Whenever I am asked how I can improve my horrible garden soil, I patiently say you need to add three things. The first is organic matter the second is organic matter and the third is also organic matter.
Over the years, as a general category, I have probably had more questions about soil improvement than any other gardening topic.
The reason is that without good soil, people could not grow healthy trees, green lawns, luscious vegetables, sweet and juicy fruit, or beautiful ornamental flowers.
Virtually all Utah soils need improvement. They have either too much clay or too much sand. Correcting the problem on paper is very simple. Getting it done in the garden requires a great deal of effort. A good place to start is a soil test from Utah State University Extension Service soil testing.
Organic matter basically comes from two sources: animal products or compost. Composted animal products can be high in salt. Those that are not properly composted also tend to have high amounts of weed seeds that will infest your garden.
The other source of organic matter comes from plant materials. These include composted urban green waste such as bark chips, tree prunings, grass clippings and other landscaping materials.
While these do not have the salt problems found in animal products, they tend to be low in nitrogen. Add additional nitrogen in the form of 1 pound of nitrogen per 100 pounds of garden waste to allow plants to get sufficient nutrients.
The next question is, "What is good organic matter?" This is one of my favorite times of the year because products are available for free in abundant quantities. I'm talking about the free organic matter that rains down from the sky each fall.
Tree leaves are one of the great materials to recycle in your garden. The price is right because they're free. The quantities available are almost endless if you live in the right neighborhood and are not afraid to ask around.
A great way to help some aging neighbors is to just offer to rake their leaves and dispose of them. Very few people will turn you down on that offer unless they are looking for the same materials for their garden.
The third thing that is great is that leaves come with almost no seeds in the fall. While many seeds drop earlier, those that are dropping now are not likely to have many viable seeds in them.
The nitrogen problem is easy to solve. Spread a 1-inch layer of shredded leaves onto your garden and 1 pound of ammonium sulfate. If you want to be more scientific, add 5 pounds of ammonium sulfate per 100 pounds of shredded organic matter.
The next question is, "Where do I get the organic matter that I want?" There are many different sources ranging from picking it up yourself in the neighborhood or the landfill, to having it delivered in a giant blower truck and having it placed exactly where you want it in your landscape.
Most of the major cities along the Wasatch Front participate in some sort of composting project. They take the green waste that comes from the garden areas and recycle that into some sort of landscape product.
Most of these are not animal-based materials so the risk from salt is quite low. However, that means there are a few, if any, nutrients available in these products. Add the appropriate amount of fertilizers to supplement these when growing plants.
Animal-based products come from many sources, including turkey manure, feedlot and dairy waste, chicken manure and a few others. These are more likely sold in bags unless you go to where they are "manufactured" and haul them in bulk.
Check the sources, check the prices, and check the salt and/or the weed seed problems. Make your decision and then get at least a couple of inches onto your garden area each season.
The final question is, "Why do it now rather than later?" As a gardener, think in terms of doing garden jobs early when you possibly can. Spring is a very busy time for gardeners, and this warm, dry weather is a blessing for getting a few additional garden tasks completed.
Red Butte Garden is sponsoring "Barking Up the Right Trees," Nov. 10, 10-11:30 a.m. The workshop will teach participants about rough, slick, papery and peeling surfaces of different trees in the gardens and how to make bark rubbings. For more information, contact Maddie Keyes, 801-581-8454.
Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.