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Don Kinzler, Published November 01 2013

Growing Together: Digging Out, Digging In: House fire can't keep columnist from writing about beloved subject

My original idea for this week’s column dealt with the question “What do squash and potting soil have in common?” I planned to describe the need for investigative reporting to determine which kinds are best because there are so many different types of both squash and potting soil.

I wanted to devote half the column to taste tests of squash varieties available and half to potting soils, now that houseplant season is upon us. But personal events changed a bit. By nature I don’t think it’s interesting to discuss my private life unless it involves early ripening tomatoes or my struggle to dig parsnips in too-heavy garden soil. However, early in the morning of Oct. 24, our home caught fire. We’ve received so many kind words and inquiries that I wanted to talk about it.

First, a little history: In 1991, Mary and I moved a home from Fergus Falls, Minn., to south Fargo. We were operating our greenhouse business and living in a double-wide on the adjacent property. Loving old homes, and with a growing family, we saw a beautiful 1895 Victorian home on a tiny lot near downtown Fergus Fall for sale. The price was modest, and we began the adventure of moving it to a spacious lot next to our business.

The home has beautiful original woodwork and fixtures, intricate oak and mahogany parquet floors,

10 stained glass windows, large bedrooms with tiny closets, and a small-but-functional kitchen and bathrooms. It has been a wonderful home in which to raise our four children. Amanda and Sara have left the nest, and Isaac and Jacob are sixth-graders at Discovery Middle School. Time goes quickly for me, and 22 years later, I’m still not quite finished rebuilding the front porch.

The fire started on our third floor, a great open space that was on our list of “someday wouldn’t it be nice if we could …” projects.

The woodwork, windows and original elements of the home are fine. Now we begin rebuilding and restoration. I’m not doing the work myself; we need it completed in this lifetime.

Much of our “Growing Together” is based on the gardening that Mary and I do at our home, as we’ve potted, pruned and planted. My Forum editors graciously indicated that I could take as much time away as I needed, but I enjoy our weekly horticultural visits too much to pause. However, I will wait with the squash taste test, because we didn’t have time to buy, bake and analyze.

And so as I dig out from the fire and continue my clean up, let’s dig into potting soils.

Potting soils

The term is a misnomer because most packaged mixes don’t contain dirt-type soil, rather combinations of peat moss, composted bark, perlite and vermiculite. Even the richest farmland soil becomes too compacted in a pot and usually contains chemicals and herbicides.

The highest quality potting mixes available are well-worth the investment because plants depend on the soil for water, nutrients, root aeration, drainage and support. The old method of mixing your own using one-third loam soil, one-third peat moss or compost, and one-third sand or perlite and then sterilizing in the oven has thankfully been replaced by the availability of great packaged mixes in which plants perform well.

What makes a good potting mix, and how can we tell when shopping? The dry weight should be light. Bags of low quality bargain brands are often heavy, and we pay for water and sand. Cheap brands usually become hard-packed in pots. When given the wet “squeeze test,” a handful of high quality mix will crumble apart nicely, while poor mixes remain in a muddy ball (Just a tip: Don’t perform the test while still in the store).

So how do different brands compare? After using many kinds, I’ve always had success with Miracle Gro All Purpose Potting Mix both indoors and out. The company makes a “moisture control” blend that I’ve used successfully outdoors, but I feel it retains too much moisture for houseplants.

Schulz produces similar potting mix with a bark-like texture, which I liked except when used for our bedding transplants in which some weed seeds germinated. Hyponex mix is also frequently found. Although less expensive, I found it too wet and heavy.

Besides all-purpose mixes, there are blends well-suited for cacti, African violets and orchids. These specialty products work well. For seeding, I prefer Jiffy Mix rather than Miracle Gro Seeding Mix, which yielded poor results for me.

Regardless of brand or use, dry mixes should be moistened the day before use by adding water to the bag and hand-stirring. It’s best never to plant into dry mix. Even the best mixes degrade over time, so indoor plants should be repotted every year or two. In outdoor planters, potting soil can be reused with the addition of a little fresh mix each year.

Thanks again to everyone for the kind thoughts.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler’s Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at forumgrowingtogether@hotmail.com