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  • Writer's pictureTim

How to Sterilize Potting Soil: The Unnecessary Adventures in Obnoxious Chores and Neighborly Deeds

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

For four years, I built soil from zero using kitchen scraps, hair cuttings, coffee grounds, rabbit poop, and leaves. I have never had healthier plants with such high yields in my life. Then I moved apartments and it all went to waste. This is my last-ditch effort to save my soil and the years of work that went into it.



A UV light creates a pink glow on my indoor garden. Despite popular belief, indoor gardens can be for herbs, not just weed.
My indoor garden: much smaller than my azotea, but it'll do...once the soil is fixed. Not all indoor gardens are for illicit substances; I grow culinary herbs.

Smack dab in the middle of quarantine here in CDMX, my roommate lost her f*cking mind and started believing I was trying to eat her cat. I don't even like cat meat, as I told her, but she was determined to evict me by all illegal means. Thanks, Vero! (Although that's not the name she goes by now. . . )


One year prior to the quarantine, I caught my boyfriend of three years in bed with a b&b guest—just one week after he emptied my bank account—and he started a rumor that I had murdered my ex. His family forced me out of the house that I had paid for, and I was on the street with $7.00 and an overnight bag. A friend took me in, and we lived happily for nearly a year until she lost her GD mind. My recent boyfriend told me on the same day as the quarantine was announced here in Mexico that he had been pretending to be someone I'd like because "he felt sorry" for me and what had happened. Ah yes, nothing like faking a relationship to perk up the spirits of someone who had just lost everything and built it up from zero again. A few weeks later, my roommate/sublessor decided that I was craving Cat Curry or some ridic BS and started the process of an illegal eviction. My only solace was my garden that I had brought with me to my new home.



So when I eventually had to move again, my garden was my priority. I couldn't find an apartment with outdoor space, so instead I found a place that could accommodate an indoor garden. I had never delved into this realm before, so I was happy to take on the new challenge.


One month after moving in, as I was texting with a friend, the hall lights of the building went off and I heard the "pssssshhhhh" of something being sprayed. I could eventually smell, then taste, the mist of poison as it wofted through my windows, and I knew immediately that it was insecticide.


Within days, all of my 60+ potted plants that were waiting in the hallway were dead. They had become infested with indoor pests that were waiting in my building for healthy hosts, and I suppose RAID was the ingenious solution of an ignorant neighbor.


Stayed tuned throughout the day as I tell the story in more detail and try to salvage my garden one last time.


9:42 AM

I start sifting through gallons and gallons of soil to rescue the earthworms from a fiery death in the oven.


A bowl of earthworms saved from the oven roasting process of soil sterilization.
Worms saved: I tried my best, meticulously sifting through every bit of soil to save these guys. Sorry to any I missed.
Stacks of soil in bowls, roasting the viruses to hell in the oven.
First batch of oven-roasted soil.

3:51 PM


While roasting some homemade mother earth back to sterile nothing but neutral substrate at 180-200 F. (82-93 C.) for 30 minutes*, I went to visit the authorities about someone who's tucked themselves into my wifi, computers, and telephone. It's been a sensitive topic, as the friends who I had left after the rumor of me murdering my ex-fiancee made its way around town thought that I was losing my mind with all the evidence of digital abuse. Regardless of the screenshots asking for the password for the "other macbook" which wasn't mine and cursors moving around while watching videos (which a few former friends did witness), amigos scrambled away—new and old—while I watched my debit card raking up charges in Amsterdam. I'm not, to be certain, in Amsterdam. I've tried to contact Google, Apple, PayPal, and my bank, and my chats and calls are cut short each time.



Alert from Apple asking for the password for the MacBook that isn't the one I'm using...
I can count to two in more than one language. I have one MacBook...

Ideally you use a candy thermometer to watch the temperature at the middle of the soil, as too much heat will begin to produce toxins. I just used my last pesos on a 5 gallon jug of clean water, so I opted involuntarily to guestimate when the centers reached the critical temperature.


The smell is earthy with a hint of roasting centipedes, to which I attribute the popping popcorn-like sounds.


WARNING:

Just because something says it is "oven safe" does not mean it actually "oven safe."


Dirt spilling out of a shattered "ovenproof" glassware.
Not ovenproof. It sure is kinda pretty, though...


It turns out it's not a one-day project when there are so many factors in play. I'll collect the glass shards and take apart the oven to clean out the dirt, but I was spent by this time.


7:48 AM

The Next Day

The pots from the first batch have been soaking in a 1:9 bleach:water solution. I'll scrub them down and let them soak in a dish soap and water solution until I'm ready to fill them with their (hopefully) newly sterile soil.


Pots soaking in a 1 to 9 bleach and water solution.
Yes, fully submerged is ideal, but I only had enough pesos for a 950ml bottle of bleach, so they are on rotation.

9:59 AM

Three Days & Two Earthquakes Later...

I'm just going to say, this process was intensive. Interesting, but lots and lots of work. Then more work. . .


I know we ideally want to maintain the balance of the microbiome in our soil, but it was either tossing all of it to get rid of the viruses that entered the soil through bug bites on the plants themselves or lots and lots of work, and I ain't afraid of no hard work.


While the soil was roasting in the oven at approximately 82°C I yhoped very hard (Mexican ovens like mine only have 1—5 on the dial, no temps...), I soaked the pots in bleach as mentioned above, and the showered with the pots to scrub off any remaining soil. It was very intimate and, well, private. So don't expect any details. We're all very happy together, though, and that's all I'll say.


Once they were nice and clean and dry, I lined them up to refill them with fresh, ostensibly sterile, soil. I was careful not to mix the soil afterwards in case some contamination made it through the rigorous process. The earthworms have a happy new pot to themselves (RIP to all those who I missed, if any. . . I was very meticulous in plucking them out of the sifted soil before roasting the remnants) and I'll slowly introduce them back into the pots once the new plants are established as a precaution should the worms carry any of the diseases from their former pots.


An overhead shot of drying pots in the shower. I dropped the soap once while showering with them. . . never again.
Bottoms up! A few hot communal showers later, the last of the pots are squeaky clean and ready for their sterile soil.

Taking a step back. . .

You might think, as my neighbors do, that I brought the bugs with me when I moved in. Let's break down the myth...


SPIDER MITES

These pinche pendejos are a menace as soon as they enter your space. They suck on the leaves leaving white or yellow spots, and if they carry any kind of virus, they're going to gift it to your plant. They'll even hang out after your weed harvest, if that's your crop, and destroy your bouquet.


The #1 and first method anyone will suggest to control spider mites is to hose them off outside, let the plant dry, quarantine it for a bit, and return the plant. My plants were outside during the rainy season, so those weak clingers would have been rinsed off every afternoon. Nice try, NEXT;


FUNGUS GNATS

It's possible they hitchhiked from the roof respite where my plants painfully vacationed for two months, but if that were the case—as with all the bugs and plants—they would have been obvious as soon as we moved indoors. But the real issue became evident with the fungus that they propagate to feed their hideous translucent children, and that appeared five weeks after the move. BZZZZ, next.


CENTIPEDES

These are the only pests that I'll take responsibility for because they were in every pot and I don't see them venturing out from the floor above me to invade every pot. I don't know if they carry diseases u(apparently they don't) but they creeped me the F out and would bite me while working in my formerly-lameass garden. Turns out they can be beneficial in eating unwanted pests, but if that were my case, I wouldn't be writing this, would I? Plus, I wasn't about to wrangle thousands of tiny centipedes from my pots. They run too damn fast...


SO IN CONCLUSION. . .

We'll see what happens. Check back for updates with tears of joy or tears of frustration. Either way, there will be tears.


Also, while writing this article, my bank account has been funding someone's exciting adventures through Amsterdam according to their Uber charges on my debit card. Feel free to donate to my sudden cause or supporting my regrowth through booking something super fun with food and me!

Birdseye view of my sparkling clean garden.
Squeaky CLEAN

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