Soil preparation - the start of a great garden


Courtesy of Linda Heath

Mike Heath works with his seedlings.

So, you've finished your garden design and you know what plants you're going to use and the location for each of them. You even have your plants on order or at least started in pots. Good for you! But, you're still not quite ready for the garden. What do you think you're going to plant those lovely little violets and alyssum and squash and beans in? The ground, duh! Okay. A smart-aleck answer to a smart-aleck question. But it's a question that really does require an answer. Yes, we'll plant in the ground, but what is in the ground? I mean what kind of nutrients are in the soil and will your soil support the plants you plan to use? Can you look at it and tell? Unfortunately, not. That's where a soil test comes in handy.

Let's start with a simple hand test. Moisten a handful of soil until it starts to hold together. Not too wet. Now close you eyes and feel the texture. Is it smooth and slippery or coarse and grainy? Or maybe it's somewhere in between. Smooth and slippery refers to clay soil. The smoother and more slippery the soil the more clay it has. Clay is really good for holding water so you won't have to water quite as often. However, it has its drawbacks, too. When it gets dry it can get hard and may stunt the growth of your plants. On the other end of the spectrum is that very grainy soil that won't hold together well when moist like the clay will. The graininess is the sand that's in the soil. Sand is very good for drainage, but that also means that it doesn't hold water well. And that means more watering. By not holding water well it will also not soak your plants' roots in water and drowning them. The ideal soil lies in the middle. A good mixture of sand and clay. Fortunately, our soil is a pretty good mix, tending a little more toward the clay end of the scale in many places, but not all, of course. But what about nutrients?

The best way to test for the nutrients and ph is by getting your soil tested in a qualified laboratory. Colorado State University is our closest lab and provides an outstanding test report. Sample bottles can be obtained by calling the lab at 970-491-5061 or you can pick up bottles from the UW Extension Service Horticulturalist, Catherine Wissner, located in the Pathfinder Building at LCCC, 4th floor. Taking a sample and preparing it for the lab takes a little bit of effort, but it isn't all that difficult. If you have a small plot, one sample should suffice. As your plot increases in size, though, it becomes increasingly more complicated. For medium size plots, you can take samples from around the plot and mix them together for one sample to be sent in. However, larger plots, where it is possible that the soil makeup could change in different locations, will probably require multiple samples. In my vegetable garden I take about a dozen samples and mix them to obtain one sample for the lab. In the lavender field, about an acre, I divided it into four quadrants and took eight samples in each quadrant to mix for the lab resulting in four lab samples. This field was unbroken prairie, but I got different results in each quadrant. To take a sample, dig down about 8"-12" and dig up about enough soil to fill a half pint jar. If taking multiple samples then do the same for each sample. Mix the samples from the same plot together and put on some newspaper to dry. Once the soil has dried, usually 2-3 days, crumble it up really good, then load the sample jar full. Seal the jar and mail it and the form that came with it to the lab. If you provided an email address, the results will be sent back in 2-3 weeks. The nice thing about CSU is that they'll tell you how to correct any deficiencies.

Once you have your test results back and are ready to add whatever is needed to amend the soil, it's ready to break the soil up. You'll want to prepare the soil shortly before planting. Make sure the soil isn't too wet when you start breaking it up or it'll dry into hard clumps that really aren't good for planting. For relatively small areas, it's best to turn the soil with a heavy tined rake or other tool that will turn the soil and help break it up. For larger areas a tiller may be required. If you use a tiller, make as few passes as possible to keep disruption to the soil's natural underground life to a minimum. From here it's just a matter of laying out where you want the plants and setting them in the ground. If you have any questions about soil preparation, ask a master gardener. It's what we do.


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