Ask Eartha: The science behind good gardening soil (column)

Eartha Steward
Ask Eartha

I purchased a home in Breckenridge this winter. Now that the snow is melting, I have discovered there are raised beds in my backyard for vegetable gardening. I am excited to give veggie gardening a try! Can you give me any advice?

— Alex, Breckenridge

What luck, Alex! You are all set to be part of the sustainable food movement in Summit County. In our mountain environment, we have a shorter timeframe to produce local food than the inhabitants of warmer climates. So, it’s a great idea to take advantage of our warm summer months to grow as much as you can.

Success is in the soil

The first order of business is to make sure your soil is healthy and ready to support the bounty of vegetables that you want to grow this summer. It’s a great idea to test your soil before each new growing season in order to have an accurate assessment of which nutrients are lacking and if you need to add soil amendments. Over-fertilizing isn’t good for your garden, so don’t go crazy with fertilizer hoping to cover your bases.

If you’re going to test your soil, be sure to test it before you add any fertilizers or amendments. Soil test kits are available at most home improvement stores. The Colorado State University Extension charges $35 per soil sample, telling you the pH, salinity and nutrient levels in your soil. You can read the instructions and get a copy of their soil testing form at

Once you have the results, you will know if it would be helpful to add amendments such as blood meal (nitrogen), bone meal (phosphorous), alfalfa or kelp to get the proper nutrient levels.

Goods that local gardeners swear by

Do your raised beds need some new soil? The best planting medium for your vegetables is a mixture of 50% to 60% high-quality topsoil and 40% to 50% well-aged compost. Your raised beds should be dark, rich and loaded with microorganisms — imagine the ideal habitat for an earthworm! Many gardeners like to add compost at the beginning of the growing season and will dress their beds again later that season to increase organic matter and boost soil health.

Some great news for you, Alex, is that you don’t need to look far to buy nutrient-rich, local compost. The Summit County Resource Allocation Park has an incredible compost program, utilizing beetle kill, biosolids and local food scraps to create High Country Compost.

I love to see this kind of program: local waste is diverted from the landfill to create a high-quality compost that Summit County gardeners swear by. Vegetable trimmings can be included in food scrap recycling, which goes into a new batch of compost. It’s a perfect, closed-loop system. Check out the websites for the SCRAP or High Country Conservation Center for more information about how to buy High Country Compost.

Get involved, with or without a backyard

For those of you that don’t have raised beds in your backyard, HC3 has three community gardens with garden plots available each summer: Nancy’s Garden in Frisco, Leslie’s Garden in Dillon and the Breckenridge Community Garden on the Colorado Mountain College campus. Summit County residents can “rent” a garden plot for the summer and be part of a fun community of fellow high-elevation gardeners.

The soil in the plots is already amended with High Country Compost, so you have a great planting medium right from the start. To learn more about getting a plot and the kinds of vegetables that grow best in our climate, check out the Community Gardens page on the HC3 website.

Additionally, HC3 and its partners have several free garden workshops in the coming months to help all our local gardeners get ready for veggie-growing season. Highlights include an April workshop geared toward beginners, a May workshop covering slightly more advanced topics, another session on wild edible plants and an opportunity in June to be outside planting gardens with the HC3 gardeners. You are welcome to come to as many of the workshops as you like! The details for these workshops can be found at

Have fun out there, Alex, and don’t forget to wash under your fingernails.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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