Spring is only a few weeks away! Frost-hardy vegetables can go in as early as March 15, so it is time to prepare the soil for early planting. Focusing on the soil is as important as, or even more important than, the plants. A healthy soil is one that is loose, fertile, well-drained and has a lot of organic matter. Most of these factors do not occur naturally in a typical northern Nevada soil. Therefore, a gardener has to build a healthy soil in order to have a productive, pest resistant garden.
Adding composted organic matter improves most Nevada soils. In porous, sandy soils, organic matter slows water movement through the soil, increasing the soil’s water-holding capacity. In clayey soils, adding organic matter helps loosen the soil, improving or increasing water infiltration and drainage. Organic material also acts as a holding station for plant nutrients, keeping the nutrients in the soil where they are needed by plants, instead of leaching away. These nutrients are then slowly released for plants to use throughout a season.
In addition to improving water retention, infiltration rates and nutrient availability, composted organic matter is important to the success of the soil food web, the community of organisms in the soil. The living creatures in a soil, such as beneficial bacteria, fungi and worms help change the form of the nutrients to one plants can absorb and use. Keeping the food web microbes and other organisms healthy helps plants thrive.
Compost is the best organic material to mix into the soil to improve it, particularly in the month or so before planting. Never add sand to a clay soil in an attempt to break it up. Sand plus clay can become concrete. You can add finished compost you have made from household vegetable waste and weed- and disease-free garden debris or buy a commercial product. For vegetable gardens, work a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost into the soil 6 to 8 inches deep.
Before you work your soil, make sure it is neither too wet nor too dry to dig. Working a saturated soil will compact it, making it difficult for plants to grow. Heavy, wet soil doesn’t break up into the loose, air-retaining texture best for plants. Dry soil simply blows away when you try to turn it over. Take a handful of soil and squeeze it. If you can create a ball of earth that breaks up readily, it’s dry enough to work.
For more information, contact your local Cooperative Extension office.