Garden Advice: Kelp Belongs in the Ocean

The products sold to improve the health of our landscapes seem endless; I just wish more of them actually worked. I recently received an advertising postcard in the mail. At first glance, it appears that they are selling a valuable product. After all, who doesn’t want to “improve the health and vigor” of their trees and shrubs? But then I reread the claims and some red flags went up.

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Limiting Factors

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Spring has finally arrived here at 7,100 feet, and I’ve been feverishly planting—move the mulch, dig a hole, dump the perennial out of its  pot and stick it into the ground. Fill in any gaps with leftover dirt, replace the mulch. Rinse, repeat.

As I work around the lawn, adding flowers everywhere I can, I’ve noticed how abysmal my dirt is. Since we added compost, I assume that eventually it will qualify as soil, but right now I’m dealing with lumps of bentonite clay embedded in a deep layer of gritty, coarse sand. The clay was supposed to be seven feet down, but in the process of digging a basement, it got mixed  with the surface layers.

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Epsom Salts in Colorado: NOT

epsom saltsEpsom salts are often recommended as ways to improve your garden. A quick Google search turned up claims that they will improve seed germination, increase the size and number of flowers, reduce fruit drop, increase nutrient absorption, counter transplant shock, green up your lawn, prevent leaf curling, deter slugs, kill weeds, grow sweeter fruit, produce sweeter tomatoes with fewer problems such as blossom rot, increase pepper yields, and result in more and bigger roses on healthier plants. Wow. With benefits like these, we should all be putting Epsom salts in our gardens!

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Feeding Your Lawn

lawn_uplandin_20090615_lah_3607The summer is heading for fall, and it’s time to fertilize lawns. Go to any garden center and you’ll see piles of name brand lawn fertilizer, complete with directions on the back. Just follow these simple steps and you’ll have a healthy, green, weed-free lawn.

What these manufacturers don’t take into account is that different parts of the country have different soils. What may be excellent advice for Pennsylvania or Maine may not work for Colorado. Unlike much of the north and east, the Front Range loses more water to evaporation than it gains in rainfall. Combine that with the native rock from which our soils are derived, and we typically have soils that are alkaline, high in phosphorus and potassium, and low in organic matter and nitrogen.

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Take the Test!

The sun is shining, the lawn is turning green, and the birds are chirping. In fact, it’s a balmy spring day. Surely there must be something you can do to start your veggie garden! As a matter of fact, there is, but it doesn’t involve a single seed.

If you’re like most gardeners, you’ve never had your soil tested. Every year you dutifully spread a layer of compost and/or manure over your garden, dig it in, and plant. After all, that’s what every book, article, and website tells you to do. You might even add some fertilizer, just to be on the safe side. But if you’ve never had a soil test, you’re flying blind.

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Digging Up Dirt

shoveling-manure-home-plh-sI keep talking about dirt. That is, I seem to have a soil fixation. Perhaps that’s because gardens begin with the soil. Properly prepared soil produces healthier plants, reducing the need for chemical sprays and fertilizer, and making more efficient use of water. Last May I discussed what soil is, and how to amend it. Today I want to expound a bit on the various types of amendments. I’ll also repeat myself a bit. That sort of thing happens as one gets older.

While living along the Front Range has many benefits, our soils are really pretty pitiful. Unless you are content growing a limited number of native plants adapted to this area, you’re going to have to improve on nature. What’s an environmentally responsible gardener to do?

In new plantings, it is worth spending a little time and money for a soil test. Knowing what your soil has, and what it lacks, helps you avoid many time-consuming and expensive mistakes. Follow the test result directions to maximize fertility and soil health. There are natural materials available to raise your levels of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous.

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Improving Your Soil

Soil is the foundation of your garden. It pays to invest in creating the best possible soil for your plants to grow in. Living along the Front Range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains has many benefits. However, no one would move here for the black topsoil! Instead of the optimal 5% humus content, most of our soils have little or none. It’s up to us to improve on Mother Nature.

shoveling-manure-home-plhYou can easily increase the percentage of organic matter in your soil by adding compost or another organic amendment. This added humus will act as a sponge, increasing water retention in sandy soils. On the other hand, in clay it acts to improve drainage by increasing the size of air and water spaces. Plus, organic matter works with your fertilizer by holding nutrients in a form that is available for absorption by roots. As you can see, organic matter is an important component of healthy soil.

It’s best not to add too much organic material at once. Many organic amendments are based on manure, and could contain harmful amounts of salt, as well as weed seeds. Plus, the nitrogen in fresh manure can burn tender roots. Make sure to let manures age before adding them to your garden. Decomposition requires nitrogen. Any form of organic matter that isn’t completely decomposed will steal that essential element from your plants.

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