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Dirt Woes
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Dirt Woes
Transform your dirt into healthy soil

Dirt n. earth, soil
Soil n. the surface layer of earth, supporting plant life

Make sure your dirt is soil.

There are three basic soil types, but chances are you have one of the innumerable combinations thereof.

Let’s start with the most difficult to improve: clay. You’ll know if you have clay soil by the color and feel. It will have a reddish tinge, and will hold tightly together if you squeeze a damp handful. Clay is nutrient rich, but the plants have a hard time taking up these nutrients. Clay holds water, usually too much for a plant’s liking (even if the plant likes "wet feet”), and does not drain well.

Then there’s sand, almost the opposite of clay. Again, the color and feel will tell you that you have sandy soil. It will be on the tan side, and will not hold together well if you squeeze a damp handful. It will have a gritty feel. Sand does not hold water well, and any nutrients it may have tend to wash away easily. It drains well, usually too well, but plants that thrive in drier sites will like it.

If you are lucky, or have put some effort into improving your soil already, you have loam, what Martha Stewart liked to call "rich, crumbly chocolate cake”. It holds together just right when you squeeze a damp handful, and breaks apart easily, but not too easily. It drains well, and the plants easily take up its nutrients. Loam is what we strive to achieve when we improve, or amend, our soil.

You can add sand to clay soil to improve its drainage, just make sure it is coarse builder’s sand. Any other kind will form concrete in your soil. You can add peat moss to sandy soil to improve its drainage, just be sure to wet it thoroughly before adding it to the soil. The peat moss sold in bales is extremely dry, and will soak up any moisture in the soil, leaving none for the plants.

Whether adding either sand to clay soil or peat moss to sandy soil, only the soil’s texture will change. You’ll also want to increase its nutrient content, but please, do not use chemical fertilizers for this. Save the chemical fertilizers for certain plants at certain times of the growing cycle.

Manure can be added to any type of soil for fertilization, however it must be well rotted. Fresh manure is very strong and will burn your plants. Bagged manure is usually well rotted, but if you get it in bulk, make sure it is a year old at the very least. Manure makes a great fertilizer, but does not significantly improve the texture of the soil.

The wonders of compost
The best way to improve the texture of soil while adding nutrients is to amend the soil with compost. Yes, it’s a trendy buzzword, but here is the fact: compost (organic matter) is hands-down the very best way to get that chocolate cake soil we all covet.

Compost is derived from the word composite, meaning "put together”. It is defined as "a mixture of decomposing vegetation for fertilizing soil”. The more decomposed the vegetation is, the better an amendment it will be. Partially decomposed vegetation is coarse and lumpy. Good compost feels very much like loamy soil.

Even if nature has already put organic matter into the soil, we can still give our plants an even more luxurious environment than nature usually provides. Organic matter is not an addition made just once then forgotten about. It is always decomposing and being used by the plants. Permanent plantings such as trees and shrubs will also benefit from a surface layer of organic matter that will amend and fertilize the surrounding soil.

You can buy organic matter in bags labeled "compost” or "humus” at your local nursery or home warehouse. This is a fine choice if you do not currently have a composting bin. Buying bagged organic matter (or having it delivered in bulk) will give your planting areas a head start while you begin the process of creating your own compost.

Making your own compost
Commercial compost barrels make compost quickly, and can be moved from collection point (kitchen door, weed pile) to the garden for spreading. They are user-friendly and great for small yards or people with limited mobility.

If you have a four-foot square area in your yard, you can make a large cylinder of chicken wire with a smaller cylinder in the middle as a chimney. Fill the cylinder with grass clippings, fallen leaves, weeds, and kitchen scraps (no meat, please). Try to make layers of brown and green. Stir the mixture a few times a year if you wish; it isn’t necessary to stir it if you are willing to wait until the following spring to spread it. It takes at least one year for a four-foot diameter by four-foot high compost pile to create fully decomposed organic matter for use in your planting beds. If the ingredients at the top of the pile do not appear decomposed enough to use, dig down, or cut a "trap door" into the wire at the bottom to remove the compost from the bottom of the pile.

Try to have two piles going at once. Move the compost that is not decomposed from the top of one pile to the bottom of the other. That will allow you to reach the good stuff and decompose the rest more quickly.

Applying compost
Spread the compost around your plantings and scratch it in to the soil a bit. If you think your compost might have weed or grass seeds in it (most does), sprinkle some pre-emergent like Preen on top, then cover with a 2-inch layer of mulch. (Do not use Preen or other pre-emergents anywhere you plan to start seeds.) If you have a new planting bed, your new babies will thrive. If you have current plantings, rejuvenate the soil with compost, and your existing plants will say "Wow!” by showing you their healthier, happier sides.

Do the squeeze-the-damp-soil test again next year. What kind of soil will you have?

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