Amending dirt key for a healthy soil

It’s time you got the dirt on dirt.

I mean, soil. The first rule about dirt is that gardeners call it “soil.” And achieving and maintaining a garden plot with beautiful soil is a never-ending project for most.

This is my ninth summer gardening at our house, and it’s the first year I actually feel the soil looks like it has a chance at growing really fabulous veggies. The first few years, I didn’t realize how terrible the soil conditions were in western Colorado.

I grew up thinking that all dirt was cracked, hard and full of clods good for chucking at your siblings. The high clay content made it slippery when wet, poor for drainage and terrible for growing most things you’d want to eat. Places like the Midwest are lucky enough to have gorgeous topsoil, but not us. It’s one of the many qualities that make high-desert gardening a challenge.

During Master Gardener classes, if we heard something a million times, it was the mantra “amend, amend, amend,” meaning adding organic material to our soil to make it a more ideal medium for growing plants was essential. Without good soil, plants struggle to maintain proper moisture, don’t receive the proper nutrients and struggle to grow healthy root systems. And one of the first questions we’re trained to ask when someone brings in a sad little plant, says nothing will grow, or plants a new garden or lawn is, “Have you had a soil test?” or, “Tell me about your soil.”

Soil is part of the holy trinity of growing healthy plants (along with water and sun). Without healthy soil, beneficial microbes can’t survive. And you want soil to be alive.

That’s the difference between soil and dirt, I think. Dirt is the gunk under your fingernails you get from working hard. Soil is a living mixture of air, water, minerals, organic matter, and living beings such as microbes and animals and their waste. Dirt is dead and hard. And take it from me, it’s nearly impossible to garden successfully in dirt.

So, nearly a decade into my project, I’m still amending, amending, amending to achieve the perfectly structured soil. I’m not an expert on soil, but it looks better every year and seems to produce more successful vegetables.

A few weeks ago, we filled up the back of our little brown pickup truck with the monstrous pile of limbs and sticks left over from pruning our fruit trees. I dumped it off at the Mesa County Organic Materials Composting Facility, and promptly pulled up to have the bed filled with a load of freshly cooked, dark Mesa Magic (the landfill’s name for the compost they make from all the yard trimmings people bring in). The total: $35. I consider this a real bargain because I’m not patient enough to grind up all our trimmings, pile them up, monitor the temperature and moisture content, turn the pile regularly and wait months for compost.

Even after all this time, adding more compost every year is important to keep building the soil.

I’m aiming for a rich, dark, soil that holds water and provides nutrients to plants. I want the microorganisms in the soil to break down the organic matter and make those nutrients available over time — it doesn’t happen all at once like a one-shot fertilizer.

How much compost does this take? Well, Colorado State University Extension recommends applying two to three inches the first three years and tilling that compost into the soil six to eight inches deep. After the first three years, you can get by with one to two inches of compost, cultivated to the same depth.

This recommendation is for plant-based compost — if you’re using composted manure, it’s higher in salts (which we don’t need more of here!) and you shouldn’t add more than one inch per year. By the way, some critters’ manure is better than others to use for your garden, but that’s an entirely different column.

Compost is just one part of the puzzle on soil. It’s a very complicated topic, really. Managing soils is part science, part art and a lot of work. But adding organic matter to our clay-filled, sandy soils is a good start for any garden.

Erin McIntyre is an advanced master gardener, writer and Grand Valley native. Please email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) with story ideas or feedback.


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