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Ask most people what soil is and you usually get a short answer. "Soil is dirt." To a soil scientist that four-letter word is somewhat offensive. Dirt is what you remove from under your fingernails, what you clean out of the corner of a room or what you remove with your washing machine.
Soil is a medium for plant growth. The better the soil, the better your plants will grow. This elementary explanation of growing a good garden is something you must understand if you intend to be a successful gardener.
Dr. Grant Cardon, Utah State University soil specialist, spends his life working with soils and teaching people how to improve their soils so they can grow better crops. His education and professional career have focused on soil management and soil fertility.
Cardon started learning about soils in the family garden in Southern California. He explains, "My family always had a large garden and we each had responsibilities for weeding, planting and caring for the garden."
"I always had an interest in what makes plants grow. That interest was strengthened when I served an LDS mission in Bolivia. I had a chance to work with the native Bolivians in their fields and see how the soil conditions affected their production."
Cardon has many ideas on how to make your garden soil more productive. He starts with an explanation about local soils.
"In an area like the western U.S. we have very little native fertilizer and soil structure. That means we need to take an active role in developing soil structure," he says.
Since soil structure is not a common term in most people's vocabulary, I asked him to share a simple definition of what that means.
"Soil structure is the aggregation of the mineral part of the soil with organic matter. Adding organic matter helps form secondary particles that allow air and water movement into the soil. That improves the tilth or workability.
"Organic matter improves the habitat for the micro flora and micro fauna. It improves root penetration and also improves the environment for earthworms and other creatures.
"The more aggregation, the better structure and the better the plants are going to grow and the better the soil life will thrive. All of these have a function in helping our plants grow better.
"In the fall we want to kick-start the building of soil organic matter. We put it on in the fall so the microbes have a chance to break it down before spring.
"Annual replenishment is important in our area. We are always losing organic matter. The injection of organic matter To replenish what is lost each year is critical," he said.
If you are wondering what organic matter is, there are many different choices. It is any material that was once living that is suitable to add to our soil.
Cardon explains some of the many sources. "We can put in compost we have made, we have leaf waste from the fall cleanup and we have lawn clippings. We want to add these materials and till them in in the fall if possible.
"By doing this the organic matter will break down over the fall to release the nutrients in the material and facilitate the soil aggregation," Cardon explains. "We don't recommend adding fertilizer because much of that would be lost over the winter.
"Adding organic matter now revs up the system and allows it to receive and hold winter moisture. Leave soil rough to allow it to capture more snow. It also allows more freezing and thawing to break up and soften the upper part of the soil. All this gets the soil ready for spring."
I asked Cardon how much organic matter a gardener should add to their soil. He answered, "I never say there is too much. Whatever you can afford! I prefer to add at least 1 inch of material per year to maintain the levels.
"One inch per year prevents a net loss but 2 to 4 inches is preferred because that helps build your soil. There is really no way to put on too much unless you are adding something that has too much salt in it.
"If you make the compost yourself out of your garden waste, leaves and other things salt is not a problem. If you are adding manure-based products limit your additions to 2 to 3 inches."
Take the time this fall to improve your garden soil. Gather the leaves, chop up the cornstalks, shred the spent vegetables and flowers and recycle them to make your garden better next season.
Wasatch Community Gardens class Garden Planning and Design, Nov. 12, 10 a.m.-noon. Come to this practical workshop to learn how to make best use of the space you have, things to think about when creating a new garden space, plant spacing, and how many plants you need for your family so you can get the best bang for your buck. Bring garden measurements to create your plans. Register at wasatchgardens.org
Utah Botanical Center Wreath Making Class, Nov. 12, 11 a.m.-noon, at the Utah House at the Utah Botanical Center. Cost: $25 Members, $35 Public. Learn how to make a wreath for the holidays. Bring your own glue gun if you have one; all supplies will be furnished. For more information, go to utahbotanicalcenter.org.
Written by Larry A. Sagers Utah State University Extension Horticulture Specialist Thanksgiving Point Office