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The dirt on gardening

If you have the right soil, nearly anything can grow

Cooks will tell you it's mostly about using the best ingredients. For gardeners, it's all in the soil. If you have the soil right, you can plant anything and it will grow. If you don't have the soil right, you can grow many things poorly and cause many to die.

How much do you know about your soil?

Do you know the pH balance? Do you know its density? Do you know how well it retains water, air and nutrients? Do you know if it is alive or dead?

Do you know the importance of fungi in your soil or how it can cause problems? When was the last time you amended your soil with compost?

These are all factors in how your garden will or will not grow. The plant selection, the maintenance schedule and quality of maintenance all depend on good soil. Soil makes the garden a place where we glean a reason to exist aside from jobs, our devices and our vehicles.

Here is the recipe for good soil.

Put your hand into your flowerbeds. If you can stick your hand all the way in to the wrist and it feels nice and moist, and you can easily grab a hand full of soil and squeeze it without it being too wet or too dry, you're probably good to go. If your hand can go into the soil easily, then roots can go into the soil easily. Most garden beds are not that good, so they need amending.

You can have your soil tested at a lab but my experience is most soils just need compost fertilizer and good hard work.

Fungi make the soil alive. They break down organic matter, creating a rich environment for bacteria, worms and other microorganisms that make for healthy biodiversity. Compost is the simplest way to get good fungi growing in your soil.

Now, start looking at nursery flowers. Visit several different places that sell plants, especially annuals. While you're waiting for your soil test to come back or you are building your soil, look at all the different colors and types of plants coming in to nurseries now. Take notes. If you don't do your homework you will not have a good flower bed. Hint: Both Sloat Gardens and the San Jose Mercury News have plant lists online.

Now is the time to get amendments. Almost all soils need amendments once a year. What are amendments? Compost is the primary amendment. There's organic compost and redwood compost (made from ground up sawmill trimmings and amended with nitrogen). There's mushroom compost, horse manure and cow manure. There's kitchen waste compost. There is homemade compost and there's commercial compost. What's the best? It's a good idea to research this.

Depending on what kind of compost you've decided to use, determine how much you need for the amount of soil surface and depth you want to use it for. For example, I like to use redwood compost. I put on about four inches on the surface of any soil and I dig it in about 10 inches. Mix the soil and compost really well.

Once you're finished amending your soil, you can buy some plants. Take a list of types of plants you think will look good, and calculate roughly how many plants your going to need for your bed. Add 10 percent more just in case. It'll probably save you an extra trip to the nursery to fill in the holes.

Plant all in one day. Place all the plants (still in their pots or six-packs) where you want them to go. Stand back and look at the whole scene to make sure that it looks right. Then plant all the plants.

Fertilize the whole bed. What kind of fertilizer should you use? If you're an organic gardener you're going to use organic fertilizer which requires a bit more research. You have to learn about chicken manure and green sand, cottonseed meal, seaweed, bat guano, alfalfa meal, blood meal and bone meal. Then mix up your own recipe. I can't emphasize enough doing your homework because this can be pretty rich stuff. If you use synthetic fertilizer premixed in packages from stores like Home Depot or Orchard Supply or even the local nursery, follow the instructions on the package.

Once everything is planted and fertilized, water it well. This will set the plants and get the fertilizer down into the root systems. Now it's time to go have a cup of iced tea and sit back and appreciate what you have done.

To keep the moisture in and the weeds down, it is good to add mulch. I usually mulch within a day or so of planting, using two to three inches of fir bark. Once you've mulched, you're done until the next time you need to water. Don't over water, or you will rot the roots (bad fungi) and don't under water or your plants will die. If you stick your finger into the soil and it comes out dry, it's time to water again. Good gardening.

Jack McKinnon is a garden coach and can be reached at 650-455-0687 or on the web at


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