How to get nutrient-rich soil for gardens

by Lorene Edwards Forkner

My tanning days are over. I’m afraid languorous days in the hot sun just make me wilt and wrinkle. I leave full sun exposure to my sunflowers, ripening tomatoes, prairie coneflowers and heat-loving ornamental sages.

But even these plants will wither under the hot summer sun without good garden preparation. We can plant the right plant in the right place, drip and emit with optimum efficiency, reap the rain and cherish our limited water resources, but without good soil, all is quite literally lost.

Soil is a mixture of mineral particles and organic matter or humus. Every gardener's dream is a good loam — a soil that holds water, yet drains well. Sandy soil feels gritty when rubbed between your fingers, while clay soils are slick and pack together into a solid mass.

Compost is the gardener's secret weapon for soil building. It acts like a sponge to hold water in sandy soils and loosens clay soils by introducing fibrous material, which allows air to penetrate the heavy mass. Best of all, it's nearly free when you make it in your own backyard. Here's a recipe to get started:

  • 1 part green material: Fresh moist organic material, such as lawn clippings, kitchen scraps and garden trimmings, will provide nitrogen and moisture.

  • 1 part brown material: Dried fibrous material found in dead leaves, small twigs, straw, shredded newspaper and coffee grounds provides carbon and texture, and allows for air circulation.

  • 1 part black material: Garden soil, manure or existing unfinished compost kick-start the decomposition process of the other two components by introducing valuable soil organisms.

  • Don't include: pet wastes (potential to spread disease); diseased plant clippings; meat (attracts undesirable wildlife and will stink as it decays); and inorganic materials, like plastic bags, which won't break down.

There are many different styles of commercial compost bins on the market, but it can be as simple as a 3 foot by 3 foot bottomless box with wood or wire fencing sides. Layer your ingredients (green, brown and black) and dampen the pile with a hose. Now wait for nature to take over. You can hasten things by periodically turning the mixture with a fork to introduce oxygen to the pile which fuels the decomposition process.

Me? I'm a waiter not a turner, preferring to save my energy for other garden work. I continue to add pulled weeds, garden trimmings and kitchen scraps to my pile throughout the season maintaining the simple ratio described above. But I prefer to let Mother Nature do the heavy lifting. During these high days of summer, you'll find me beneath a floppy straw hat or a shady umbrella with a cool drink in my hand.

Lorene Edwards Forkner, freelance writer, garden designer and food enthusiast, lives in Seattle and revels in the seasonal pleasures and broad scope of gardening in the Pacific Northwest. She's a contributing writer to Northwest Garden News and author of "Growing Your Own Vegetables."


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