Posts Tagged ‘compost’

6 Simple Steps to Build and Maintain Poor Soil

This post was inspired by someone who hired me to weed a side garden for her. Unfortunately, I believe her land-care tactics are more normal than not.

Step 1– Purchase land that used to be forest, and was never truly turned into grassland.

Forests aren’t good at building soil. When you really get down to it, what builds soil is herbivores eating plants and pooping them back out. There just aren’t as many large animals eating and pooping in a forest as there are on a well-managed grassland. By well-managed, I mean one that is exactly as nature intended, predators and all, or one that humans are managing exactly as nature intended. Over-grazing, under-grazing, and turning it into potato and bean fields are all not in the best interest of a soil builder. If you start with the thin soil you often find in forests and then don’t manage it well, it will not improve with any speed, if at all.

Step 2– Manage the grazers that are on the property such that the favorite grasses never have a rest period to regrow between grazings.

Grass grows the fastest when it is between 3 and 6 inches high. Below 3 inches, there simply isn’t enough leaf space for photosynthesis to support rapid growth. Over 6 inches, and you risk it going to seed. Once an annual, like many grasses, goes to seed, it quits growing. Why? Because the mission has been accomplished. If you never remove the grazers, particularly in the winter and spring when the grass is the most fragile, then the favorite types of grass never reach that magic 3″ height. Everything they don’t like to eat, though? That grows just fine, crowding out the favorites for sunlight and water access.

Step 3– Manage the manure such that it is not able to be utilized by the decomposers that should be living in the land.

There are two ways to do this. One is to leave the manure in the pasture to rot where it is. Given how dry this area is and the fact that we’re working with poor soil, not the best idea. For that to work on a small acerage (probably anything less than 20 acres with proper pasture rotation, around here) there would have to be some pretty awesome decomposers already in the soil. Poor soil simply doesn’t have enough, yet. The second option is to create a manure pile of the size and shape that will encourage composting and then spreading that organic material in doses that the decomposers can handle. This means a tight, shapely manure pile, not a manure sprawl, and you’re probably going to want to water and turn it upon occasion to make sure all of it decomposes.

Step 4– Mis-manage the weeds.

I had to grab a bigger bucket because I’d miscalculated the volume of the weeds I was pulling. The homeowner told me to just throw them in the trashcan. What I said was, “Absolutely not! Then it will go and not decompose in a landfill.” What I should have said was, “Why are you interested in removing organic material from soil that you have said is poor?” Unless the weeds are diseased or have gone to seed, weeds belong in the compost pile. The other major mis-management is to allow the weeds to out-compete the grass. If the weeds are not cut back regularly to let the grass have sun and water, then the grass has no chance to out-compete the weeds. Grass likes to be cut/grazed and weeds do not. Knowing that can change pasture from weeds to grass without chemicals. Just good timing.

Step 5– Use poison.

A friend was telling me about this great weed-killer that she’d started using. All organic, so it was totally safe, right? The ingredients were soap, vinegar, and salt. Ok, so it’s less likely to make your dog sick than, say, Roundup, but there are two points to make here. One- poison is poison. You may or may not outright kill the decomposers in the soil around the unwanted plant or the ones that digest it, but there’s a good chance you’ll weaken them. You’re also leaving less-than-healthy soil for the next thing you want to grow there. Two- you salt the ground of your foes because you don’t want them to grow food to be able to fight back. In a place that doesn’t have the kind of rainfall necessary to wash away salts, why would you salt your own ground? That doesn’t make sense.

Step 6– Complain and warn others that the soil is just lousy.

If you want to make something better, assume there is a way. You just have to look for it. There are challenges that are unique to this area when it comes to building a good, strong soil, but there is no reason to assume it can’t be done. Do some research, ask some questions, and think critically about the information that’s out there. Then allow yourself the time it takes to build it right.

There you go- six easy steps to building and maintaining poor soil. How many are you following?

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Rookie Mistakes: Worms

If you kill off your animals, even if you know how it happened, always start again with fresh bedding to be on the safe side.

If you kill off your animals, even if you know how it happened, always start again with fresh bedding to be on the safe side.

“The dog ate them” is about the only way I didn’t kill my last batch of red wigglers. Although, considering the dog I live with, who knows?

The first thing I did wrong was get them too wet. I was juicing veggies for myself, and I don’t have a very high-quality juicer so the pulp is pretty wet. They love it, it’s already bite-sized for them, so they go through it pretty quickly. I hadn’t been pulling out the worm casings (poop) very quickly, though, so it started to store the excess water instead of letting it evaporate. When the worms get too wet they drown and/or noxious gasses build up from the bacteria and they suffocate. It’s not too hard to fix, if you catch it. I sifted out a large portion of the casings and replaced it with dry, shredded newspapers to absorb the moisture that was left. I did lose worms to that, but they could have recovered from it.

Mistake two  was, again, feeding them incorrectly. Worms do not like citrus. I already knew that, but I hadn’t realized that the problem doesn’t seem to be citrus, per se, but foods high in vitamin C. I had picked some rosehips from a friend’s yard and I was working on pulling the seeds out, because the seeds are a bummer to eat. I knew that they were organically raised, so I had no qualms about chucking the seeds in with the worms. If they couldn’t eat the seeds directly, maybe they would sprout and sprouts are easily edible. I started seeing dried worms stuck to the outer box. It was confirmed later that worms actually run away from citrus (and rose hips). When their entire home is inundated with the food, the only place to run is out of the box- which kills them.

Once I eventually figured out why the worms were running away, I sifted through everything and pulled out the survivors. They consisted of about five adults and a couple of dozen babies. Rebuilding up to a decent number of worms would probably require just buying new ones, but the survivors would bolster the new batch. Unfortunately, five worms don’t eat enough to be fed on a regular basis, so they sort of got forgotten about and dried up.

R.I.P, Worms. You taught me valuable lessons.

With a freshly emptied, and cleaned, worm box, I took myself down to the Rocky Mountain Worm Company again for a new batch. They don’t keep red wigglers for sale over the winter. However, they do sell African nightcrawlers all year. For the same price, I thought it might be worth a try. Particularly since red wigglers eat half their bodyweight per day, and African nightcrawlers can eat up to one-and-a-half times their bodyweight per day. I’m doing my vermiculture inside, so being able to process more food through the same volume of worms is a perk. African nightcrawlers are significantly larger, you only get a few hundred per pound rather than around 1,000, and they don’t reproduce as quickly, but neither of those facts really bothered me.

The one other major difference is that the casings from the African nightcrawlers are quite a bit bigger than the ones for the red wigglers. I had been sifting the casings out of the bedding and food using a kitchen sieve. It was very slow, but it worked. It’s not going to work for these guys. The folks I bought the worms from let me know that 1/4-inch hardware cloth would pull most of the adult worms out, and that 1/8-inch would sift out pretty much anything but the casings. I am thinking about making two sifters if my worm operation gets bigger, but for now I’m going to be making one with 1/8-inch screening so I can keep them cleaned out. I will keep you updated on how the sifter(s) come along.

So far, the new batch of worms seem to be doing just fine. They’re a little strange to stick my hands in, since they’re quite a bit bigger than the other ones, but that’s not such a big deal. I had been thinking that they were eating slowly, due to finding leftovers, but I recently noticed that they seem to have eaten the bulk of the newspaper bedding. I think I need to feed them more often, and make sure that the bits are smaller, since the leftovers tended to be big for little worm mouths. I have been meaning to start juicing more often. I just have to watch the bin carefully.

Mmmmm. Worms.

Mmmmm. Worms.

Urban Homestead Tour: Day 2: Part 1

I love their yard! Particularly the ornamental stream for dealing with runoff.

I love their yard! Particularly the ornamental stream for dealing with runoff.

Day two started with beekeeping. Just FYI, apparently bees will sting you if you wear black near them. Dang it- there goes half my wardrobe. The homestead of Christine Faith and Ben Gleason (ooh- a blog I need to read) had the usual gardens and chickens, but also had ducks, aquaponics, and, of course, their bees.

It looks like they use koi for their aquaponics, but a lot of people use tilapia since they can be eaten.

It looks like they use koi for their aquaponics, but a lot of people use tilapia since they can be eaten.

Just in case you didn’t know- honey bees are not native to America. They were imported to aid in pollination for agriculture. They do seem to have taken to living here pretty well, though. Well, they were doing well until recently. About 40% of the colonies were lost last year. That was something like 30 million bees. Sadly, even if you are an excellent beekeeper, your colony is still at risk because the drones (male bees) flit from hive to hive sharing both genetics and diseases.

Their land borders an open space, but that's not required since bees usually fly three to five miles from the hive for pollen and nectar.

Their land borders an open space, but that’s not required since bees usually fly three to five miles from the hive for pollen and nectar.

There are practices that can make you a better bee-keeper. Don’t use HFCS as a supplemental food source. Seriously, that stuff isn’t good for humans who use it as a part of their diet. Think about how much worse it would be if you had to live off of it after you run out of honey for the winter but before the first spring flowers have bloomed? (If you’re going to lose a colony to starvation, that’s when it happens.) Buy only new “deeps” and “supers” or make your own. There are diseases, like foul brood, that can’t be cured and can’t be cleaned from the boxes. If you happen to contract that disease, burn everything and start over. If things are going well, you still want to burn and replace your frames every three to four years and your boxes about every 10 so that any diseases and such that have built up can be cleaned out. Make sure that you have two deeps so that your bees can store enough honey to keep them through our long winters. You get any honey that goes in the “supers” on top of the deeps.

Two deeps, two supers, and their sugar water for supplemental feed.

Two deeps, two supers, and their sugar water for supplemental feed.

To get started, their setup was about $1,000. Half of that was the bear fence, a very sturdy metal fence electrified by a solar panel. She said that if you live downtown where you don’t (usually) see bears, you may not need it. However, the bear fence not only keeps out bears, it also keeps out skunks, raccoons, curious children, and anything else that might disrupt your hive. When they bought the bees, they chose a pretty calm breed that is also fairly sturdy when it comes to cold winters. However, that queen bred with a local breed. The resulting offspring ended up potentially hardier, but they’re more wild than the original set. When you do buy your first set of bees, make sure that you don’t release the queen when you release her caretakers. If they don’t have time to meet with a cage between them, they will eat her. If you lose the queen you lose the hive, since she’s the brains of the operation. She’s also the uterus of the operation, so hope for a promiscuous queen. The more often she breeds on her mating flight, the more eggs she will have, and the longer she will live. They also mentioned that bee queens were much like the queens in Tudor England. When it’s time for a new one, the worker bees will nurture several without the current queen’s knowledge. The first to hatch will then sting each of the other queens so that she’s unchallenged.

Most of the rest of the necessary gear.

Most of the rest of the necessary gear.

After the first year, which gives them time to settle in, you can start harvesting your honey. If you keep it cool (106 degrees will kill the enzymes- you can reach that by leaving it in the sun), then you will have raw honey. Raw honey is antibacterial, antifungal, antimicrobial, and good for outdoor allergies if it’s local. Also, it’s delicious.

The second stop was vegetable gardening with Allison Buckley of Buckley Homestead Supply. I really need to check that place out. It sounds awesome. Her talk was also very practical and applicable.

If you’re starting a new garden plot- dig it over today. The freezing and thawing over the winter will help to break it up in preparation for planting. You can also use cover crops like buckwheat, rye, or clover. Their roots start to break things up and they can be turned under to add organic material to your garden area. (I was talking to someone recently who mentioned that oats have absurdly long roots for loosening/holding soil.)

To the right- lasagne. To the left, a berry patch that doesn't do so well with lasagne. The berries were weeded more times than the rest of the garden.

To the right- lasagne. To the left, a berry patch that doesn’t do so well with lasagne. The berries were weeded more times than the rest of the garden.

For help with the weeds, she did try laying down black plastic. However, that doesn’t just kill the weeds. That also kills all of the soil microbes that we need for healthy soil and healthy plants. What she’s moved to is the lasagne technique. This layers cardboard or newspapers, straw, and compost. To plant, dig a hole through the layers to the dirt. As the layers decompose, they create organic material for the microbes, but until they decompose, they are an effective block for the weeds.

Don't be intimidated by compost. You're just helping things rot. Keep it moist enough, and keep it aerated so it won't smell.

Don’t be intimidated by compost. You’re just helping things rot. Keep it moist enough, and keep it aerated so it won’t smell.

Water is always an issue here. Usually it’s because we don’t have enough, so irrigation is important. I’ve been reluctant to set up an irrigation system because I assumed it was difficult. According to Allison, if you have played with legos, then you’re qualified to build an irrigation system. She offered some tips to make it easier. They’re easier to build if they’re warm, so leave them in the sun for a while, first. Once they’re built, hide them under straw to keep the sun from damaging them, but don’t bury them, since you’ll need to watch for leaks. Use a section of hose before you move to the black sections, since the connector tends to leak a touch. May as well have that leak somewhere useful. Have a section of solid flexible hose before you add the microdrip section. This will give you more flexibility for planting from year to year. Speaking of water- learn the water laws! Water barrels are illegal in town, even if you have them on a drip hose. They may or may not be legal if you live out in the county and are on a well- check first.

These girls only get let in the garden after everything is harvested, but they love to be fed the weeds from the garden.

These girls only get let in the garden after everything is harvested, but they love to be fed the weeds from the garden.

The last part was pest management. For that- shift your thinking. You want to have the least impact possible. Sometimes, that means accepting that you might have to share some with the local creatures. It might mean working a little harder by hand-picking bugs or high-pressure washing trees to remove things without harming the environment. She also suggests rotating your crops and using mini-hoop gardens because the sunshades can be a physical barrier to pests. If you do end up spraying, spray the smallest area possible, even if it’s organic. If what you’re spraying will kill one thing, it will kill other things, too, so be careful.

How awesome is this?! More on this technique in the next post.

How awesome is this?! More on this technique in the next post.

Speaking of hoop houses- she explained what went wrong with my peppers this year! Peppers don’t like cool evenings. A hoop house with even a light covering will help hold the warmth a little later in the day. This winter I will be researching and building hoops so that next year I should have a better pepper crop. The tomatoes should enjoy it, too.

Urban Homestead Tour: Day 1: Part 1

Gardens, chickens, ducks, doves, rabbits, cats, and a pair of very friendly dogs. All in one urban back yard.

Gardens, chickens, ducks, doves, rabbits, cats, and a pair of very friendly dogs. All in one urban back yard.

It was pure chance that I stumbled on the schedule for the first annual Urban Homestead Tour, but I’m so glad I did. Each homestead had a 45(ish) minute presentation staggered so you could attend all four of them each day. Each homestead was also open for four hours so that you could come before or after the crush if that worked better for you. It turns out the turnout was a bit more than expected. Next year, presenters, could you have the homesteaders do two or four presentations during the open house to spread out the mob a bit? It’s only going to get more popular, and some of the yards weren’t set up in a way to handle large audiences. That being said, even if I missed some parts of some of the presentations, each one gave me a good dose of information. So much, in fact, that you’re only going to get an overview here. You’ll have to come out next year to get the whole scoop.

It's a treadle sewing machine! That she uses!

It’s a treadle sewing machine! That she uses!

The first stop on the tour was Kathy Olson, formerly of Couch Comfies by Kathy. Her topic was fiber arts. She was a fantastic start because when she asked me if I was a homesteader and I demurred (I consider myself to still be aspiring to that title), she asked if I canned, or froze, or sewed? I don’t can at the moment, but I’ll get serious about freezing once my freezer arrives, and I do knit. I guess I do belong with these folks! She then described the best way to freeze herbs. Wash and dry them, lay them flat in a ziplock bag and squeeze the air out. Once they’re frozen, you can just open the bag to cut off what you need.

She made the bear when she was 12, and he's sitting on her first quilt and other samples of very doable quilting.

She made the bear when she was 12. He’s sitting on her first quilt and other samples of very doable quilting.

Once her talk started, it was pretty clear that her approach to fiber arts was both practical and welcoming. Quilting is basically being able to sew straight lines. But don’t be afraid to quilt something other than, well, quilts. She was wearing a pretty quilted vest, and she had several examples of gifts including pillows and wall hangings. She, personally, likes to knit hats and scarves herself to match them to her coats. As for practical, her biggest hint for quilting was that if it doesn’t work quite the way you intended, finagle it until it does work. The odds are that no one else will know that the pattern isn’t quite what you’d intended when you started. The other option is to box up “mistakes” to look at later. If you start an afghan today and get bored, you might be ready to finish it two or three years from now, so hang on to what you’ve done.

Yep, looks like homesteading to me.

Yep, looks like homesteading to me. Yum.

Did you know that Amish quilts always have a flaw because only God is perfect? They aren’t the only culture that has some variation of that idea. Did you know that if you get a genuine antique quilt, you’ll probably find an even older, worn out quilt inside of it acting as the batting? Waste not, want not, you know. Her suggestions for beginning homesteaders are to make it Convenient, Organized, and Not a Chore. The easier you make it for yourself, the more you can do. Also- patterns are really just suggestions.

Coooookies! (All American Sun Oven)

Coooookies! (All American Sun Oven)

The second stop was John and Louise Conner to learn about chickens. However, we were first greeted by the scent of baking cookies. The sun oven is so good that it even works in the winter, if you have enough sun. It’s a bit pricy, but apparently if you find them on Facebook, you can get some decent discounts on it. The other thing that greeted me was that the yard looked, well, normal. I could see having friends over for a picnic in that yard and not weirding out your non-homesteader friends. Of course, how the yard comes together does depend on how much you put in it and how it’s shaped, but it was nice to see the variety of possibilities.

It looks so normal . . .

It looks so normal . . .

He started off talking about reading a whole lot of books when he was thinking about getting into chickens. He read them, and promptly forgot most of the information. Most of what you will learn will be from experience, but knowing it’s in one of your books to refer to will be useful. His two favorite books are Keeping Chickens by Barbara Kilarski (a friendly intro to chickens) and City Chicks by Patricia Foreman (a more in-depth look at them). He also suggested backyardchickens.com, warning us that it’s got such a huge group of people that it might be a little intimidating.

. . . until you get to the cool part.

. . . until you get to the cool part.

The city rules are up to 10 hens and no roosters (although apparently you can have as many as you want if they’re under 6 months). He finds that four hens can be a bit excessive since it’s just he and his wife. During the summer, hens usually lay daily. They taper off in the winter unless you fool them with extra lighting. The city requires two square feet inside and four square feet outside per chicken. John (and other presenters) pointed out that if you give them more room outside, they can accept less room inside. They just come inside to lay eggs and sleep, generally. Most back yards aren’t big enough to have genuine “free range” chickens- particularly if you intend to do anything else with it. However, the more room you give them, the happier they will be.

That's a happy chicken.

That’s a happy chicken.

When it comes to housing, he suggests keeping it close to the house since you will be going out twice a day in any weather- letting them out in the morning and locking them up at night. However, you will need around a 10’X10′ space that gets sun in the winter which may determine where the coop goes. He purchased plans for the coop- the Playhouse coop– but the run was constructed from broken dog runs. Freecycle, Craigslist, and dumpster-diving seem to be a part-time job for most of the homesteaders, but you get some pretty awesome results from re-thinking how to use cheap to free objects. When you’re placing and building your chicken coop and run, you need to bear in mind that chickens will probably destroy the ground in their run- they love to dig- and we have a lot of predators. Even if you don’t have a neighborhood bear, you will be dealing with foxes, coyotes, birds of prey, cats, and dogs. This is why you lock them up overnight. It’s easier to make a perfectly secure coop than a perfectly secure run. The other thing that you need to think about is having enough ventilation but no drafts. If you get it right, chickens don’t need a heater in the winter. He also chucks in old leaves for them to shred and peck at. Once they’re broken down, he’ll scrape the top layer out of the chicken run for lovely compost.

The world would be a better place if more street corners looked like this.

The world would be a better place if more street corners looked like this.

He doesn’t like using the word “sustainable” for homesteading since it’s been co-opted. He’s got a good point. These days, it’s about as meaningful as “organic.” The word he likes is “resilient.” During the Black Forest Fire, one of their major concerns was the fire getting to the highway and shutting it down. Not because of the commuters to and from Denver, but because most of our food comes via Denver. It would be possible to find other ways to get the food here, but it would be a lot further and a lot more expensive. As I mentioned in my last post, most cities have about three days worth of food. However, if you have a garden and a couple of chickens, a hiccup in the food supply isn’t that big of a deal. Heck, if you’re also canning and freezing, you might not even notice that the stores are short on stock.

Showcase Updates and Dogproofing- Again

She isn't even clearing the fences anymore. She's just sliding over the top.

She isn’t even clearing the fences anymore. She’s just sliding over the top.

Here we are again, at the beginning of a new growing season. I’m a little more on top of things this year, but only just.

The owner of Showcase 1 is back in school and in the midst of changing direction, so her garden will remain tucked under a layer of straw for this growing season, and we will review her available time next spring. I have signed up for my plots in the Ranch Community Garden, and Showcase 2 is still available. In fact, I’ve had to do a little work on Showcase 2. The owner’s dog has discovered that compost tastes really, really good.  At 10 years old with some arthritis, we figured that a second fence might be enough of a challenge to keep her out. It also set aside a strip of yard to start growing grass. Apparently, compost tastes better than we thought.

Mmm. Yummy.

Mmm. Yummy.

We opted for a compost pile behind a fence for Showcase 2 for a couple of reasons. One being that it doesn’t cost anything, since the fence needed to be there to keep the dog out of the whole garden anyway. I like compost that’s on the ground instead of in a barrel because it encourages the native decomposers to work harder, and to breed more prolifically. The more decomposers you have, the healthier your soil is going to be, and the more nutrients will be available in a form that your plants can use. The last reason being that you can have multiple piles going at a time without needing multiple barrels or other apparatus. The magic number seems to be three- one to add to, one that’s cooking, and one that you’re pulling mature compost out of to use.

It's terrible of me to lock away the good parts, right?

It’s terrible of me to lock away the good parts, right?

Our third try at dog-proofing the compost is sort of a hutch that we got for free. It is open to the dirt, so we will be encouraging decomposers in the garden soil, but the sides and top are covered, so it should discourage the dog. I wasn’t able to fit all of it in the hutch, but I did put in the newest kitchen scraps with enough “brown” material to balance it out. We will be using it for future kitchen scraps, but I think weeds will be safe enough in the open pile. They just aren’t as interesting to eat. A side perk is that since it is enclosed, it should retain moisture better than the open pile, which will help it compost faster.

The less interesting pile turned and watered. It would be further along if I did that a little more often.

The less interesting pile turned and watered. It would be further along if I did that a little more often.

As for being on top of things- I have missed the best time to start peas by about three weeks, but I may throw some in the ground anyway. I also need to get the order in for seed potatoes since they can be planted shortly. The potatoes did ok last year, but I think this year will be better.

Showcase 2: The Vegetable Patch

So far, two beds and compost.

It took me a while to get to it, but I finally got the second bed dug for Showcase 2. It took about two and a half hours to double-dig the 4×8′ plot. It’s a little bigger than the potato plot, but with the rain we’ve been having recently, the ground was also a little softer. I ran into a few different things with this plot than I did with the potato bed. The potatoes, by the way, are doing great. Every one of them has at least broken through the ground, and some of them are getting pretty big. I do need to track down some straw, though, to mulch them.

If there’s only one rock, make it count.

I ran into a few different issues with this bed. I dug up more sticks and roots than you can, well, shake a stick at. I suspect that the roots are from the bush behind the compost piles. I also found out why I wasn’t digging up any rocks. They were all concentrated in a single cubic foot. It was heavy. There was also proof of the mess that construction can make. In a couple of different places, I ran into construction sand. Considering that it was in the second layer each time, it had to have been from the original construction of the house. It is getting mixed in with the rest of the soil so that I don’t have little bits of beach in the garden, but that will have at least a slight effect on the soil texture. The changes are particularly interesting because this bed is two feet away from the potato bed, yet had almost totally different things to deal with. In a natural setting, two plots that close should be pretty similar. Clearly, that is not the case in an urban setting.

Sand in the soil.

I dug it over on Thursday night and didn’t make it back to rake it smooth and start planting until Sunday afternoon. I didn’t get in as much as I’d hoped, since rain was coming and I needed to get some stuff in my community garden plots. However, I did get two squares each of carrots and onions and the marigolds were planted up near where the tomatoes will be once we pick them up.

Grid and first planting.

Because this bed will be something that doesn’t have a “close date,” we opted to grow the parsnips in this garden. They take something like forever to grow, but this way we can leave them in the ground for a frost or two, or possibly overwinter them. We will also be putting in a proper fall planting of garlic so that we have it for next year. I am planning on adding kale in late summer so that we can see how that winters over as well.

Overseeing the gardener can really wear you out.

Class: Understanding Front Range Soils

“Soil is precious and we treat it like dirt.”

This class was taught by Jean Reeder, Ph.D. soil scientist. She spent 30 years with the USDA ARS, the agricultural research service. Since retirement, she is now a consultant for the CSU Soil Testing Lab and she is one of the instructors for the Colorado Master Gardener program. She has also discovered that she didn’t really understand the soil in her own back yard. Of natural, agricultural, and urban soils, urban soils are the most complex and the least understood. She has begun applying her skills to changing that.

Anyone who lives in Colorado knows that we face a lot of challenges. Our semi-arid climate is cool with a short growing season, dry, and highly variable in both temperature and precipitation. However, more than 80% of plant problems are because of the soil. It is the fundamental component of the landscape. That makes it the biggest challenge. However, it is also the least understood. We have even less information to go on than most of the country, as our soil is as different as our weather. Where most soil is more acid, ours is alkaline. If you find a native soil around here that is 2% organic matter, you’re doing really well. In Iowa, 6-7% organic matter is perfectly normal. We also have free lime. She told us about one woman she knew that preferred to send her soil samples to a lab in Missouri to be tested. They never tested for free lime, since it isn’t an issue in Missouri.

There were a few main points I got from this class. The first is, test your soil. The old saying is “feed and nurture the soil and the soil will feed an nurture the plants.” That’s true, but how do you know how to nurture it if you don’t know where it is now? Sending off samples for testing is a bit more expensive than picking up a soil test kit at the store. However, you get a lot more information and a lot more accuracy. The other thing is to get it tested locally. I use the CSU service. Granted, the lab is in Fort Collins, which is not exactly around the corner from Colorado Springs, but they know Colorado. They know about free lime and our increasing problem with salt in our soils. They can tell me how to manage it in a way that will work here. The kits you can pick up at the store are apparently usually calibrated for acidic soils, which makes them worse than useless in our alkaline soils. They also don’t come with instructions for fixing any issues you have.

Once you get your test results back, there are a couple of things that it is best to just make peace with. The pH and the texture are almost impossible to change, and any changes may have other consequences. Our soils tend to be more clayey. One apparent solution is to add sand. Aside from the fact that you have to add too much sand for that to be practical, the recipe for concrete is lime and sand. It’s not a guarantee, but if you’re unlucky, you might end up with a concrete slab where you had intended to put in a garden. As for pH, our soils are very well buffered, so they resist being changed. One possible change is to add sulfur. However, if you have a high-calcium soil (lime is usually calcium carbonate), you end up making gypsum. Gypsum is used in places as a fertilizer. However, it is a salt, so you will be increasing the salt content of your soil. The only way to change the pH with any hope of permanence is to manage the garden correctly and consistently for about 50 or 100 years or move to the mountains. There are some old gardens and gardens in the mountains that are slightly acidic. However, those are the exception not the rule.

The result of squished roots and a rough spring.

Now that you have made peace with your texture and pH, it’s time to talk about amendments. All amendments are not created equal. In fact, all compost is not created equal. We do not have naturally saline soils. However, the application of high-salt fertilizers, both organic and not, is turning salt into a problem. There’s a reason people used to salt the fields of their enemies. You can’t grow anything in salted soil and, unless you have massive amounts of high-quality water to flush the salts through the soil layers, it is almost impossible to fix. She did a study of bagged, commercial fertilizer. However, it never got published because the only consistency was that animal-based ones had very high salt content and plant-based ones tended to have merely high salt content. Other than that, there was no telling what would come out of a particular bag. Even if you go natural, there is still a huge variation in what you can get. She showed us numbers of actual fertilizers she had analyzed from non-bagged sources. The numbers were all over the place. Including two that ended up with toxic amounts of trace minerals and several that were going to cause salt issues if they were used with any regularity. If you are considering using your neighbor’s horse manure, she mentioned that what they are fed affects the quality of the manure. The quality of what goes in affects the quality of what comes out the other end. Think about that for a minute. I sure did.

This one isn’t too happy with it’s placement either.

The last major point is compaction. I have run across this as being a problem in gardens before, but she took it to another level. Compacted soil means that the aggregates in the soil, the structure made from the mineral content and the organic material, have been destroyed, which means that there are few if any pores in the soil for air and water to penetrate. If you live in an urban area, it’s best to assume that your soil is compacted. If you are able to do so, you will want to fix that before you put down lawn and gardens, as it is almost impossible to fix later. If your soil has no, or few, pores with air and water, roots will not have anywhere to go, or a reason to go there. The smaller and more restricted a root system is, the smaller the above-ground part of the plant will be. I have notice small trees in “hell strips” between the sidewalk and the road recently that are only leafing out on their lower branches. This is apparently a result of restricted root growth combined with a dry spring. The upper branches had to be sacrificed because the limited roots couldn’t support them in the rough conditions we have had this spring. If it wasn’t trapped between the compaction under the road and the compaction under the sidewalk, the roots would be able to spread out, giving them half a chance to support the growth that had gone on before conditions got bad. When you walk across wet, loose ground once, you just compacted that ground by 75%. If you walk across it four times, now it’s 90% compacted. Now think about the damage a bulldozer or crane will do while the house is being constructed.

The overarching concept from this class is that, with two exceptions, less is more. On average, it takes about 150 years to build an inch of topsoil in nature. Colorado would need more time than average. Therefore, taking 10 years to slowly build a to-die-for garden is still well above average. The fewer amendments you use, the less likely you are to make a mistake. If you salt your garden or add toxic levels of a nutrient, you will be spending a lot of time and money to fix it. Along the same lines, once our native soil has been disrupted, she let me know that it is very hard, very expensive, and often heartbreaking to restore it. The less of the native landscape we disrupt, the less we will have to painstakingly restore. Tilling and other machines tend to break up soil aggregates, affecting the soil structure. Hand-digging is far less likely to do so. What we need more of is patience and knowledge, hence the slightly lengthy post. Your soil is unique. The more information you can gather, and the more time you can spend with it, the better equipped you will be to know how to nurture it.