole thing in an oven that has been preheated to 200 degrees. Watch the thermometer and when it hits 160 degrees turn the oven off but leave the pan in the oven. The temperature of your dirt should rise to 170 degrees which is the magic number for killing off the fungi, the boogy-man for seedlings.  Don’t let it go over 180 though because then you could be creating compounds that will inhibit plant growth. When the dirt cools you have potting soil. Ours was still very clay-like so I had to add some perlite because I had no sand and my sawdust is still fresh but the $4 I spent on one bag of perlite went into six pounds of homemade potting soil so I think it was a good deal even if it wasn’t 100% homemade.
Last week, several of the Grow Appalachia participants came to the mission to learn how to make dirt. It was a fun time of sharing and met the need most of us were feeling to get our hands in the dirt. Teresa, one of the women who came, pointed out that “gas is gonna get to $4 a gallon again this summer so we need to know how to save money any way we can”. Making potting soil, reusing household containers instead of buying “seed starting kits” and saving seeds from one year to the next are ways that our Grow Appalachia families are using to make their lives healthier and more stress free. Not to mention protecting our planet, one batch of potting soil at a time.
The Dirt Making class in action.