Compost microbes (soil life) Mulching raised beds Soil Improvement and/or preparation

Real Soil – Fake Soil – and a Reader’s Question about Mulch

I find it rather amazing that product marketing has convinced a lot of gardeners that in-soil-gardening is passé; in other words old fashion and out dated.

Buying a bag of something or other – even though it has no nutrient value whatsoever – is just what is needed to raise veggies – so they say. Throw in a little compost to give a few nutrients and supposedly you’re set to garden.

There are times, I realize, that someone might have to grow this way out of necessity or not grow at all. But I would wager those cases of necessity would be the exception rather than the rule. This way of gardening with purchased bags of fake soil is mostly the result of “good” marketing by companies selling a product.

We are all subject to falling prey to their lies and half truths.  Things become popular and many of us (if not most of us) accept whatever it is as just the way things are done.

This came to mind because of the number of new readers who have written to me and in the process of asking their questions tell me about using various “fake soil” mixes in their gardens and/or framed raised beds.

A Readers Question

One new gardener who recently purchased my book Organic GardeningCutting Through the Hype to the 3 Keys to Successful Gardening had a question as he read about mulch.

He writes:
Last month, I built a square foot garden with the recommended mix of peat moss, vermiculite and compost.  I have already planted some fall crops.

Given this setup, should I still use mulch on top?

When I consider all the benefits of mulching, my short answer to this new gardener would have to be “Yes, you should still use mulch.”

I just think the benefits of mulch will be even greater if and when this gardener begins to garden with real soil.

A Few Things to Know About Real Soil and Fake Soil

Real soil is the earth’s covering that has been producing bountifully for thousands of years in spite of what the chemical companies want you to believe. Real soil doesn’t come in bags. Real soil is made up of sand, clay, organic matter, water, air, minerals, and a multitude of living organisms.

Adding compost to these fake soils is not only helpful but imperative, since vermiculite and peat moss and many other bagged mixes add nothing of value to the soil or your plants. But even that compost probably won’t give you an adequate supply of the many needed minerals that come from real soil.

Your best growing beds will almost always be in your existing soil improved with organic matter.

Nature’s system is without flaw. Flaws usually come from poor management by man.

I garden with nature because it’s so simple and so easy to be successful with her as my guide. She knows what she’s doing. All I have to do is keep replenishing organic matter and mulching. She takes care of all the balancing and providing for my plants. Expense is minimal.

Working Towards Real Soil

Once you find that I’m right, you can gradually make the change to real soil even if you have your garden already set up with fake soil.

It will be even easier if there is real soil (rather than a barrier) under your bagged mixes.  If you continue to add organic material to the beds, nature will loosen that soil for you over time.  Also, soil life – which is imperative to healthy gardens – will start working.

Final Thoughts

If you don’t yet know that real soil makes the best gardens, I’ve noted 6 posts below that will give you more information.

I’ve written about all this many times in the 5 years I’ve been writing TMG posts. So there’s a lot more information to be found on this site if you want to do a search for it.

If you have more questions that you can’t find the answers to by searching, feel free to ask me.  I’ll try to help whenever I can.


All content including photos is copyright by  All Rights Reserved.


Suggested Reading for More Information

Organic Residues – The Needed Energy for Soil Ferility

Mulch – To Use It or Not – Points to Consider

10 Reasons to Mulch

Peat Moss – Do You Need it In Your Garden?

What to Do if You Can’t Dig

Adding Organic Matter – 2nd Key to Soil Improvement


  • I just read your post about “fake soil”
    I have always used “fake Soil” for hanging baskets. This year has been a disaster. What would you recommend as a mix for hanging baskets..

    You and Bill are in our prayers
    Jack & Connie

  • Some years ago as snowbirds from Canada to Florida, I quickly learned that I had to deal with my garden there in a different manner that in Canada. Our area in Florida was almost silt so I dug the hole, filled it with purchased planting soil and my flowers/shrubs thrived; for a while. After wasting much money I went to the local extension office to seek help. Their answer, which proved to be right was that I was building flower pots with my new soil. Plants thrived until the roots hit the native soil, said this is not nice and turned back into my introduced soil. They became pot bound. Adding compost to the native soil with lots of mulch my plants grew slower but happier and I stopped wasting money. Enjoy your garden Ray

  • Theresa

    I so love getting your blogs.

    You are so knowledgeable on gardening.

    I want to add to your statement that at times it may be necessary to use fake soil. Isn’t that how they do it on the Space Shuttle?

  • Hi Theresa just a quick comment. Last fall I found TMG and purchased your book. I took to heart your wisdom and applied it to my garden. I added lots of leaves and organic matter. After I planted my garden and applied lots of mulch I have done nothing but harvest. My garden is not perfect but my family is eating, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, okra, cucumbers and swiss chard. That is a complete 180 from the previous 2 years. Real soil works, mulch works! If you are a new reader to TMG …unplug from Big Food and the chemical marketing matrix!

  • Love this. Marketing sure has done pretty well in creating an alternate universe for us to focus on.

  • Connie and Jack, thank you for your prayers. We need and appreciate them. (Bill was doing well and growing stronger in spite of on-going pain but over did it about 3 weeks ago and had a bad set back. His body now has to devote it’s energy to healing what he “undid” and it’s been hard to deal with because we thought we were past that. )

    I don’t really have a recommendation for hanging baskets. Fake soil is almost always used, but as you’ve found out — it has its problems.
    Peat dries out so quickly and can be difficult to rehydrate. Then your plants are in a “brick like” medium. I’ve read that coir (made from coconut husks) doesn’t have the hydration problems that peat moss has. (I’ve never used it, but that’s what I’ve read.)

    Ray, thanks for sharing your experience. I think one of the things that all of us have in common is that we all waste a lot of money buying things we don’t need during the learning process.

    Don, growing food on the Space Shuttle might definitely require fake soil! 🙂

    Ladychef – Thank you so much for taking the time to share what happened when you applied what you had learned from reading my book. I feel confident it will encourage and help many other readers.

    Yes Farming Bear. It really is like another world!

    Sure appreciate the comments.

  • This a very nice article and I agree with you 100% about using mulch, compost and real soil. I like to grow fruit trees from the seeds of fruit that I buy at the grocery store. I have successfully germinated peaches, plumbs, apples and avocados to name a few.

    I make my own potting soil mix because I don’t like the stuff that you can buy and also because I will know what is in it.

    Here is the mix that I use for starting and growing seeds and young plants in fabric grow bags.
    1/2 of an 11lb block of coco coir. These blocks are normally about 12″ x6″ x6″. You can also buy them in 1lb blocks.
    About 1/3 to 1/2 of a 40lb bag of either mushroom compost or cow manure compost that I buy at the local Home Depot or Lowes.
    About 1/4 to 1/3 of a bag of playground sand that I buy at the local Home Depot or Lowes.
    About 1/4 of a bag of composted granite that I buy at the local Home Depot or Lowes.

    I mix all of the ingredients in a large fiberglass construction wheelbarrow and then fill the grow bags with as much as is needed. The coco coir absorbs and retains water very well so you will not need to water as often as you might just using soil. Also this mix stays loose to allow good drainage and air to get to the roots of the plants.

    The cloth grow bags help to prevent over watering and also eliminate the need to remove the plants when you want to transplant them. You just plant the whole grow bag and the plant roots will grow through it.

    If you would like to read about other gardening ideas here is my FaceBook page. I search for and re-post interesting articles that I can find that are about Organic Gardening.

  • Nothing wrong with the fun of starting fruit from seed, but just be aware that apples grown from seed will not come true from the seed. They may not be similar to what you ate and saved its seed.
    The same is true with plum.

    Also, as innocent as the name “mushroom compost” might sound, the chemicals in it may surprise you. I would not use it. I wrote about it in this post:

    Just for the record I want to mention to readers that there are millions of gardening ideas and articles out there. Many of them are written by folks who have no experience or knowledge of their subject. New gardeners especially can be easily deceived. Not always the case of course, but you need to be aware.


  • Thanks for the reply Theresa. I agree with you on all points. The articles that I post on my FaceBook page and web sites should be viewed as informational only. Everyone should due their own research to find what works and what does not work. Basically people should use some common sense.

    When I grow fruit trees from the seed of stuff that I bought in the grocery store, I am very aware that most of what you buy will not reproduce true to what the seed came from if it produces anything at all. I just like to see what I can grow and at the very least I should get a nice tree and if it is viable I can always use it for root stock to graft something else on to.

    The OMRI symbol is something that I was not aware of. So far I have not had any trouble using either the cow manure compost or the mushroom compost in my potting mix. I buy them because they are the least expensive products that do what I need. They provide the soil for my potting mix. When I am able to save up enough money I will buy a commercial chipper from an auction so that I can make my own mulch and compost. I have an old Try-Built chipper but the discharge chute is so close to the ground that it is a pain to use because you are constantly having to move the chips away from the end of the chute. This is a design flaw that I have seen in a lot of different brands of consumer grade wood chippers.

    If your readers are interested in where I buy the grow bags and coconut coir bricks, I will post the links here. These are not affiliate links. Beware that the coconut coir site is fairly expensive on the shipping, but the cost of the bricks is very reasonable. I bought two 12″x6″x6″ bricks and the cost of the 2 bricks including the shipping was just under $50.00. The cost of the shipping will vary depending on where you live.

    You can get the coconut coir bricks at

    You can get the grow bags at

  • Carl, I’m sure that conventional gardeners who use lots of chemicals think they have good results as well.
    The chemicals that conventional mushroom farmers spray with — not to mention the genetically modified ingredients in the compost — is something I don’t want in my garden.
    If you use the mushroom compost that is not OMRI approved, then you are not really gardening organically.
    Best of luck to you.

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