Soil makes all the difference
By request, we’re going to talk about soil this week. Much of the valley contains hard, clayish soil that is hard to garden in. A well-amended soil is so much easier to work with. Weeds pull out easily, planting is fast, and plants like it. It’s well worth the initial effort.Organic matter usually means compost around here. There are various kinds available at stores and nurseries, but there is an important consideration – coarseness.Basically, there is fine compost and coarse compost. Coarse compost is more useful in gardens. It lasts much longer in the soil, and it breaks up hard dirt more effectively. Fine composts break down faster, and compact more. Finer composts are better suited to tiny gardens and container mixes.Unfortunately, many of the stores that carry bagged finer composts don’t always stock coarse compost. This has gotten better as the market for wood-based composts has improved.Nurseries have the right stuff. Soil Pep is a composted (somewhat) bark product that is available at some of the local nurseries. Call, since it seems to sell out until the next shipment comes.More and more bagged wood composts are becoming available. Bulk compost makes sense for some, too. I’m a huge fan of the wood-based compost that was once produced by the water district. I’ve used hundreds of yards of it. If you have a truck, or even trash cans, it’s well worth a trip to a nursery that stocks it. Buy the screened stuff.Don’t confuse surface-only mulches like bark nuggets or shredded cedar with soil amendments. These mulches are for fabric and mulch situations, and are difficult to dig through if mixed into dirt. We’ll talk about this type of bed in the future.If you just use compost, you can create a soil that holds moisture too well. (This varies with dirt type and the particular plants’ needs.)In general, many of our favorite ornamentals prefer a drained soil. This is different than the amount of water received. We’re talking about moisture retention here. Too much organic matter mixed with clayish dirt creates soil that stays soggy.The simple addition of drainage material usually means coarse sand. I particularly like river sand (not crushed). Its particles are rounded and compact less. Regular sand works well, too, and is readily available bulk and bagged.Pea gravel can be used for drainage. It has rounded surfaces, and is easy to dig through. This is not the case for crushed gravel. Don’t use crushed.Pea gravel and sand together in the mix is another nice looking combination.If you’re doing a larger job, Websters Sand & Gravel out of Leadville has river sand and pea gravel.The recipe is simple. Mix lots of compost and sand (or pea) in with your dirt. How much depends on your situation. If your dirt is naturally looser or sandier, use less sand, but still add some. If your soil is more clayish, use plenty of drainage.In either case, use plenty of compost. Amend the soil deep enough to be practical. Three inches isn’t going to work for much. A foot or so accommodates many perennials. Amend to a little deeper than the roots’ needs. Take the time to build yourself some good garden soil, and your whole experience will be different in the time to come.Back to good plants for Eagle County and the like next week.M.G. Gallagher writes a column on gardening and landscaping for the Daily.