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Dean Johnson

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Landscaping: Soil Conditioning

Rough ground


Your soil is one of the most important factors in successful landscaping and gardening.

Evaluating your soil condition is a critical step before preparing your beds and planting plants. The following are some things to consider:


Soil Types

Soil TypesSoil is a mixture of mineral particles and various types of organic and inorganic material. The size of those mineral particles determines the soil's physical category: clay, sand or loam.

You'll want to know what makes up your soil, so you can prevent problems.

A soil testing lab will tell you what kind of soil you have. But here's a simple test that'll give you some idea: When it's wet, loam will form a lump when you squeeze it and it will crumble easily into small clumps. Wet clay forms a hard lump that won't break up, and wet sand won't lump at all.

You'll have poor drainage with clay soil. Its tiny particles bind together when wet and keep water from draining properly. Plants in clay get too much water and too little air to thrive, and their roots have trouble penetrating the soil. Organic amendments will improve clay soils.

Sandy soils consist of larger particles, which create a porous mix and allow water to drain through too quickly. Plants rooted in it have trouble absorbing water. Organic amendments will also help with this type of soil.

The ideal growth soil is a combination of large and small particles known as loam. It holds water long enough for thirsty plants while safely draining away the excess.

Sand or clay soils can be improved with applications of organic matter in the spring (compost, peat moss, or dried manure), but they should be dug into the soil a foot or more deep to really aerate the soil properly.



Soil Testing

soil test kitIt's best to have your soil tested before you start planting to see what nutrients it might be lacking.

You should be able to find labs in your area to do a test for a nominal fee. Your local nursery or County Extension Office will point you in the right direction. You can also buy a kit and do the test yourself.

Testing will indicate which of the crucial elements for plant growth your soil's lacking; chiefly nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. You can add fertilizers to help overcome any deficiencies.

A soil test will also give you the ph level, which indicates the amount of acid in the soil. Some plants need high amounts of acid. Others need more alkaline soil. If it's too acidic, you can add lime to balance it. If it needs more acidity, you can add aluminum sulfate or ammonium sulfate to it.


Adding Organic Amendments

adding organic amendmentsOrganic amendments like peat moss, manure or compost, will loosen up your soil and promote good drainage. They also improve the ability of the soil to deliver nutrients to the roots.

It's best to dig in your amendments in the spring before planting. Then roto-till the soil to fluff it up and make plant growth easier.

Adding organic amendments to your soil will have long term benefits. In fact, the first few years you may not notice dramatic results. After the amendments have a chance to break down you should see the soil become darker, easier to work with, and require less watering.

The same type of amendments (peat moss, manure, compost) will help either thicken sandy soils and thin out clay. Manure even has small amounts of plant nutrients.


Adding Fertilizer

adding soil fertilizers


A garden should get regular doses of fertilizer to keep producing. That's because plants, rain and wind remove a lot of nutrients over time.

Fertilizers come in both inorganic and organic forms. They both provide the same essential nutrients that your grass or plants need to grow properly:

  • Nitrogen helps plants produce strong stems and healthy green leaves.
  • Phosphorous is crucial for flowering and fruiting plants.
  • Potassium promotes the development of healthy roots and stems.

Check the labels of fertilizers for the numbers indicating the ratio of nutrients. A label with 10-10-10 means it's got ten percent nitrogen, ten percent phosphorous and ten percent potassium. So every 10 pounds of it puts a pound of each element in the soil.

Use a fertilizer with the right combination of nutrients to supplement the specific deficiencies of your soil.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both chemical and organic fertilizers. Chemical fertilizers work faster and can be applied in the balance of nutrients your garden or lawn needs. They are less expensive than commercial organic fertilizers and can be applied in concentrated amounts. However, they can be harmful to the environment, and can kill the plants if applied incorrectly.

fertilizerOrganic fertilizers are slower, but longer lasting than chemical fertilizers. They actually build up the nutrients and earthworms in the soil so that fertilizing won't be needed as much in the future. However, they don't contain the balanced mix of nutrients that chemicals do.

There is another environmental problem which comes from the use of any fertilizer. That's the potential for causing pollution by running off into lakes, streams and ground water.

To avoid creating runoff, don't apply fertilizer just before a heavy rain because it'll wash it away. Also, don't let the fertilizer get on hard surfaces like driveways and sidewalks where it can get swept into storm sewers, and from there, into lakes and streams.


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