Soil, fertilizer key to prepare garden space

KENNEWICK -- Now what? You've decided where to place your garden and how big it will be, plus you've already worked up the soil. (See last week's column on these first three steps.)

The next steps are preparing the soil and fertilizing.

Step 4. Preparing the soil: Few gardeners are satisfied with their soil. Complaints range from soil that's too heavy and poorly drained to soil that's too sandy and dry. The solution for both these problems is the addition of stable organic matter.

Good quality compost is one of the easiest ways to add organic matter to your soil. The compost should be dark and crumbly, with no identifiable chunks of bark, twigs, pieces of wood, or other items. You usually can purchase compost in bulk from a local garden center.

How much is needed? You should never add more than one-third by volume of relatively stable organic matter to your soil. That means if you're working the soil to a depth of six inches, don't add more than two inches of organic matter. Peat moss and coconut coir are two other types of stable organic matter that are readily available to gardeners, but both are considerably more expensive than compost. Some gardeners don't like to use peat because there are environmental concerns about harvesting it from bog ecosystems in Canada. However, the Canadian peat industry is well regulated and harvesting is balanced with restoration practices to protect this natural resource.

If you have concerns about using peat moss, look for coconut coir. Coconut coir is a renewable byproduct of the coconut processing industry and comes from the coconut husk. It's sold in dry compressed "bricks." Look for the fine type, not the coarse, chunky kind, to add to your soil.

To thoroughly mix organic matter into the soil, use a spading fork. This is hard work. If you find the task too backbreaking, consider renting a rototiller. It will also come in handy for working fertilizer into the soil, which is the next step.

Step 5. Fertilizing: If you're starting a garden in a brand new spot and adding organic matter, you'll also want to add some fertilizer. An excellent organic fertilizer is rabbit manure. This is the perfect manure to till into the soil. It's easy to transport and not as smelly as most other manures.

You may be able to find free bunny poop advertised online or in newspaper ads. Start with about 20 to 30 gallons of rabbit manure per 100 square feet of garden area. Other manures will work, but they're often bulkier and smellier, plus some will contain weed seeds that still are viable even after spending time in an animal's digestive system.

Another great source of nitrogen and organic matter for the garden is alfalfa pellets. Alfalfa pellets are dried, ground alfalfa pressed into pellet form. Look for them at a farm and garden store. For adding to the garden soil, use only plain pellets without any additives. Spread about two to three pounds of pellets per 100 square feet of garden area and till them into the soil before planting.

I'm a big fan of bunny poop and alfalfa pellets, but there are also plenty of commercial boxed organic or inorganic fertilizers available that will help your garden grow.

Next week, the final steps before planting.

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