High Altitude Gardening: Building healthy soil
It’s really spring now, and once that snow is completely melted, it’s time to start turning those garden beds where you plan to plant vegetables. Don’t have a vegetable plan? Well, consider planting an edible landscape. It can be almost as decorative as a flower garden, if properly planned. And for all your efforts, you get a lot more nutrition.
The most important thing to a bountiful veggie garden is starting with good soil. Often the best solution is to import good topsoil or buy some good bagged topsoil from the garden center. Consider getting a soil test from the Colorado State University Extension Lab (970 491-5061) for about $28. This will tell you the health of your soil, and what the pH is.
Improve your soil’s pH
The pH is a scale from 0-14 which measures the amount of acid or alkaline in the soil. Zero is most acidic, 14 is most alkaline, and 7 is neutral, like pure water. Most plants prefer a slightly acid soil of about 6.5 for best production. A soils test will tell you what you may need to add to improve the pH. Truth is in Colorado, our soils are usually very alkaline, from about 7.5 to 8.5 and need to be supplemented to make them more acidic and therefore more suitable for vegetables.
But even if you don’t do a soils test, you can’t go wrong by adding compost to your soil. Compost is the decayed, broken-down end product of all living matter. Compost results when organic matter, such as grass clippings or leaves, is eaten and digested by bacteria. The metabolic waste of bacteria is a substance called humus. The humus will make the soil more acidic. Humus is the stuff in soil that gives the blackish cast and earthy smell. It’s what ‘s left over of the organic matter after it has been broken down by the billions of micro-organisms, bacteria, phages, fungi, earthworms and bugs, responsible for decomposition. Humus is rich in minerals and nutrients vital to the health of all plants.
Composting is one of the best and easiest ways to recycle. Each year, 30 to 50 percent of all the waste at the landfill could be composted, helping to replenish the health of our soils and reduce landfill waste. All communities should be composting. It should be part of every backyard garden.
Compost is easy to make even if you have little space. It’s also the easiest way to get rid of all your kitchen scraps and all yard waste like grass clippings and leaves. In a warm (sunny) corner of your backyard, you can just heap a pile of yard waste and kitchen scraps, and eventually local bacteria will find it and eat it up. (If you don’t have this kind of space, a black plastic garbage can will do.) But in our cold climate in Colorado, this can take six months to a year, or two. Bacteria only grow in warm conditions. So there are a few things you can do to help the bacteria out and hasten their job, including layering, watering and covering the pile. (I use only plant scrapes — no meat or dairy — and have never had a problem with bears.)
Kinds of compost
First, all organic, compostable material is divided into two groups: green/wet material, which is anything still green and moist like grass clippings, fresh leaves, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds or any animal manure. These things are high in nitrogen, an essential nutrient for the hungry bacteria and for your plants. The second group is dry/brown material, already dried out by the sun, like brown grass or hay, dry leaves, sawdust and peat moss. Since these items have been dried and aged by the sun, most of their nitrogen has leached out leaving the carbon, the structure of all life. Both carbon and nitrogen are essential nutrients for bacteria to grow. So it is important to provide lots of both in your compost pile. So as you pile up fresh, wet kitchen scraps in your compost pile, layer it every few inches with hay or dried leaves. I keep a bale of hay on hand beside my compost. If you don’t have hay, shredded newspaper will work too.
Then water your pile regularly — enough to moisten it (not too wet) — and cover it with clear plastic to keep it warm. Bacteria work best in temperatures above 100 degrees. But it is important to add some fresh air now and then so the bacteria can breathe. Plus, you can increase the bacteria by sprinkling the pile with “compost starter” found at garden centers. Then stir and turn the pile a couple times a month, or roll your trash can around with the lid on. But this can still take more than a summer to have rich, black compost to feed your garden with. So, I always end up buying more at the garden center. Always look for “organic compost” on the label.
Lori Russell is a local gardener and professional landscaper with All Seasons Service, as well as a teacher of high altitude, organic techniques. She lives and gardens in Eagle.