By Jesse Eastman, Owner of Fort Collins Nursery
While there are many steps to creating the perfect landscape or garden, none is more essential than caring for your soil. Many people add an all-in-one fertilizer every spring, applying once and moving on. This is certainly easy, but can actually build up nutrients to levels that are toxic to many plants.
Before adding anything, it’s a good idea to know what’s already in your soil. Basic at-home test kits available at your local garden center can tell you your soil pH, which is a start, but to really know what your soil needs (or doesn’t need), I recommend a Colorado State University soil testing lab kit. The kit is free and available at most garden centers, and for a small fee (usually $40-$50), CSU will run a complete diagnostic for the exact breakdown of your soil’s nutrients and deficiencies.
A complete report is issued, detailing pH, salts, lime, texture, organic matter, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other minerals. They also recommend specific steps to take to balance soil. This information can help you determine exactly what steps are needed to cultivate the right conditions for your landscape or garden. For additional help interpreting your soil report, visit your local nursery – they can help you determine which products to apply to achieve the soil you aim to develop.
Of course, what you add depends largely on what plants you want to grow. If you’re working on your vegetable garden, a rich loamy soil with a good balance of nutrients, neutral to acidic soil, and good drainage may be your goal. On the other hand, if you’re installing a xeriscape with hardy native plants, you’ll want to emulate the native soil, which throughout the Front Range tends to be alkaline, low in organic matter, and often with a high clay content. Remember, not all plants want lush rich soil!
One of the more common things we see in reports brought in by customers is an excess of nitrogen, especially in established landscapes. This is largely due to high-nitrogen lawn fertilizers being applied for years without consideration for what nutrients still remain from previous applications. Yards with poor drainage and heavy soil are the most likely to develop this issue. In instances like these, the landscape can actually benefit more from easing off the fertilizer than from adding more. Excessive nutrients can be toxic on their own, and can also inhibit a plant’s’ ability to uptake other critical nutrients, causing rapid decline.
Ultimately, healthy soil is the key to a strong landscape or garden. More often than not, our customers who struggle keeping plants alive have neglected the soil. They may be doing everything else right – water, pruning, light, mulch, etc, but without good soil, all those other things don’t matter much. You don’t build a house without ensuring a stable foundation. You can’t make a good meal with rotten ingredients. So why try to grow your plants in poor soil?
Originally published on March 31st, 2017. Updated on September 5th, 2019.