The dirt on soil in the High Country |

The dirt on soil in the High Country

Dear Eartha,

Last year was my first attempt at gardening. I did everything I thought I needed to do. Sadly, my vegetables did not do well, and the perennial flowers limped and have not returned this year. Could my soil be the problem?

— Andre (Blue River)

Gardening in the High Country poses a large list of challenges. To achieve success, it is best to work from the ground, up! We live in the Rocky Mountains, so removing rocks is a great first step to improving your soil. However, this act alone will not improve acidity or compaction. Often, we must amend our soil with compost and fertilizers. By testing the quality of your soil, you can best prescribe a treatment plan.

Soil characteristics to consider include texture, structure, color and acidity. Texture is determined by deciphering the percentages of gravel, sand, silt and clay.

Structure refers to the different sizes and shapes of soil particles. Large granules leave pockets for air to collect and water to run through. Compare this to tiny fine particles, compressed together, that restrict movement and inhibit root growth. Compacted soil is common to the High Country and is nearly impossible to correct. Excessive tillage will deplete organic matter, contribute to runoff and causes compaction of the lower levels of soil. It’s best not to stomp through your garden; instead, use wood or stone walkways. Exercise extreme caution when it is raining and your soil is soggy.

Many factors influence the color of your soil, but, often, dark dirt indicates a high concentration of organic matter. Red can mean high levels of iron. Grey and yellow-brown soils can be a sign of poor drainage.

When considering soil acidity, farming requires a neural pH. Below five is far too acidic and above eight too alkaline. Perennial flowers prefer a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. Most vegetables thrive between 6.5 and 7.0 pH. Potatoes and blueberries are the exceptions; they actually prefer a moderately acidic soil. Adding organic matter will create a more neutral pH, and limestone causes soil to become more alkaline.

To avoid the burden of second guessing yourself, the best way to ascertain soil quality is to collect a sample and have the Colorado State University Extension conduct a formal assessment.

Amending your soil will improve its quality, resulting in beautiful blooms and a bounty of vegetables. Adding organic matter increases your soil’s ability to store water, facilitates better drainage, decreases problems caused by plant diseases and insects, supplies nutrients and nurtures an ecosystem. Earthworms and micro-organisms living in the dirt assist with decomposition and plants’ ability to consume nutrients.

Not to be confused with mashed chickpeas spread on a pita, humus is a dark-colored, stable form of organic matter that remains after most of the plant and animal residues in it have decomposed. When macro and micro-organisms digest organic matter (i.e. chopped leaves or weeds) humus is the end product.

Raw-animal manures are a less stable option for amending soil. Unless cured properly, manure releases highly-soluble nitrogen compounds and ammonia, which burns roots and interferes with seed germination. However, weed seeds are often the exception and will survive digestion, spreading where the manure is applied. Never, ever, place pet pooh into your garden because it is a health hazard. If you do chose to use manure as a fertilizer, mix it into the compost pile or make a tea.

Summit County’s cool temperatures pose a challenge for the decomposition process. Fortunately, the High Country Conservation Center is a wonderful resource for information, and they offer classes. Even better, you can participate in HC3’s compost program and the Summit County Resource Allocation Park sells compost. High Country Compost is extremely cost effective, produced locally and is ready to directly apply to flower beds and vegetable gardens.

Once you have determined a plan of action, it is equally important to exercise caution. Too much of a good thing can have serious consequences when it comes to applying compost and fertilizers. A friend of mine made the common mistake of over feeding his lilac bush. While he had intended to nourish the bush and fuel the production of fragrant blooms, the excess nitrogen fostered vegetative growth rather than encouraging flowering.

Plants go through different phases of growth and can only focus the bulk of their energy into one phase at a time. They require different nutrients for different phases and can only consume so much of a nutrient. Excess often displays similar symptoms of deficiency. Misdiagnosing, then, perpetuates the problem as you continue to add even more soil amendments. The unused nutrients cause salts to build-up in your soil and increase the acidity.

If you are interested in learning more about soil science and gardening in general, check out HC3’s library on Frisco Main Street. A couple of books to consider are “The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient Rich Food” and “The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet.”

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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