Indeed, the word “dirt” consists of 4 letters. Of course, saying that something is four-lettered is a not-so-veiled reference to profanity. Along the same lines, if you refer to the medium that you grow your landscape and garden in as “dirt,” you are right on the cusp of gardening “potty mouth.” There’s a bit of irony that this statement comes from a guy that donned the nickname “Dirt Farmer Jay” about five years ago. There’s a story behind that.
Being able to enroll and work through a Master Gardener program was an enduring dream of mine. I have had horticultural interests for a long time, going all the way back to being a lab assistant for the botany and zoology programs at the small community college I attended in southeast Arizona. Even then I started to gain a sense that good results with plants and crops was much more than luck; if you applied sound principles and practices, you had a very high probability of success. Even so, I did not pursue any related formal education along these lines, and I regretted it.
Imagine my surprise and delight to find a great gardening show on Saturday morning radio, and to further find that knowledgeable and likable radio host was one of our community’s own! When I heard about an upcoming Master Gardener class, and that Larry Sagers would be the primary instructor, I signed up. The first night I felt like a kid at the first day of school, with all sorts of anticipation of what I could learn and what resources I would find out about. My expectations were exceeded!
Now back to “dirt.” A few sessions in, Larry put on his serious face, slowly scanned the room making eye contact with all of us, and then intoned, “what you plant in is not dirt. Dirt is a four-letter word. It’s not dirt … it’s SOIL. There’s a big difference between dirt and soil. Dirt is a waste product, dead and lifeless. Soil is alive and able to sustain life and growth.” He was right, although those of you that know me know how tempted I was to spoil the sacredness of the moment by pointing out that soil is also a four-lettered word, although not in the same sense Larry was talking about. It was then and there I decided to chide Larry a bit, and I started making use of “Dirt-Farmer” both in my email address and later as my name for presentations, web videos and gardening demonstrations. Face it, “Soil-Farmer ” lacks any real appeal.
So, how do you get great soil? To begin with, work with the soil you already have, not against it. This begins with recognizing our locale, the source of your soil, what’s in your irrigation water, and some of the basic soil ingredients.
Let’s start with the last one. A quick way to determine soil composition is to collect samples from three or four spots where you haven’t significantly improved the earth. Blend the samples together to create the “average” composition of your existing soil. Take a large mason-type jar, fill it about 2/3 full of your sample, and then fill the remaining space with water up to the rim. Cap the jar tightly. Gripping firmly, shake the jar vigorously until the soil is completely broken down. At that point, you will have watery mud in the jar. Set it in a safe place and leave it alone for a day or two. The solids will settle out and the water will once again rise to the top. You will see clay settle to the bottom, sand and particulates on top of that, and organic material on top of that. You now have a visual representation of the percentages of the soil building blocks for your property.
Usually the largest percentage is clay, followed by sand and silt, and then a small percentage of organic material. Clay has been the recipient of much unfair criticism among gardeners, because it sets up very firm in dry months, and is sticky and soft during wet months. However, clay does something very well that your plants need: holds and then releases water slowly (it also assists with anchorage for plants and trees). Sand creates spaces in the soil allowing water to move, and roots to work their way down and through the soil. However, a highly sandy soil won’t hold water well and plants growing in it will be prone to drought in the warmer, drier months. As for organic material, you can be sure your native soil will need more. In our area, we typically have 1-2 percent by volume. Soil that has 5 percent or greater will not only have a beautiful “rich soil” appearance, it will be sufficiently crumbly (this is known as being friable), and will have needed microorganisms to promote healthy growth and nutrition availability.
Some have asked, “if I have lots of clay and moderate sand, can I add sand?” Yes, you could, but this would likely be expensive and time consuming. The amount of sand you would need to transform large areas into an “ideal” mix is probably not worth it. An alternative approach is to add organic materials, most notably well-rotted/aged manures and composts into the top two or three inches of your soil. If you do want to add sand, you can conserve on the amount you need by improving the soil only where you are going to grow a garden (such as in raised boxes) or plant flowers or shrubs (beds).
While many believe animal manures to be high in plant nutrients (Nitrogen, Phosphorus or Potassium), this is typically not the case. Nitrogen leaches out of aged manures fairly rapidly with rainfall and sun exposure. However, aged manures will greatly improve the texture of the soil and allow nutrients that are amended, from organic or inorganic sources, to stay available longer. The same holds true of finished compost. Between the organic material and clay, your plants will have a “moisture bank” to draw from and you will need to water less frequently.
It would be very difficult to add too much compost. I’ve literally added tons of organic material to a large garden plot. While it has greatly improved the texture of the soil and fertility, the soil has an unending appetite for organic material. Earthworms have become plentiful; moisture stays longer, and the plants respond well. Even with all the massive amounts of compost added, I don’t have a soil bed that I can just dig my hand down in until my arm is buried up to my elbow. That isn’t going to happen. Even so, the ongoing application of compost, as well as the use of fall-planted green manure cover crops are a good thing. While it seems you can’t add too much compost, you can waste it by putting it in areas you’ll walk in, or by tilling it in too deep. The best use is top dressing that is scratched or tined-in 2 to 4 inches deep.
Another important factor is soil pH, which is a measure of how acidic or alkaline/basic a solution or substance is. Our native soil is alkaline because of two main factors: 1. we have very little rainfall in which to raise the acidity of our soil, and 2. the geographical factors of the area we live in. The mountains are the “parents” of our soil. Not only are the mountains around our valley limestone (comprised largely of calcium carbonate), but we are also living on the bottom of ancient Lake Bonneville. Add to this the fact that our water has high calcium content, plus the water itself is slightly alkaline, and you’ve got persistent alkalinity. Those that don’t have a water softening system are experiencing the benefits of hard water, including tub and toilet rings, and spots on glasses and dishes. Even with a water softening system, you’re going to irrigate your yardscape with un-softened water. Even you did something to make an area of soil more acidic; it wouldn’t stay that way as you water through the season.
You’ll enjoy the greatest success by continually amending your soil with organic material that has been composted. In a future article, I’ll give you some insights on composting, complete with a video link to show you what I’m doing at my own place. The benefits of composting are far reaching. Once you see what materials are available to compost, the results from doing it, and the ease at which you can do it, you’ll never be the same. But that’s an adventure for another day.
One more thing. Your choice of plants are the last remaining piece of the puzzle when it comes to getting good soil in place and benefitting from it. Use tested cultivars (cultivated varieties) for our area. Ask those that are doing well with their gardens, or check out the Recommended Varieties listing that Utah State University offers on it’s Extension website (extension.usu.edu). Use your search engine and simply enter “recommended vegetable (or trees, shrubs, flowers) varieties for Utah” and you’ll find plenty to give you a great starting place. Dirt may be a four-letter word but so is GROW. Happy growing.
UPCOMING GARDENER EVENTS
The USU Extension Service Master Gardener Class is now accepting applications. You’ll learn a wide range of gardening topics that will take your skills and knowledge to new heights. Presented by a wide range of subject experts and with many hands on and field experiences, you’ll learn rapidly and enjoy comradery of many others with the same passion for growing. Classes begin Thursday, Feb. 6 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Cost is $255, with a $145 discount (Reduced to $110) by committing to volunteering 40 hours in Master Gardener service. I’ll see you there!
Learn how to prune fruit trees for productivity and tree health. Attend a Master Gardener public workshop by Wade Bitner on Wednesday, Feb. 26, from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the USU Extension Offices at 151 N. Main, Tooele. With many years of experience in horticulture and apple orchards, Wade will take the mystery out of successful tree pruning by giving you systematic pruning steps for various back yard fruit trees, including apples, peaches, pears, apricots and cherries. There is no charge for this event.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for insights on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.