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GARDEN TIPS – written by Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA Written November 8, 2015

Two weeks ago we talked about the fall garden chores that should be done once fall arrives and cool weather starts to prevail. Here are some tasks that are “good-to-do” but are not absolutely necessary.

CLEAN UP VEGETABLE GARDEN: In the fall, it is a good practice for vegetable gardeners to clean up the garden by removing plants that are done producing or killed by frost. Plants without any obvious disease problems may be chopped up and composted. However if the plants were diseased, do not use them in a compost pile. Once you have the plants removed, add organic matter to the soil by tilling in finished compost or chopped up leaves.

PRUNING BACK ROSES? If you originally come from a colder area of the country like I do, you are probably familiar with the process of severely cutting back roses in the fall and covering the bushes with soil or a loose mulch for protection from cold temperatures. Because winter temperatures here are usually not bitterly cold, severe fall pruning is not needed and can actually make the plants more vulnerable to cold temperature damage. However, after several hard frosts it is good to prune tall rose shrubs back to a height of about three feet to keep them from blowing about in gusty fall and winter winds and possibly uprooting the plants.

CLEAN-UP FLOWER PLANTERS: Spring is a busy time of year so the more cleanup you do now, the further you will be ahead of the game next season. Take advantage of mild fall days to tidy your flower container gardens. Remove all the plants, roots and all, by pulling or digging. Use a garden knife or a sharp trowel to dig and break up root masses and clumps of potting mix. (If you grew ornamental sweet potatoes, you may find a sizable tuber or “sweet potato” as part of the roots. These are edible, but are most likely not very tasty.)

GARDEN TOOLS: If you put your tools away clean and in good working condition, they will be ready for you next spring when you are anxious to get out and GARDEN! Use a wire brush to clean the soil off your digging tools and then use a flat mill file to sharpen their blades, if needed. Do this by filing away from you using long strokes. If you have not done this before, you can probably find a “how-to” video on-line. For tools with wooden handles, rub the wood with boiled linseed oil. This helps prevent the wood from drying and cracking. If the handle is rough, sand it before applying the oil.

YARD ART: If you have any pottery or concrete bird baths, take time to clean them off and store them in the garage or storage shed. If you leave them out in the yard, any water in them may freeze, causing cracks and chips. I winterize my bird bath by scrubbing out the bowl, wiping it off, and then placing it under the eaves (no room in the garage) with the basin upside down so it will not collect leaves, snow, or rain. If you have a bird bath or fountain that is too heavy to move, drain it, fill the bowl with burlap or blankets to absorb condensation, and then cover it with heavy plastic sheeting to prevent it from filling with moisture. Secure the plastic well to avoid problems with wind. If removable, take fountain pumps indoors for the winter. Also, clean off other types of garden art, like gazing balls and wind chimes, and store them away in the garage.


written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA
published 1/3/14

Many people make lofty resolutions for the new year typically aimed at improving their health or well being, such as losing weight or exercising more. Resolutions for gardeners are often similarly idealistic and directed at becoming a better gardener, such as starting a garden journal or composting yard waste. Resolutions have a tendency to be broken, but here are a few easy-to-attain pragmatic resolutions for gardeners.

Plant More Food: Seed catalogs have already started arriving in the mail. It=s always exciting to see the newest veggies and flowers the seed companies have to offer. Don=t you wish you could plant all of them? If you have the space, consider planting extra vegetables to take to the local food bank next summer.

Expand Your Vegetable Gardening Skills: Try growing a vegetable that you like, but have never grown before. How about potatoes? While potatoes can be purchased locally at very reasonable prices, you would be surprised how good fresh garden potatoes taste, plus you can order special varieties not available in most markets. I=m partial to the red skinned varieties.

Potatoes are planted from Aseed@ that are either small potatoes or larger ones cut up into pieces containing at least one or more buds or Aeyes.@ You can buy seed potatoes locally or mail-order them from a number of seed companies. Two that I like are Potato Garden (formerly Ronniger Potato Farm) at and Irish Eyes at Both are located in the West and offer certified-disease-free and certified-organic potato seed. Order your seed potatoes soon because some of the best varieties sell out quickly.

Plant Some Herbs: Last season I planted annual herbs in a wine barrel container garden. It was nice to be able to go out and get some fresh sweet basil, oregano, or chives for that night=s dinner. Plus, I have some perennial herbs (sage, rosemary, and lavender) planted in my perennial flower bed both for their fragrant foliage as well as their ornamental value.

Not only do herbs provide wonderful flavor to a variety of culinary dishes, but researchers are finding that many add antioxidants and essential nutrients to our diet. Fresh herbs from the garden are the tastiest and highest in their healthful benefits. Most herbs are easy to grow, so try planting some this year.

Grow Your Own Tomato Transplants: If you have a warm sunny window where you can start some seeds, consider growing your own tomato transplants. The choice of the varieties available from local garden stores tends to be somewhat limited. When you grow your own tomato transplants you can plant specific special varieties, such as heat and cold tolerant varieties or heirloom tomatoes with uniquely colored or great tasting fruit.

Heat tolerant varieties (such as like Bella Rosa, Solar Fire, Arkansas Traveler, Phoenix Hybrid, Sioux, and Momostaro) will set fruit even during hot summer weather and the cold tolerant ones (like Glacier, Polar Baby, Polar Star, and Stupice) will set fruit during extended cool spring weather. Last year many gardeners were bereft when their tomatoes didn=t set much fruit due to a long cool spring followed by very hot summer weather. Devoted to tomatoes, Tomato Growers Supply Company at is where you can find many of these varieties.

Read a Gardening Book: Take advantage of this cold and dreary weather to read that gardening book that you never seem time to read during the gardening season. Waiting for me is AHoneybee Democracy@ by Thomas D. Seeley about honeybee behavior and the bees= collective decision making process. Do you have a book waiting for you?

Published: 1/3/2014 9:45 AM


written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA
Published 8/1/2013

I must admit that I’m a bit tired of having to water my large flower pots and container vegetables almost every night. After a month of very hot weather, it has becomes a tedious chore. This is the time of year when gardeners like me would like to sit back and enjoy our gardens, but there is always something to do. Here are some of those gardening ‘to-dos.’

One task I put off during hot weather was deadheading my perennial flowers. I plan to get out there soon and get rid of the many faded flowers. It should make the garden look more tidy and a bit less ragged.

I can’t reach the back of my beds easily with flower shears, so last year I bought a three foot long-reach pruner. It allows me to extend my reach to the back of the bed and cut off the spent flowers there. The ‘cut and hold’ feature of the pruner lets me snip off the stem and hold onto it for retrieval.

Individual cuts for deadheading perennials with lots of stems, such as lavender, is too tiresome of a task for hand shears or a long-reach pruner. To take care of the multitude of flowers stems on perennials like lavender and salvia, I deadhead using a small rechargeable electric hedge trimmer.

Isn’t it amazing how fast some weeds grow in hot weather? I’ve been pretty good about keeping up with weeding even during the hot weather, although some weeds were sneaky and hid under other garden plants. Whatever annual weeds have escaped your past scrutiny, they should now be pulled to prevent them from dropping their seed that will become next year’s weeds. Do not put annual weeds that have already flowered and gone to seed in the compost pile.

Speaking of weeds, do you mulch your perennials and landscape beds? I use shredded bark mulch. A three to four inch layer of an organic mulch like bark provides good weed control and helps conserve soil moisture. Late summer is a good time to think about renewing your mulch if it has decayed to a depth of less than three inches.

Last year at this time of year I was so proud of myself for buying plastic labels and labeling all of my perennials. I could never remember what perennial was coming up where in the garden. This spring I went out to my garden and found that the permanent pen that I had used wasn’t permanent on the labels. I was disheartened to find that the labels were all blank.

Now I have to label my plants all over again. This time I’m going to try a ‘Garden Marker’ pen that is designed for marking plant labels with ink that is UV resistant to reduce fading. There are more expensive labels that I could buy where you engrave the plant names on an aluminum or I could print out names from a label maker. I’ll let you know how it goes. Tip: An even less expensive way to label your plants is to cut off sections of old plastic mini-blinds to use as labels.

Not only is late summer a good time to label your plants, it’s also a good time to assess your garden and see if there are any plants you want to replace or perhaps some empty spaces you need to fill. I have some empty spots thanks to a pesky gopher that killed several plants. The gopher is gone and now I get the chance to try something different.

Even if your garden looks a little worse for wear after our hot spell, the gardening season isn’t over yet. I may be tired of watering, but I am enjoying all the delights of my garden, the flowers, the finches, the dragon flies, and the honeybees. How about you?

Published: 8/1/2013 11:34 AM


written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA
Published 7/4/2013

Garden hoses can be vexing things. They are heavy and a nuisance to haul around the yard, plus they can kink. Nevertheless, they are an essential gardening tool. Last year when we needed a new one, I did not do much research and bought what seemed to be a long-lasting quality hose. The problem was that it weighed a ton and became a chore to move.

I should have taken more time to do my homework. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Garden hoses typically come in two diameters, 5/8 inches and 3/4 inches. You even can find hoses that are one inch in diameter. Many gardeners find that a 5/8 inch hose is adequate for their purposes. The 3/4 inch hoses tend to be more expensive and heavier.

Garden hoses also come in different lengths, from 25 to 100 feet long. Of course, the longer the hose, the heavier and the more costly. (Notice the trend?) The longer the hose, the lower the volume of water per minute that it delivers. To calculate this, go to:

The material a hose is made out of also greatly influences its price. As with any garden tool, the better the quality, the higher the price. Rubber and PVC reinforced hoses generally are more expensive and more flexible. High-end reinforced hoses are more resistant to abrasions, punctures and bursts. You also will find that the more a hose is reinforced, the higher the cost and the heavier the hose. The best-quality hoses will have hexagonal or octagonal brass couplings.

There also are coiled hoses. These are typically 3/8 inch diameter and usually come in 25- or 50-foot lengths. They are made out of polyurethane. They are lighter, easy to get out and use on the patio for watering containers, but they tend to kink when extended and often tangle when coiled.

Quality garden hoses can be pricy. To keep your hose in good condition, here are some tips:

1. Store your hose where it will be protected from degradation by ultraviolet light.

2. Don’t leave the hose where cars or bikes will run over it.

3. Don’t let your hose kink, causing a spot that will be weak.

4. Drain and coil your hose after every use, coiling it into loops about 24 to 36 inches in diameter. Store the coiled hose flat and off the ground in a container like a hose pot. Hanging a hose from a single hook can damage the walls of the hose, so use an arched hose rack. There are also hose reels that can be used to coil and store hoses.

5. Drain the water from the hose before it freezes in the fall and then store it in your garage or storage shed over the winter.

Safety note

Many garden hoses, especially older types, have been deemed unsafe for use for drinking water because of harmful chemicals and heavy metals that they contain. While many of the new hoses today are labeled as safe for drinking water, it’s still best not to make a practice of drinking from them because germs, molds and bacteria can build up inside.

Read more here:

Published: 7/4/2013 3:11 PM


written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

Happy New Year! To tell you the truth I’m never been one of those people who makes New Year’s resolutions. It’s because I’m not sure I could keep them. However, here are a few gardening resolutions I’d like to keep… if I made resolutions.

Keeping a Garden Journal: I admire gardeners who keep meticulous records of what varieties they plant where in their gardens, make notes of when they planted seeds or transplants, record the daily or weekly weather, remark on problem pests, and write about garden successes and failures. As much as I’d like to do that and have even procured a very nice garden journal, I haven’t written down one word.

Of course writing a journal with pen and paper is somewhat outdated today. I could journal with an on-line blog, on a Facebook page, or by twittering. I could even take pictures with my phone’s camera to record the good and the bad. I just might do that, but mind you I’m not making it a resolution.

Buying Only the Seed I Need: I don’t buy much seed anymore since much of my garden consists of perennial plants, ornamental grasses, and flowering shrubs, but when I peruse through seed catalogs I almost can’t resist buying veggies and annual flowers I’d like to try. This is a real problem every year for many gardeners. It’s always fun to try something new, but there’s only so much room in anyone’s garden!

I have the same problem when I find an interesting new plant. I want to buy it without thinking about whether I have the space for it or if it will fit into my design. This is the downfall of many gardeners like me who love plants. Last year I resolved not to keep buying plants just because I was smitten. I amazed myself when I was at a local nursery last summer poised to buy this gorgeous Japanese forest grass variety called ‘Beni-kaze.’ My resolve held and I decided to go home and check to see where I could plant it. Couldn’t find a spot, but I’ll be back for it when one opens up.

Soil Testing: One resolution that I am making is to get my soil tested. Even though I recommend that gardeners get their soil tested, I haven’t followed through myself. A soil test checks the levels of the nutrients in the soil that are essential for plant growth. The soils lab that tests the soil will provide me with a report regarding the level of these nutrients in the soil and indicate the amount of fertilizer needed for good plant growth.

Without a soil test, we gardeners are just guessing what nutrients are needed and are probably over applying some and under applying others. Excessive applications of certain nutrients, especially nitrogen and phoshorus, can cause harm to plants and the environment.

Take Time to Smell the Flowers: Dedicated gardeners can always find something to keep them busy in the garden and usually fail to relax and enjoy what their hard work and loving attention has created. I think more of us should resolve to forget the deadheading, weeding, and watering for a little while each day and take time out to enjoy our gardens. If you don’t have a garden of your own, take a walk through the Master Gardeners Demonstration Garden behind the Kennewick Library on S. Union in Kennewick. There’s always something to see… even in the winter.
Published: 1/6/2012 1:24 PM


written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

Some of you may already know that I am a fan of reality show competitions like Survivor, Top Chef, and Project Runway. Gardeners love plants and find it hard to edit their gardens, to evaluate what’s working well and what’s not. Perhaps it would be easier to vote plants ‘off’ if we consider our landscapes and gardens as ‘reality competitions’ with the plants as the players. Just as in all the human reality competitions, there are ‘players’ or plants with different personalities that emerge over time.

The most obvious are those plants that are overly assertive and egotistical. Aggressive plants that don’t stay put, taking up more space than you allotted or growing larger than you expected. They try to take over the garden and overwhelm the other plants. They are the bullies that no one really likes. Vote them off or relocate them to a spot where they can’t overpower other plants..

There are also the weak players who aren’t well prepared to play the game and fail to perform well under pressure. As plants, they have weak growth and don’t thrive well under stressful conditions. Before voting these off, you may want to try them in a different part of the yard where you can better meet their needs in regards to soil, moisture, or exposure. If they still don’t thrive, vote them off.

Then there are the ‘needy’ players that are more trouble than they are worth. These needy players are the plants that require constant attention. A needy plant may require multiple applications of a pesticide to keep a disease or insect pest problem in check. It could also be a plant that needs constant deadheading to keep it blooming or needs frequent pruning to keep it in check. You may be a tolerant gardener, but too many needy plants take up time and effort that could be spent on other gardening chores or simply enjoying the garden. If I was you, I’d vote them off.

How about the players for which you have great expectations and then they don’t live up to those expectations, such as plants that don’t flower well or have flowers that aren’t like you pictured; plants that are supposed to produce fruit but never do; or trees that don’t turn the nice fall they were supposed to develop. These are the plants that are ‘flying under the radar.’ They don’t excel but they don’t stick out like sore thumbs, but why keep them if they don’t fulfill your expectations? Vote them off if they have no other redeeming qualities that make them worthy of staying.

On the television reality competitions there’s always a catch phrase when a contestant gets eliminated, such as ‘In the world of fashion, you

re either in or you’re out, and you’re out,” or ‘Please pack your knifes and go.’ Survivor has ‘The tribe has spoken.’ Perhaps our reality garden catchphrase can be, ‘It’s time for you to go.’

The plants that remain in the game are the top players who perform well or even better than you expected. They do their intended job in your design and don’t require lots of attention. Playful analogies aside, it’s important to edit and remove plants that aren’t contributing to the overall appearance of your landscape and garden. What plants are up for elimination in your landscape and garden this year?
Published: 2/27/2012 1:18 PM


written by

Marianne C. Ophardt

WSU Extension Faculty

for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA


New and experienced gardeners are always anxious to get their vegetable garden planted in the spring, but warm season crops should not be planted until the danger of frost is past and the soil has warmed up. Recent cool and frosty nights are a reminder that patience is truly a virtue. Wait to plant warm season crops until both warmer days and nights prevail and after the last average date of frost (May 1-15 in our region). Warm season crops include tomato, pepper, eggplant, squash, melon, watermelon, cucumber, potatoes and beans. Planting early and providing frost protection doesn’t really help these plants get a jumpstart on the season because they simply don’t grow when soil and air temperatures are cold.

Cool season crops that thrive in cool early spring weather and soils include lettuce, onions, peas, radishes, rhubarb, and spinach . These crops are planted as soon as you can get outside and work in the garden, typically around the beginning of April in our region. If planted too late, they will grow but will usually “bolt” or start to flower when hot weather arrives, affecting their production and eating quality.

As soon as the soil warms up a bit, usually about the third week of April, other cool season crops can be planted. These include beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chard, kohlrabi, parsnips, early potatoes, and turnips. Broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower are typically set out in the garden as transplants and not started from seed.


Some vegetable crops are more successful when started from seed indoors, giving them a head start on the season. The crops that do best planted out in the garden as transplants are tomato, hot pepper, sweet pepper, and eggplant. Other crops do better when directly seeded in the garden. This includes beans, corn, carrots, radishes, and onions.

Melons, cukes, and squash are so easy to plant from seed, that it’s best to directly seed them in the garden, but some long season varieties may benefit from that little head start that transplants provide. However, melon, watermelon, squash, and cucumber transplants should be relatively young and small with only about two true adult leaves when placed in the garden. Larger transplants in small pots will suffer from root damage and stress when transplanted in the garden, losing any potential advantage.


Planting from seed is easy, but care should be taken to plant it at the correct depth. When planted too deep, seed may not come up. Usually the seed packet will tell you the correct depth but here’s a good rule of thumb: small seeds (lettuce, radishes, carrots, cabbage) are planted one-half inch deep, medium sized seeds (beets) three-quarters inch deep, and large seeds (beans, squash, corn) one inch deep.


Often gardeners will pre-soak the seed of certain slow-germinating vegetables to encourage quicker sprouting in the garden. Seeds typically pre-soaked for 24 hours before planting include beets, peas, and spinach. Some gardeners also soak bean, corn, and squash seed, but this isn’t usually necessary if you keep the garden soil moist after planting.

Published: 4/23/2011 10:37 AM


written by

Marianne C. Ophardt

WSU Extension Faculty

for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

Nice weather last weekend beckoned me out into the yard and garden to take another look around to see what plants are doing well, which ones aren’t, and what garden chores need to be put on my to-do list.

Several weeks ago it looked like most of my landscape plants had made it through the winter unscathed by the drastic cold snap we experienced in early winter. However, this time my scouting revealed that my Fairy rose that was planted in a wine barrel has succumbed to the cold despite appearing to sprout buds earlier.

It saddens me because it was a favorite of mine and had made it through several winters in past years without any trouble. The Fairy rose is fully hardy for our zone, but since the cold temperatures came so early in the season, it may not have reached its full hardiness at that time. Plus, when you put a woody plant in an aboveground container, it’s roots, are exposed to much colder temperatures than when they’re planted in the ground and insulated by the soil.

I’m not sure whether to replace my prized Fairy with another of the same or look for a hardy carpet or groundcover rose. The groundcover rose that I planted in another wine barrel, came through the winter without any damage. But before I yank the seemingly dead Fairy out, I’m going to give it just a little more time to see if any new sprouts develop from the base.

There are some blank spaces amongst the perennials and I suspect that my Agastache (hyssop) and Echinacea (coneflower) may have been lost. I’ll wait a couple more weeks and check again. I definitely lost a trailing rosemary that suffered a little damage last year, but managed to pull through. This year it’s deader than the proverbial doornail. Luckily, I had planted the hardy ‘Arp’ rosemary last year and it made it through the winter with flying colors along with my various sage plants.

My bright yellow and green Emerald

n Gold Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei) lost most of its leaves over the winter. This wasn’t unexpected since it’s described as a “semi-evergreen,” keeping most of its leaves during mild winters and losing them during our colder ones. Earlier it looked pretty pathetic, but now bright golden new growth is sprouting and the plant just needs a few snips here and there to get it back in shape. “Wait and see” is always a good practice when assessing winter injury.

While gardeners like me may mourn the loss of a prized plant after a cold winter, they also look at these losses as opportunities to try something new. That’s one of the fun parts of gardening. Have you found any new opportunities in your garden this spring?

Published: 4/17/2010 1:30 PM


written by

Marianne C. Ophardt

WSU Extension Faculty

for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

The secret is out. More people are growing their own vegetables than ever before. According to the Garden Writers Association, American gardeners will be spending more money on growing veggies than on lawn care this year. Lawn care had taken the top dollar award for several years.

While home gardeners will be growing more veggies, they will probably be looking for ways to conserve space in the garden, since the average size of yards has declined in recent years. So what can be done to make the most of the both space and time?

Square Foot Gardening: This vegetable gardening concept especially appeals to both engineers and gardeners who want to make the very most of their gardening space. This intensive gardening concept was developed by Mel Bartholomew, a retired civil engineer who introduced the concept in his 1981 book, Square Foot Gardening. Instead of planting in rows, Mel divides the garden space into a grid of one foot squares. Plants are placed based on the space they need in this square foot scheme, such as one tomato plant or eight pole beans in one square foot. Cool, season crops like spinach are planted first, harvested and then replaced later with warm season crops, like tomatoes and squash.

The concept includes raised beds that are 4×4 feet, 4×8 feet, or even 4×12 feet. The raised beds are supposed to eliminate the need to till every year and also make weed management easier. While it’s intensive gardening, Bartholomew designed it to be efficient, requiring both less labor and less space than traditional row crop gardening while producing more veggies per square foot of garden area. You can find out more at or look for his newest book, All New Square Foot Gardening. You can see square foot gardening in action in the WSU Master Gardener Demonstration Garden in Kennewick. One of the raised beds in the Vegetable Theme Garden is a square-foot garden.

Another trend in vegetable gardening is “edible landscapes” or incorporating edibles amongst landscape and flowering ornamentals. Many vegetables can be quite ornamental and even exotic looking, such as “Bright Lights” swiss chard with dark green crinkled leaves contrasted by their bright yellow, pink, and purple stems. One particularly ornamental vegetable is rhubarb, especially the variety with red stalks. I’m growing one in my landscape just for it’s large dark green leaves.

Even a bush zucchini squash can look intriguing with its large green mottled leaves. Consider bush forms of veggies with colorful fruit, such as purple-podded bush beans or golden peppers, to add color to the landscape. Herbs, like sage and rosemary, also tend to be very ornamental and fit particularly well in to low-water-use landscapes.

Edible landscapes can also include fruit growing, such as planting a plum tree for one of your smaller flowering trees. There are also ornamental groundcover strawberries that have small edible fruit. Grapes can provide both an attractive arbor or pergola cover while also producing fruit.

So as you plant your garden this year, consider ways that you can make the most of the growing space you have available… without having to plow up large areas of ground for a labor intensive garden.

Published: 5/9/2009 3:09 PM


written by

Marianne C. Ophardt

WSU Extension Faculty

for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

Seed companies and garden product marketers have noted that more and more gardeners are growing their own vegetables. While it’s still too early to plant most things in the garden, now is a great time to start getting the garden ready for planting.

Gardeners are known for complaining about two things they can’t do much about, the weather and their garden soil. Local gardeners are no exception. If we aren’t complaining about the wind, then we’re complaining about the heat, or maybe even the rain in the spring!

When it comes to soils, there’s quite a bit of variability in our region. Some gardeners have a silty loam and others like me have a fine sand. If you aren’t familiar with these terms, they refer to the texture of the soil and the size of the soil particles. Sandy soil has relatively large soil particles, silt has small particles, and clay has extremely small soil particles. There are very few clay soils in our region.

The larger the soil particle size, the more easily water enters the soil and the more quickly it dries out. The smaller the particles, the slower water enters and the slower it dries out. Also, the smaller the particles, the greater the soil’s ability to retain nutrients. Whatever your soil’s texture, you’re pretty much stuck with these physical properties. Complaining won’t help, but adding organic matter can.

In our shrub-steppe area, there isn’t much organic matter in the soil when we first start farming or gardening a piece of land. By adding fresh organic matter, we provide food for soil organisms. These organisms, including bacteria, fungi, insects, and worms, feed on the organic matter. Their feeding activity glues soil particles together. This improves the soil structure, creating a more crumbly soil that is easier to work and one that water enters more easily.

The ideal soil is one that’s dark and crumbly soil with good “tilth.” Even the very best local gardeners will have a hard time attaining and maintaining this ultimate goal, because organic matter disappears quickly under our arid climate conditions. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try!

Organic matter is indeed wonderful stuff. As you get the garden ready to plant in the spring, it’s a good time to add organic matter to the soil. Many gardeners add compost to their garden soil in the spring. While compost doesn’t provide much food for the soil organisms and contribute to soil tilth, it does help improve soil conditions. Water will enter the soil more easily and you won’t have to water as frequently.

Compost is a great way to recycle yard waste and is a good soil amendment, but fresh organic matter is even a better soil builder because the decay organisms are active in the soil. Fall is the best time for adding fresh organic matter to the soil. Two of the most common fresh organic matter sources are herbicide and weed-free grass clippings and fallen leaves. The organisms have all fall, winter and early spring to work on breaking down the organic matter.

There are other sources of organic matter that gardeners might consider incorporating into their garden soil or their compost piles. I’m often asked about adding sawdust, wood chips, moldy straw, and animal bedding mixed with manure. These are called “high carbon” or “brown” materials. The soil microorganisms involved in decay require nitrogen. When you add high carbon materials to the soil, the microorganisms use the available nitrogen in the soil for the decomposition process. This produces a nitrogen deficiency in the soil until the materials are fully broken down. To grow healthy plants, additional sources of nitrogen have to be applied to compensate for the nitrogen deficiency brought about by the high carbon organic matter. Because they break down so slowly and create a problem with nitrogen deficiency, it’s best to avoid adding high carbon organic matter to the garden or the compost pile.

Finally, a word to the wise… when adding organic matter to the soil, use no more than one-third by volume. If you spade or till to a depth of six inches, only add a two-inch layer to the top before you mix it in with the soil.

Published: 3/7/2009 2:52 PM

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