Deb Babcock: Good soil produces happy plants
May 10, 2010
Steamboat Springs — In all of the master gardener classes offered by Colorado State University through the Routt County Cooperative Extension Office, one point that is stressed is the importance of preparing soil for your plants.
The vast majority of flower, tree, lawn and vegetable problems stem from soil issues. The roots need the ability to move through the soil as they grow and to obtain water, air and nutrients from the environment below the ground surface.
Anything we can do to improve the environment where our plants' roots reside will help those plants remain healthy and thrive here in the mountains.
The ideal soil is composed of 25 percent air, 25 percent water, 45 percent mineral matter — such as 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, in order 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. Gardeners can add organic matter by working in tree bark, aged wood chips, aged sawdust or certain aged manures or composts to soil. This will help break up the compact clay or hold together the rocks and sand, depending on the soil texture.
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Organic matter is not fertilizer, though it will add some nutrients to the soil in time as microorganisms break it down. It should be considered as a mulch or soil conditioner. To determine whether nutrients need to be added to soil, consider doing a soil test.
Anyone can send a sample of their garden soil to the Soil Testing Laboratory at Colorado State University. The returned report will identify the pH, salts, lime, texture, percentage of organic matter, nitrate, phosphorus and other nutrients in the garden soil. The report, which costs $28, also recommends the amount and composition of the fertilizer to use.
To obtain a soil test, simply scoop garden soil samples into one-gallon plastic bag, dry the soil thoroughly and forward to a soil testing lab. For details about getting soil tested at CSU, call 970-491-5061 go to their website and download the form at: http://www.soiltestinglab.colostate.edu. It's a worthwhile investment whether starting a new garden or maintaining an established garden, since the composition of soil can change throughout time as plants deplete its nutrients.
For happy plants, give them soil they can live and grow in.
Deb Babcock is a master gardener through the Routt County Cooperative Extension Office. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.