Monday, May 10, 2021
May 10, 2021

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Gardening with Allen: Improve soil before you plant


When I asked my neighbor why her plants grow better than mine she said it is because she has improved her soil. Can you give me suggestions how I can improve my soil?

I have been gardening for more than 60 years, and I have come to the conclusion that the greatest single ingredient in landscape success is soil improvement with organic matter. It is an investment that pays dividends forever. Some types of organic matter last longer than others but they are all very helpful. No matter what kind of soil you have, organic matter will improve it.

Organic particles create air space in heavy clay soil so water and air can enter and flow through the soil more easily. As organic matter is used as food by soil microorganisms they leave a sticky substance that causes the small clay particles to stick together and become larger granules. Organic particles hold onto moisture. They also hold onto fertilizer nutrients so they don’t wash out before plant roots can pick them up.

For a new home owner, I would recommend incorporating a 4-inch layer of bark dust into the entire landscape before planting anything. In an established landscape, I would incorporate organic matter whenever I add new plants. Then I would recommend applying 1 1/2 to 2 inches of organic matter once a year.

You can provide a lot of organic matter from your own landscape by using grass clippings, leaves, trimmings and a lot of your own household waste. Some of these materials can be applied directly or they can be saved in a compost area for later application.

As a young new homeowner with limited income, I went through the neighborhood volunteering to rake up leaves if they would let me have them. I composted them and had all the organic matter I needed for my landscape. Later I learned that I could pick up the leaves with my rotary lawn mower. It not only picked up most of the leaves but also chopped them so that they composted more quickly.

When transplanting new plants it is important to add organic matter to an area three times the size of the root ball. If only the area immediately around the plant roots is amended, the roots won’t reach beyond there. That limits the top growth and therefore is worse than if no organic matter was added.

In our area, the cheapest form of organic matter to purchase is bark dust. It is also clean and free of weeds. Although available in bags, it is much cheaper in bulk, which can be picked up or delivered.

Manure is another form of organic matter that provides fertilizer as well. It should be used in smaller amounts to avoid over-fertilization. Some sources of fresh manure can contain large quantities of weed seeds, so I recommend bagged products that have been sterilized.

Another free source of organic matter is chipped branches from tree pruning. Arborists are always looking for a place to dump them. Although not as uniform and attractive as bark dust, they make excellent mulch around trees and shrubs and can also be incorporated into the soil. I sometimes apply a layer of bark dust over the top for a more uniform look.