Posts Tagged ‘weather’

Black Forest Fire Day Four

I tried to go up to Pine Creek High School again, since it had such a great view, but it has been totally taken over, so we civilians weren’t allowed in. When I was trotting around looking for another good site, I got this picture:

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Yay, rain!

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Colorado does this awesome (read, potentially annoying) thing where it precipitates by zip code. It might rain in the mountains, but nothing in town. It might rain in the north part of town, but not the south part. You can see here, rain where I am, but blue sky not so far away.

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I headed out to Falcon to see if I could get some pictures of the eastern side of the fire. You can see how windy it is from the thunderstorm. My camera and I aren’t fast enough to get lightening pictures, but we had that, too. You can also see the development in the bottom of the picture. As you head east out of town toward the plains, you tend to see either open farm/ranch land or housing developments. Sadly, those are usually on old ranches because selling to a developer is more lucrative than farming or ranching.

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Between the clouds and the road blocks, I didn’t get anywhere near the fire. However, I’d rather have the weather finally helping with controlling the fire than awesome smoke and fire pictures.

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In tonight’s update, they were very clear that while the rain was helpful, the fire is far from out, and it wouldn’t take much at all to return to the hot, dry conditions that were fanning the fire earlier in the week. However, the cloud cover, higher humidity, and brief rain shower did help the firefighters make some headway. We are up to 30% containment, and some of the mandatory evacuations were revised down to pre-evacuation status. The count is up to 400 homes lost, but 2,833 are fine. They have about 5,000 more to check in the mandatory evacuation area. It is very tragic for each of the 400 families who lost their home, but the ratio of buildings lost to buildings saved is impressive. Many thanks again to all of the people working to keep the damage as limited as possible.

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So what have I been up to, aside from trotting around taking pictures? I am living about 10 miles south of the fire, and the wind hasn’t really blown it south much at all. However, I have still been cooking, doing dishes, doing laundry, and working in the yard. They are normal tasks, but they take on new meaning in these circumstances. A hotel room may not have a kitchenette, but it will probably have a microwave. Pre-made meals mean that I can still feed myself on a budget even if I have to leave. It also means that I’m leaving less food behind to be lost. Dishes and laundry need to be kept up with so that I don’t have to do them while I’m packing my car to evacuate. Plus, I prefer to travel with clean clothes. I’ve been slowly taking last year’s dead weeds out of the yard this summer, but the task took on new urgency when the dry weeds changed from unsightly to potential tinder. I don’t want to think about the yard if the wind changes direction and we are put on pre-evacuation status. At that point, all I want to think about is getting my car packed and hitting the road before anyone else does.

The other thing I am doing is planning. Last year there was one fire, and it was a bit north of us, so my roommate and I fled to Pueblo. This year, Pueblo had a small fire, and the Royal Gorge Fire is also south, so that’s out. The fire is north of us, and has closed down 83, which leaves 25 as the only direct road north to Denver. Well, evacuees plus construction would make for a mess. North is out. The plan is to head east out of town. Maybe, depending on the fire direction, I would feel safe stopping in Calhan, or maybe I wouldn’t stop until I hit Kansas. To that end, I’ve been watching my gas gage, and if it hits half-full, I’ll top it off. If I have to leave, I don’t want to stop.

This year I’m also much more on top of what I’ll take with me. I finally re-packed my trunk so that it held the things that I don’t use on a regular basis, but I wouldn’t want to lose. I have also made a mental note of what else needs to be taken, and in what order it goes to the car. The most important stuff gets loaded first just in case I get interrupted and have to leave now. I haven’t packed any clothes, but if the wind starts blowing this direction, I’ll do that immediately. I have no intention of waiting for a mandatory evacuation order to get out of the house.

Given the wild hurricanes out east, the tornados in Oklahoma, and the increasingly early fires out here, I suspect that this is not a fluke. This is the beginning of a trend of increasingly wild weather and natural disasters. How fast can you get out of your house with the people, pets, and items that matter most? Will it be fast enough?

Black Forest Fire Day Three

During the morning briefing we were told that it was up to 15,000 acres with 360 structures lost. Waldo Canyon topped out at a bit over 18,000 acres and 346 homes lost. So, we beat one state record, and we’re working on the other. Yay? By the afternoon briefing it was up to 15,700 acres, but it looked like no more structures had been lost. We are at 5% containment. We have about 750 firefighters on the ground at the moment. I have no idea how many police, military, and others are helping out.

There have been two confirmed deaths. The deceased were on the phone with people at 4:20 on Tuesday, watching the glow in the distance. At only three-ish hours into the fire, they may well have not gotten an evacuation notice at that point. Around 5 they called another person to say that they were on their way out, and they could hear popping and snapping from the fire. They were found in their garage looking like they were just about to leave. This is why when the authorities say to get out, you need to get out. The authorities aren’t allowed to grab you and bodily remove you from harm, but the fire has no such respect for your rights.

On a happier note, the Royal Gorge Fire seems to be much more under control. I had scoffed, yesterday, about them being so concerned about reopening the area for tourists. I had no idea how heavily they depend on tourists. There are about 200 people, 50 full-time and 150 seasonal, that are out of jobs. My heart goes out to all of them.

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That parking lot was empty, yesterday. It looks like they’re setting up some sort of a staging area at Pine Creek High School.

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As I mentioned before, the military has been a huge boon. They are ready and able to step in to support the police and the fire fighters.

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They also know to take a rest when they can. The firefighters are working 12-hour shifts, and I have no doubt that everyone else is working just as hard.

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You can see that it’s windy and cloudy. We had a thunderstorm rolling toward us. It sounds like a good thing, until you remember that it was a thunderstorm that pushed the Waldo Canyon Fire over the ridge and into Colorado Springs. Around here, it’s very possible that a thunderstorm will not bring any rain worth speaking of but will bring gusty, unpredictable winds and lightening. We didn’t get any rain, but we also didn’t get any lightening, and apparently the cloud cover did help some with keeping a touch more moisture and a touch less heat in the air.

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Given the heavy police and military presence, the civilians weren’t crawling through the wire fence to stand on the top of the hill. I’m sure the homeowner was happy about that. However, there were still people watching what the western end of the fire was up to.

Day 3 Black Forest Fire 008

This is a “MAFFS” plane. They dump 2,700 gallons of fire retardant in about five seconds. The release gives the same push to the plane as one of their engines at full power.

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Here’s a close-up as it flew almost overhead.

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This one was almost an awesome picture. Darn tree.

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This one turned out ok, though. That red is called slurry. They have been telling us repeatedly that it doesn’t put out the fire, but it is supposed to slow it down so that the ground crew can actually get in there to stop it. You can see in some of these pictures exactly how dry our plants are. Even the yucca are looking a little tough.

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I’m guessing this was a plane used as a spotter to help direct both the fixed-wing planes and the helicopters.

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This is the house I saw yesterday that I thought was doomed. It’s still there!

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I’m used to seeing stuff like that back east when it gets misty. I don’t think I like the smoke version nearly as much.

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Here are some more of the first responders of one type or another. Thank you! Thank you, very much!

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Have you made a donation to your local food bank, yet? The easily opened tinned meat has been requested to make it easier to feed the firefighters in the field. The tuna will be for the evacuees and, later, for those who have lost their homes.

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I had wanted to see if I could follow the southern edge of the evacuation area to see if I could get pictures of the western part of the fire. When Old Ranch Road took a 90-degree turn and I saw this- I decided it was time to go home.

Transplanting 2

It needs some help.

It needs some help.

The same day I planted the RCG bed, I also stuck a few things in the ground in Showcase 2. The last post was getting a bit wordy, though, so they are being posted separately.

It doesn't look bad . . .

It doesn’t look bad . . .

The bed that was the potato bed last year had been pretty neglected. I planted the garlic in the fall, after digging out the potatoes. Not all of them came up, but it’s not a bad crop considering the level of neglect they suffered over the dry winter. At this point, I’m not gardening as my main food source, so anything I get is mostly a bonus. I’m still too early in the learning stages to depend on it totally, though that is the direction I want to go.

 . . . but this looks better.

. . . but this looks better.

When I uncovered the bed, it was still a little higher than the path, indicating that it still had quite a bit of space for air and water to wend around the roots. This was, in part, because it was pretty thoroughly dug over when I was digging out the potatoes right before I put the garden away for the winter. However, it is still a young garden, and the exercise is good for me, so I double-dug everything but where the garlic was growing. Just fyi, barefoot shoes are awesome for everything but double-digging. When I discovered a section the dog had clearly lain on when she broke in, I think I might have bruised a bone or two from jumping on the shovel. However, in the end, it did look and feel a lot nicer after I was done.

I'm still figuring out what I want to grow in the blank spaces.

I’m still figuring out what I want to grow in the blank spaces.

This garden bed got fewer plants. I wanted the parsley to be close to home because I love parsley, and it’s convenient to have it in the back yard. I also picked up one pumpkin and one butternut squash. They both like to sprawl, and Showcase 2 has more room for that than the RCG bed. They are also something that gets picked later in the fall, possibly after I am done with the RCG bed, since it is mostly hot weather plants. Will the marigolds get swamped by the squash vines? Yes. But until then, they’ll add a splash of color to the garden. If you’re picking a pumpkin, bear in mind that some varieties are more suited for cooking, and some are more suited to becoming jack o’lanterns. If you don’t know which is which, do what I did and ask someone that works at the greenhouse. If it’s a good one, they’ll be able to tell the difference. I was rather surprised that the “Cinderella” pumpkin was good for eating, but that’s why I asked instead of guessing.

The perennial garden. Maybe.

The perennial garden. Maybe.

The last bit I put in was some thyme and flowers. There is a wire buried below that line of rocks that I discovered last year. (Don’t forget to call 811 before you dig. I’m lucky I didn’t electrocute myself when I discovered it the hard way.) Rather than leave this section bare and boring, I’m planting thyme, which is a perennial, and marigolds and violas that may reseed themselves next year. This section was not dug over first, but if the plants decide they’re happy enough to grow this year and come back next year, the roots will help to loosen the soil that I can’t loosen with a fork. The benefit, aside from herbs and flowers, is that I am making that much more soil a little more inviting for decomposers.

The plants should make a bigger impression once they've grown some.

The plants should make a bigger impression once they’ve grown some.

Setting the plants in depressions and re-covering the bed with straw is even more important in Showcase 2 than in the RCG bed because it does not have an automatic waterer. Therefore, when I do water it, and if it ever decides to rain again, it is even more necessary to funnel the water to the plants and shade the soil to preserve the moisture. The potatoes, as you can see, are quite happy with the arrangement.

Happy 'tater plants.

Happy ‘tater plants.

Thank you, Colorado

I haven’t had much to say since my last post. Shortly after I put it up, I heard on the radio that due to lack of snowpack, we would still be in drought conditions with water restrictions come summer. I think it was the next day that the clouds moved in. Since then, it’s been overcast more often than not and it kinda feels like it snowed as many days in April as it did during the rest of the winter combined. We also got an inch or two on May Day. You know, the traditional day to celebrate spring?

As inconvenient as it is to be getting our snow when I should be turning over garden beds and planting my early plants, we do need the moisture. Naturally, I forgot to save the link, but I recently came across a local seed producer that closed their doors in 2011 due to lack of water. They were a small-scale grower, and working off of a house-sized well. The note they had up indicated that while the surrounding farms could still reach water with their farm-sized wells, there just wasn’t any water left at their level. Since I came across this note in early 2013, I think it’s safe to assume that they haven’t been able to resume operation.

Well, it sucks to be them, but as long as the big farms are still getting water, we’re cool, right? Not really. According to the UN, there’s enough water for 6 billion people. Well, we overshot that one. We are also in the habit of misusing and abusing the water that we do have. There are already places that are using oil wells to drill into “fossil aquifers.” I don’t believe we’re doing this in America, yet, but we just have to look to the Middle East and Africa to see what will happen if we run out of renewable sources of water. Once the fossil water is gone, it won’t be renewed within a human time-frame, if ever.

What does this actually mean? Humans, and most plants and animals, can not live without clean, unsalted water. That means that we need to figure out how to keep what we have and maybe how to make more. There are lots of ideas out there, and I am sure I’ll be looking into many of them more in-depth because water is such a big deal in the West. The idea for the moment, though, is to encourage water that falls in your yard to soak into the ground, instead of running off the surface. Dig holes, plant grass, plant trees. Anything to make the water stop long enough to soak in. If enough of us do this, we can affect the groundwater levels in a positive way, instead of a negative one.

The snow is nice, but it would be so much nicer against a properly blue sky.

The snow is nice, but it would be so much nicer against a properly blue sky.

Things You Can’t Control: Hail

Not what I was expecting when I came out to water that day.

According to the life-philosophy of the Stoics, there are things that you can control, and things that you cannot control. Long story short, figure out which is which and put your efforts into what you can control. What you can’t will take care of itself. Hail is one of those things I can’t control. What I can control is my response to it. It is part resignation, part curiosity, and part thinking about how to minimize the damage next time.

Mental note: tomatoes don’t like hail.

I was not unaware of the possibility of hail. However, I understood it to be of less threat than it is in, say, Wyoming. It could happen, but wasn’t necessarily something to take a proactive stance on like deer or rabbits. However, after the storms last week, I think I do need to be more proactive. About a week and a half ago Showcase 2 and the RCG beds got flattened by a charming combination of torrential downpours and sizeable hail. Fortunately, Showcase 1 is tucked close enough to the house to have been mostly sheltered. The next night brought a second storm that had a tornado watch out east of town. It was the worst hail since 2004 or earlier, so I will accept it as a fluke. However, given what weather has been doing in the last few years, knocking together something for hail protection will fall under “better safe than sorry” for Showcase 2 at the very least. I was told recently that it appears that even years tend to be hail years, so these storms may well not be the last of it. The resignation is that I was aware of the possibility and chose not to take steps as the monetary cost of setting up some sort of shield appeared to outweigh the probability of serious hail damage.

Potatoes, fortunately, are slightly more forgiving.

Hope for recovery.

My curiosity is wondering what will recover and what will not. When I first looked at Showcase 2, I thought that the peppers were all stripped to their stems. A day or so later when I took a closer look, it appears that each has at least one leaf and the stems remain green. My fingers are crossed that they have enough photosynthetic surface areas to recover. The tomatoes had fewer leaves, but they also have stems that are insisting on remaining green, so we’re giving them the benefit of the doubt. The ‘tater bed is in tatters, but they fared the best of all, as they have had months of vigorous growth. They went from a bed of solid green to being able to see the individual plants, but I expect them to be fine. The obnoxious part is that the turnips and radishes no longer even have stems, let alone leaves. I haven’t quite decided whether I want to see if they’ll try again or if I want to give up and just replant.

Water damage. That had all been woodmulch.

I spent a couple of hours the following Saturday afternoon helping out in the food bank beds at the Ranch Community Garden. Aside from my root vegetables being shorn and the flowers showing the insult of the deluge, my pepper and tomatoes were still small enough that they seem to have weathered the weather fairly well. There wasn’t much to do. However, some kind soul donated gobs of tomatoes and assorted other plants to replace the abused ones in the beds and they needed to go in the ground. I noticed that the foodbank beds weren’t the only ones getting a significant re-do. My understanding is that given half a chance, plants will do their best to recover from a hailstorm. However, seeing the bedraggled state of most of them, I can understand the desire to replace them with a plant that is immediately more vigorous. My fingers are crossed partially because I want to see what they can do for themselves, and partially because I would hate to replace my own heirloom plants with whatever is left over at the garden centers after half or more of the gardeners in Colorado Springs have replaced their plants.

My poor turnips. That had been 16 healthy little plants in tidy rows getting ready to give me some tender greens.

Now to the proactive part. None of the gardens I have been working with are producing food that is a requirement for the family’s table. All of them are simply an appreciated supplement. However, I do need to think about this as both a supplemental food source and a main food source. Eventually, I hope to be able to feed myself primarily from my gardens and I would like to help people that have limited access to good produce if they don’t grow their own. Good food, after all, should be a right not a privilege. I have a lot to think about. Hardware cloth seems to be the protection of choice, since it is very permeable for light and rain, but less so for hail. If I had my tomatoes in cages, I could just give each cage a roof and call it a day, but the ones under my protection are all on trellises. Do I build permanent structures or things that I bring out when hail threatens? This storm gave warning that it was going to be ugly, but not all of them do around here. Do I build something that is strictly for hail, or should I just go ahead and build multi-purpose structures? How much of the garden should I cover? The place the peas are growing is not going to lend itself to protection, and the potatoes seem to be doing fine without it. Should the structure have a flat roof (easier) or a peaked/rounded roof to help shed the ice? At what point should I bow down to local circumstances instead of insisting on getting what I want? Naturally, the grasses and lambs-quarters are doing just fine. Fortunately, I hear lambs-quarters make excellent salad greens. I will keep you updated as decisions are made and plans are put in place.

As every gardener knows, weeds always survive . . .

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.