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Let’s Talk Dirt Feb 26, 2009

Get your soil ready for planting

by Carol Dunn

and Susan Simons

HUERFANO– The single greatest challenge for gardeners in Huerfano County is the soil.  Not only are we blessed with alkaline soils in general, but the dry, windy climate and lack of organic matter make gardening nearly impossible without some intensive soil amendments.  These additions will improve drainage, soil structure, water retention and provide a better growing environment for plant roots.

    Soil amendments can include : sphagnum peat, straw, compost, aged manure (6+ months old) and grass or weed trimmings before they go to seed.  All of these types of organic matter will increase the nutrients in the soil and help retain moisture.  As they decompose, they are a source of fertilizer for plants and also provide energy for earthworms and other beneficial microorganisms that live in the top layer of soil.  Beneficial microscopic organisms can detoxify pesticides, suppress plant diseases and pathogens, and produce vitamins, hormones and enzymes that stimulate plant growth.  Unfortunately, if you use chemical pesticides, they may not only kill harmful organisms but also the beneficial ones. 

    Before you choose a soil amendment, get a soil test to determine your soil’s pH and salt content, and then determine its texture.  For articles by CSU Extension about why and how to do this, check the web addresses at the end of this article.  High pH and salt content are common in Colorado soils not disturbed by past mining activities.  Sandy soil with a high pH will require an amendment to lower the pH and help retain moisture, such as sphagnum peat.  Do not use mountain peat, because the harvesting process damages the peat bog ecosystem.  Compost created from plant sources, like leaves and grass, are usually good bets for amending the local soils.  Composted manure is another good amendment, but it will increase the salt levels of your soil.  

    Most people know that root vegetables, like potatoes, require deep soil, but the deeper you loosen your soil the better for all of your garden plants.  Roots will have room to reach for nutrients and moisture, giving them an advantage during dry spells.  Some experts recommend loosening the soil down two feet.  But don’t flip the soil over when you loosen it, as this mixes up the layering that has taken place over time.  Remove the first foot of soil and leave it basically intact.  Dig the second foot loose.  Then replace the first foot of soil and loosen it without turning it over.  If you don’t have two feet of soil, consider using raised planting beds.  See Jim Conley’s article on raised beds in the February 19 issue of the Huerfano Journal.   

    Soil is the foundation for your garden.  If you build upon its fertility and structure year after year, it will continue to reward you with more and better food and flowers.

    Soil Testing: http://cmg. 221.pdf and

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