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Soil? or Dirt?

Here in Cache Valley Utah (Logan Utah) it is once again that time of year. Time to start planting our vegetable gardens, our annual flower beds, or our new perennial beds. People are flocking to the greenhouses ready to buy their precious pretties and they all want color. After winter is gone, everyone is dying to get some color in the yard. And I can't say I blame them, but there is something they need to consider first - Their soil (or is it dirt?)

At the greenhouse, we often correct people who come in and say they want to buy a bag of dirt for their patio containers. Do you want dirt, or soil? We sell soil, but not dirt. Dirt is a nasty four letter word. Dirt is what you sweep up off the floor after your five and six year old boys have been playing in the yard and come running into the kitchen for water. Dirt is what you sweep off the front porch after every wind storm. Dirt is what you have in the beginning. Soil is what your plants want. Dirt is what you must transform into soil in order to have your flowers grow and thrive.

I've read lots of research that shows that 80% of plant problems are directly related to the soil (or dirt) in which the plants are growing. The insecticide and fungicide businesses, as well as the fertilizer businesses, are multi-billion dollar industries that are mostly supported by home owners. Home owners buy and use more chemicals than all of the commercial applicators out there. Customers come into the nursery all the time wanting me to diagnose this problem and that. Bags full of bugs, small limbs, foliage clippings, pictures of ugly leaves and sometimes whole plants are drug into the our Hyde Park Utah Garden Center every day. Frustrated gardens are bringing this stuff in because they need help. They want the problems to go away. They want a silver bullet to cure it all. Unfortunately, at this point, it is frequently too late for the silver bullet.

In many cases, the silver bullet does (did) exist. But some forethought needed to take place first. It's really hard to amend your DIRT after you have planted $500.00 worth of perennials or annuals into the ground. It has to happen first. I can't stress enough how important it is to amend your soil BEFORE you plant. It'll make all the difference in the world. In fact, if done correctly you will be able to avoid adding fertilizer for years to come and solve lots of other problems as well.

How do you amend your dirt to create soil? First, you need to know what type of soil you have. Most of Cache Valley is dealing with a very heavy clay soil with some rocks mixed in. Not exactly the ideal Loam that we'd like to have. Ideally, you would have your soil tested by a professional testing facility. This can be done through the USU extension if you are in Utah, or through your states land grant university. For information on soil testing through USU visit These test results will tell you what type of soil you have, the amount of organic material in the soil, as well as a breakdown of the nutrients available in the soil.

A quick, dirty, way to tell your soil type is to go out to your garden beds, make sure they are damp (not soaked) and take a handful of soil and squeeze it into a ball. When you release your hand, if the soil stays formed in a tight ball, then you have a clay soil. If the soil falls completely apart, then you have a sandy soil and if they soil is somewhat together and somewhat apart, then you have a nice loam soil. Only a handful of times have I come across a soil in Cache Valley that isn't clay and those exceptions are usually sandy soils.

Once you know your soil type, you also want to know what kind of drainage your soil has. This can be accomplished by digging a 12" deep by 12" wide hole in your beds and filling the hole with water. After the water drains out of the hole, refill the hole with water. After filling the hole the second time, time how long it takes for the water to drain through the soil. If it takes longer than 20-30 minutes to drain through, then you are dealing with a poor drainage situation. This is important to know, because many plants die through the winter in Cache Valley because of poor drainage.

So now that you know you have a clay soil that drains poorly (as most of you in Cache Valley will), how do you go about fixing it? First, let me re-emphasize how important it is to fix the soil before you plant. The money, time and effort you put into your soil will save you lots more money, time and effort down the road. The upfront investment of resources will pay for itself within 1-2 years. Before you do anything to amend your soil, you've got to deal with the weeds that are there. If you have weed problems in the area your going to plant, solve the weed problems first. Spray your beds with a weed killer, like Hi-Yeild's Killz-All , and then let your beds sit for two weeks to allow the weedkiller to do it's job. If you have lots of really tough to kill weeds, like morning glory, quack grass, or Canadian thistle, you may want to allow time for these weeds to regrow so that you can spray them a second time in order to get really good control. Again, this is an effort that will save you lots of headache in the future.

Once, you have good control of the perennial weeds in the area, it is time to begin amending the soil. I like to add 4" of organic material to the beds. I use coconut fiber, peat moss, Oakdell compost, steer manure products, or other types of compost to accomplish this. It'll depend largely on what your soil testing shows, as to how much of the organic matter you want to be manure type products. As well I like to use products like Utelite to add porosity to the soil if it is a heavy clay. I love the book, "The Well Tended Perennial Garden," by Tracy DiSabato-Aust that does a great job of describing the method I follow for soil amendment (as well, the book is a wealth of knowledge of ways to care for perennials).

After tilling the bed initially, you then want to add your first 2" of amendment, and then re-till the area. Once that is complete, add your next 2" of amendments and till 1 more time. I like to reach 10-12" deep if possible. When I follow this method, planting becomes super easy, as the soil is nice and lose and I only need a shovel for bigger items like trees and shrubs.

Come down to our Logan Greenhouse and Garden Center today and ask Moose about this process in more detail. He loves talking about SOIL, and might bore you to death doing so, if you let him. Don't forget that right now is the time to pre-order your hanging baskets and patio containers. We will plant the for you now and keep them in the greenhouse where they are safe and warm until the outside weather allows them to go out into our Beautiful Cache Valley (or wherever else you might hail from).


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