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Is Your Soil Alive?


If there's one adage that today's gardeners should imprint on their spades that will encourage plants to flourish, it's this: Never treat your soil like dirt.


Somehow, say gardening experts, many people have the misguided idea that soil is just a place to put plants. What they don't realize is that soil has a life all its own.

"A healthy soil contains a high degree of beneficial microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi," says Steve Hollister, a California-certified nurseryman and manager of the Armstrong Garden Center in Irvine. "It's a very complex world down there that most people don't give a thought to."

It's these millions of microorganisms living in the soil that accomplish a number of critical tasks, including digesting and converting various raw materials, such as fertilizer, into a form that plants can then absorb through their roots.

So what does healthy garden soil full of friendly microorganisms look like?

"High-quality soil has a lot of air space, which gives bacteria room to grow. Rich soil crumbles when you dig into it and is easily penetrated by water," Hollister says. A healthy garden soil also harbors lots of worms.

Not surprisingly, ideal soil isn't easy to find.

"What is more common in Orange County is hard clay soil that sticks together in mud gobs," Hollister says. "This soil type has small pore space, which offers very little room for air and water penetration and makes it extremely difficult for soil bacteria to thrive."

Another not-so-perfect soil also found in this area, though in less abundance, is sandy soil. "Sandy soil has no binding or water retention ability at all. You couldn't make a clod out of it if you tried," Hollister says.

Although Orange County soil isn't the best, it is possible to make your soil a healthier home for your plants. Just ask Marie Bouse, president of the Orange County chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers. Her soil was dying before she began properly caring for it.

"My soil was crusty and hard, and the plants were really doing poorly. Every year my crops produced less and less," the Santa Ana resident says. "I'm sure the microorganisms weren't dancing around in that hard, compacted soil--and my garden was suffering because of it."

To save her garden, Bouse began giving her soil a good diet of compost and saw a dramatic change. Now her plants are happy and prolific. When she digs into the garden, her spade overturns rich crumbly soil and uncovers lots of wiggly earthworms.

One of the best ways to build your soil is by composting. Compost provides the soil with organic matter that creates air space and is food for microorganisms and worms.

Composting is nothing new. It's a natural process helped along by humans. Leaves, grass, table scraps and other once-living materials decompose naturally, forming a concentrated organic soil conditioner that is rich in nutrients.

Although composting sometimes sounds difficult, it is not a complicated process. Just keep a few simple rules in mind when making your own compost.

Because garden size and space limitations vary, you'll want to carefully consider where you want to compost and what you want to use.

You could try a traditional bin, which should be at least 3-feet-by-3-feet-by-32-inches, or if you aren't as picky about containing your compost, you can simply make a pile. If space is limited, a composting barrel may be your answer. These are specially made elevated barrels that can be turned. Whatever you decide on, it should be in a sunny spot.

Bouse has plants in every available inch of her front and back yard, including a variety of vegetables and 50 fruit trees, so she chose a Kemp barrel, which sits on her patio and doesn't take away garden space.

To make compost, add equal amounts of carbon materials (which are dry and brown, such as straw, sawdust, wood chips, shredded newspaper and cardboard, dried leaves and shredded twigs) and nitrogen materials (generally wet, such as fresh grass clippings, garden trimmings, vegetable and fruit scraps, blood meal, bone meal and manure).

Bouse suggests making composting as simple as possible by using readily available ingredients. To make her compost, she throws into her bin freshly mown grass clippings, fresh horse manure, (which she gets from a nearby stable and says they're glad to get rid of), shredded dry leaves and straw, which can also be found at a stable. Then she sprinkles a little bagged, composted chicken manure over the top of the pile, which activates the compost, giving it a jump-start.

When she's done filling the barrel, she waters it until water just begins to come through the bottom. Then she puts the lid on and turns it to get the air circulating. After it's mixed up, she checks it once again and adds a little more water if it still appears dry. Every couple of days, she turns the composter to keep air circulating. (If you have a bin or pile, it needs to be turned with a shovel or pitchfork regularly).

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