When I first encountered this concept—that a gardener could use too much compost—I immediately thought, “Is that even possible?” As an organic veggie gardener dealing with soil comprised of decomposed granite punctuated by lumps of sticky clay, too much compost seemed an impossibility. Isn’t compost the answer to all our gardening problems?
It’s true that “add compost” (or other organic matter, such as peat moss or leaf mold) is the best advice for gardeners dealing with either clay or sand. Organic matter opens up the solidly packed clay particles, allowing air and water—and therefore roots—to penetrate what would otherwise be an impervious substrate. In sand, organic matter acts as a sponge, holding on to both water and nutrients that would otherwise quickly drain away.
The first crocus of spring. Sunny yellow daffodils naturalized under trees. Beds full of crimson tulips—it all starts now.
After gardening all summer, it’s hard to add yet another chore to the pile of things to do this month, but planting bulbs should be near the top of the list. Getting them in early not only affords you the best selection at the garden center, but gives roots time to grow in still-warm soil, preventing frost heave and providing the best start to next spring’s bloom.
Pick a location that gets plenty of sunlight, particularly if you intend for your bulbs to come back year after year. Most bulb species bloom well the first year, but here in Colorado they tend to diminish with each successive growing season. Especially in the case of tulips, assume that you will need to replace them annually for the best display. Even other species will need ideal growing conditions if they are to increase in size and number.
We hardly notice them most of the time… they’re out of sight, underground, aerating the soil, creating humus, increasing fertility. It’s only after a rain storm, when the ground is saturated, that they come up for air. Then we see their desiccated carcasses strewn across the pavement. Robins eat them, anglers use them for bait, and little kids bring them home in their pockets as pets. Most of us dissected one in biology, carefully counting the five aortic arches while debating the coolness of being squeamish. Yet, for all their inconspicuous habits, earthworms play a major role in both our gardens and in the wild.
Making your own compost is a great way to recycle yard waste that would otherwise end up in a landfill. It’s the epitome of green gardening, and it’s really not that complicated.
The pile should contain about half fresh, green matter (fresh manures, grass clippings, weeds, kitchen waste) and half dry brown matter (fall leaves, straw, last year’s garden). If the manure you collect locally comes mixed with straw bedding, you already have the perfect combination for compost. Mix the green and brown parts together, or create thin layers.
Shredding your ingredients helps speed decomposition. In Colorado, an unshredded pile may take several years to break down, but it will eventually turn into compost.
I 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.
Dirt is fascinating. Oh, I know, you’re thinking of the dirt you wash out of your clothes, or off your car. I don’t find that kind of dirt very exciting at all. But the dirt in a garden is a whole ’nother story!
Actually, dirt is just one component of what gardeners prefer to call “soil.” Rocks weather and break down into smaller rocks, pebbles, gravel, and finally sand and silt. These tiny particles mix with organic matter—decomposing plants and animals—called “humus.” Then there’s air, and water. Add in weed seeds, worms, bugs, and a huge variety of microorganisms, and you have the living stuff in which we plant our gardens.