So the first task on the spring gardening checklist has to be improving your soil to prepare it for planting season.
Although many people think of it as “just dirt”, one of the most important steps to ensure that beautiful garden later in the summer is to add organic matter to the soil before you start planting. Organic matter serves the purpose of loosening and improving the drainage in the tight clay or shale soils in the county. It also serves the purpose of holding water in sandy soils also found throughout the region. Organic material decomposes into humus, the most important ingredient in any good soil.
As well as increasing air penetration into the soil, organic matter also helps warm the soil in the spring. Plants derive their nutrients from matter as it decomposes and this is essential for growth. Regular mulching with organic materials will help add humus to the soil. Earthworms and other microorganisms will help move it from the surface to the depths.
Organic matter includes a variety of materials such as compost, peat moss, aged manure, chopped leaves and sawdust. The best amendment in this area that we’ve found is Back to Earth, which is acidified cotton boll compost. This amendment breaks down our heavy, clay soils, and puts organic matter back into the garden.
Making your own compost is an option for anyone, and it’s easy to do. Start your pile by using grass clippings, vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds or tea leaves – just about any kind of organic kitchen scraps, but no meat. Compost bins can be purchased or simply pick a spot in your yard and start a pile. You can contain it with boards or railroad ties if you like. Turn the pile using a pitchfork at least once a month, more often if the weather is warm and as it begins to “cook.” The purpose of this is to get oxygen and moisture into the pile in order to speed the decomposition of the organic material.
Manure has long been the gardener’s old standby and will improve the soil as well as having some nutrient value, but it can be alkaline and contain weed seeds, so you want to be careful. Both manure and sawdust must be aged for garden use, and chicken manure, in particular, must be aged at least two years. Avoid cedar, oak and pine sawdust – all have ingredients that can negatively affect plant growth.
Once you have purchased or made your compost, amend your soil by spreading 1-6 six inches of the amendment of your choice over your garden. Work it in thoroughly using a rototiller or shovel. An established flower bed or garden may only need an inch or two as it will have decomposed matter from previous years to feed it, but some new material will help boost it. A new garden should have 4-6 inches added. If you have access to a rototiller, that is one of the best ways to work this material in, and it serves the dual purpose of aerating and loosening the soil at the same time.
Southwest Colorado’s soils are very often alkaline, so don’t add lime or wood ashes. Nitrogen is usually what is in short supply and must be added through the application of blood meal, fertilizers or another supplement such as calcium nitrate. Follow the label instructions on the individual package for the optimum times to apply. If you are unsure of your soil’s content, inexpensive test kits are available from your local garden center, or the Extension Service can help you as well.
Improving your soil is probably the single most beneficial thing you can do to ensure a healthy yard or good garden. After all, “it’s just dirt” if you haven’t amended your soil to make it workable and productive.