Prepare your soil

Seed companies and garden product marketers have noted that more gardeners are growing their own vegetables.

While it's still too early to plant most things in the garden, now is a great time to start getting ready for planting.

When it comes to soils, there's quite of bit of variability in our region. Some gardeners have a silty loam and others have a fine sand. There are very few clay soils in our region.

The larger the soil particle size, the more easily water enters the soil and the more quickly it dries out. Also, the smaller the particles, the greater the soil's ability to retain nutrients. Whatever your soil's texture, you're pretty much stuck with these physical properties.

In our shrub-steppe area, there isn't much organic matter in the soil when we first start farming or gardening a piece of land. By adding fresh organic matter, we provide food for soil organisms. Their feeding activity glues soil particles together. This improves the soil structure, creating a more crumbly soil that is easier to work and one that water enters more easily.

The ideal soil is one that's dark and crumbly soil with good "tilth." As you get the garden ready, it's a good time to add organic matter to the soil.

Many gardeners add compost to their garden soil in the spring. While compost doesn't provide much food for the soil organisms and contribute to soil tilth, it does help improve soil conditions. Water will enter the soil more easily and you won't have to water as frequently.

Compost is a great way to recycle yard waste and is a good soil amendment, but fresh organic matter is even a better soil builder because the decay organisms are active in the soil.

Fall is the best time for adding fresh organic matter to the soil. Two of the most common fresh organic matter sources are herbicide and weed-free grass clippings and fallen leaves.

Because they break down so slowly and create a problem with nitrogen deficiency, it's best to avoid adding high carbon organic matter, such as sawdust, wood chips and moldy straw, to the garden or the compost pile.

Finally, when adding organic matter to the soil, use no more than one-third by volume. If you spade or till to a depth of six inches, only add a two-inch layer to the top before you mix it in with the soil.

* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Extension Office in Benton County.