Amending soil benefits plants

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— As a budding potter, I've recently developed a fond affinity for clay. However, as a gardener, I have little affection for clay when weeding, digging planting holes and coaxing seeds to root in this impervious material.

Actually, clay isn't all bad as a component of your soil. It does hold water and nutrients well.

But modification is the key.

The ideal soil is composed of 25 percent air; 25 percent water; 45 percent mineral matter (sand, silt and clay); and 5 percent organic matter. The texture of Routt County soil varies from property to property: Some gardeners have very compact clay soil while others nearby have loose rocky or sandy soil. So to successfully grow plants here, we usually need to modify, or amend, the soil.

The soil should have a texture that allows for free movement of air, water and roots through the soil. If the soil is too compact, nutrients cannot get through to the roots, and the roots cannot penetrate the soil and grow. If soil is not compact enough, the water and nutrients drain away too fast.

The problems of too loose or too compacted soil texture can be addressed by adding organic matter. You do this by working in tree bark, aged wood chips, aged sawdust or certain aged manures or composts to your soil. (Three cubic feet per 1,000-square-foot area is recommended each year for annual gardens.) This will help break up the compact clay in your soil, and it will help hold together the rocks and sand, if that is your soil texture.

Organic matter is not fertilizer, although it will add some nutrients to the soil. Rather, it should be considered as a mulch or soil conditioner. To determine if any nutrients need to be added to your soil, consider having a soil test conducted.

I did this by sending a sample of my garden soil to the Soil Testing Laboratory at Colorado State University. The report I received back identified the pH, salts, lime, texture, percentage of organic matter, nitrate, phosphorus and other nutrients in my garden soil.

It also recommended the amount and composition of the fertilizer I should use.

If your garden soil consists of clay, don't despair. Dig it up and build a pot; or amend it and build a beautiful garden.

Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or e-mail gardeners@co.routt.co.us.

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