Homegrown: Growing food in clay

I am looking for any edible food that will grow in clay in Grand Junction. Any ideas?

— Sharon

You can plant just about anything you’d like. The important thing is that you work on amending the soil well before you plant.

Amending the soil improves some of those important characteristics so your plants grow well. To have a healthy, vigorous plant, you have to have a good soil and this is a great time to start getting this job done.

What I’m talking about when I say amend the soil is simply mixing a good amount of decomposed organic matter with your soil. What you need are things such as composts, peat moss, decomposed wood products and manures.

The only thing you need to be careful about is how salty your soil is. Most soils in western Colorado don’t have a problem, but there are scattered patches where the salt is getting high enough to cause problems.

If you’re not sure what your soil is like, take a sample to the Colorado State University Extension office to have them run a salt test or have a soils lab run a complete soil analysis.

The Extension only does a testing for soluble salts, a complete soil test will give a lot more information. The nice thing is that the Extension doesn’t charge for its service. Give them a call — 244-1834 — and they can tell you the proper way to take a soil sample. They also can help you in sending a sample off for complete testing.

If your soil tests high for salts, you want to avoid any organic amendment that is high in salts. This includes manures and some composts.

Personally, I like to use mixtures of different organic materials when I’m amending the soil.

Coarser materials do a better job of “opening up” our heavy clays more quickly than finer materials. However, I do like a bit of the finer materials in there—they’re usually broken down more completely to a “humus” like state and the microorganisms that live in the soil and decompose these materials like having them around.

When I’m mixing materials, I’ll always use more of the coarser material than the finer.

Spread a 1–2 inch deep layer (deeper is better—especially if the soil hasn’t been worked in the past) on top of the soil and thoroughly mix into the soil by spading the ground up or using a rototiller. Go at least 6 inches down, but 12 inches is much better.

Once that’s done, rake it out smooth to settle the ground a bit and to remove any larger stones, clods or debris and you’re ready think about planting.

Keep in mind that this isn’t an overnight fix for our heavy clays. Improving our soils is a slow, long-term process.

In an annual bed — one that is replanted new each year such as a vegetable garden, plan on doing the soil amending every year.

You don’t necessarily have to put on as much organic matter as the first time, but I like to do it in the fall after everything is frozen down.

I’ll pull out all the plant debris (don’t leave it in the garden, it can sometimes harbor insect and disease problems), spread an inch or so of compost and rototill it in. That way it settles in and “percolates” in the soil all winter long.

In three to five years you should start to see some pretty good garden soil.

The sky’s just about the limit on what you can grow.

There are loads of choices of vegetables, berries, grapes, fruit trees and on and on.

There are a handful of things that may not be appropriate here because of our climate or soils, but they’re a minority.

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Dennis Hill is the nursery manager at Bookcliff Gardens, http://www.bookcliffgardens.com. Send questions to Bookcliff Gardens, 755 26 Road, Grand Junction 81506; or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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