Step by Step to Great Garden Soils

11/14/2012 | Ken Lain, mountain gardener Plant Care, Uncategorized

We know that the better the soil the larger the harvest. Once you have tried digging your first planting hole in a mountain garden you learn that our native soils are HARD ! ! That’s why successful mountain gardening has always come down to soil quality. Skimp on spring soil preparation to “soften” the ground and a garden’s production can drop close to zero.

This week my raised beds are amended, turned, and ready for planting. Let me share a few secrets to mountain soil prep that return bushels of produce and a season full of flowers. Any backyard garden, whether in the ground or in raised beds, requires these easy steps. Container gardens have different requirements that I’ll write about later this month.

The more organic material any soil contains, the better the soil quality. Our mountain soils are hard because they lack organics such as compost, manures, and leaf molds. Because plants use up organic resources throughout the year, new organics must be added to keep the vitality of the soil.

A word of caution for those gardeners new to horse country. You are apt to see a sign in a front yard advertising “Free Manure”. But proceed with caution before you haul away this free organic additive for your garden. Horse manure is a great source of organic nitrogen, but not until it is aged. So, never introduce fresh manure into your garden. The salt and nitrogen damage is unpredictable.

We all know that whatever goes into a horse’s mouth comes out the other end. That includes weeds as well as straw and hay. Also, grubs that we don’t want in a garden like and can find their way into the warmth of a huge pile of manure. The only way to get fresh manure suitable for gardening without the weeds and bugs is to age it, also known as composting it. You must compost it and check that there are no large white bugs eating at the middle of the pile. If this scenario isn’t for you, fear not. Read on and you’ll learn that you don’t have to deal with fresh manure to enjoy the pleasures of a successful garden.

For my smaller garden plots I use deodorized ‘Barnyard Manure’ that comes bagged and ready to add to the garden. This aged poop has a mixture of mature manure types, it doesn’t smell, and it isn’t slimy. This year my gardens received a generous dose of 50% Barnyard Manure and 50% Organic Mulch.

The mulch and manure additives ensure proper drainage, root growth, and water retention for your garden. But, certain mountain plants require calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and some other minor elements, all of which should be added to garden soil.

So, before turning the compost additives into the planting bed, add two sources of nutrition. The first is a layer of gypsum, also known as calcium sulfate, the most effective source of calcium for plants. The second is an organic plant food of your choice. I definitely recommend 100% organic “Tomato & Vegetable Food 4-4-6” for herb and vegetable gardens. It also works well in flowerbeds to produce amazing colors!

Soil pH creeps up during the growing season. This is a problem that results from poor water and one that must be corrected to keep plants in the ideal 6.5 – 8.0 pH range. In garden soil with more than an 8.0 pH production stops, fruit drops, the plants yellow, wilt, and finally drop their leaves. Granular “Soil Sulfur” turned into your garden soil to one shovel’s depth is the correction to bad garden pH, and every mountain garden needs it.

In summary, here is the formula of soil amendments and additives to use this spring: Begin with a 2-inch layer of 50% composted mulch and 50% deodorized manure. On top of this organic layer sprinkle the recommended rates of gypsum, organic Tomato & Vegetable Food, and Soil Sulfur. Turn these to one shovel’s depth into your garden soil and you are ready to plant.

Freshly turned soil is light and airy, so tread carefully on your amended garden soil so it retains this texture. Walk on predefined paths or use a wood plank to walk over the soil without compacting it unnecessarily. Deeply water the garden soil two times before planting. This will reduce damage if too much manure was added or if it congregated unevenly into the soil.

Exact additive amounts were not given in this column because those depend on the size of your garden plot. So visit me, or the staff at your favorite garden center, for exact quantities of each additive to purchase, remembering to bring along your garden measurements.

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Featured plant of the week is the “Mammoth Prescott Pansy”. This special variety was found to deliver monstrous blooms that look you in the eye while beaming a smile from a huge monkey-like face! Within a few days after planting the ankle-high foliage is smothered with flowers that love our inclement spring weather. If you need a post–winter garden blossom fix this pretty plant is oh-so-easy to grow. It’s available in small and large ready-to-plant sizes that rarely exceed the $6 mark, so it’s easy on the wallet, too.

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A contest reminder to my Facebook fans: I’ll be asking for photos of your best-looking container gardens later this spring. Post your photos, view all the postings, and vote on the photos you like most. Those with the most votes win garden prizes. So, go ahead, stack the deck by having your friends vote for your photo; the more gardeners involved the better! You could easily be the winner! Become a fan and subscribe to my page at

Until next week, I’ll see you in the garden center.