Archive for Sunday, June 17, 2001

Getting the good dirt

Suitable soil is made, not born and it can be yours

June 17, 2001


There is no such thing as perfect soil.

All soil has some sort of problem structure, texture or chemistry. Good soil is loose and crumbly because it has lots of space for air. This lets plant roots penetrate good soil deeply, providing extended drought resistance and stability.

Good soil is at the root of flourishing garden plants, but it
typically takes time and effort to develop.

Good soil is at the root of flourishing garden plants, but it typically takes time and effort to develop.

Typically, soil in the home landscape is compacted. Feet tromping across lawns and gardens compress the air, while construction, mechanical yard-care equipment and harsh weather do their own share of soil damage.

To reduce compaction, regularly add humus the dark part of the soil, resulting from partial decay of leaves or other organic matter as a top dressing to existing lawns. Spread mulch of some organic type on bare soil in beds and under trees and shrubs year-round. Add compost, peat moss or something similar to gardens when you can.

All this helps improve aeration; it also invites earthworms to move in and naturally improve your soil.

It helps to know your soil. Most homeowners have one of three types of soil powdery silt, thin gritty sand or dense sticky clay.

Few of us have the nice loamy soil found in the woods where plant debris, dead animals and other organic matter create a nice, natural humus.

Sandy soil has large particles with big air spaces between them. It drains and dries out quickly. Nutrients also tend to leach out before plants use them. Humus worked into sandy soil acts like a sponge, absorbing moisture and holding nutrients.

Clay soils are thick with small particles and tiny air spaces. Clay particles stick together, causing water to fill air spaces. Plant roots rot and suffocate from too much water and too little air.

Add humus to prevent the small particles from binding so tightly. Humus causes clay to collect into larger clumps, creating larger spaces that allow water to drain and air pockets to form.

Remember, soil can become sterile over time. Hot weather reduces humus content, topsoil washes away if bare spots exist and micro-organisms become depleted. Fertilizer provides nutrients to plants, but it's not the long-term solution.

For fertilizer, it's hard to beat the natural stuff: chopped or shredded leaves, decomposed grass clippings, leaf mold (semi-composed leaves), peat moss, pecan or cocoa hulls, shredded hardwood or pine mulch and aged sawdust. Humus also buffers soil against changes in its soil acidity, or pH, which also affects how plants absorb nutrients.

If you really want to know what your soil contains and needs, test it. Now's the perfect time because you'll receive the results before it's time for fall lawn renovation and tree and shrub plantings.

Contact K-State Research and Extension-Douglas County at 843-7058 for more information about soil testing.

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