Master Gardener: Starting with soil |

Master Gardener: Starting with soil

Estella Heitman
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
A Colorado State University Extension soil sample kit. (Courtesy photo)

It is spring, and Routt County gardeners are eager to get outside and start the best growing season ever. However, here in the High Country, early planting is a very risky business. In fact, best advice is to delay planting until mid-June.

What you can do right now, however, is to get down to the basics and make sure you are providing the best opportunity for your plants to grow. Specifically, get to know your soil and amend it if needed. The very best advice is to test the existing soil in the area where you want to plant.

Soil sample kits are available at the Routt County Extension office, 136 Sixth Street in Steamboat Springs. For a nominal fee, one can know exactly what type of soil you have and what may be needed to amend optimally.

A soil amendment is any material added to a soil to improve its physical properties. On clay soils, soil amendments are designed to improve soil aggregation, increase porosity and improve aeration and drainage. On sandy soils, soil amendments are designed to increase water and nutrient holding capacity. A soil amendment is not the same as mulch. Mulch is left on the soil surface to reduce evaporation and inhibit weed growth. An amendment, on the other hand, is worked into the existing soil. Soil amendments are classified as organic (from sources previously alive) and inorganic. Over time, organic matter improves soil aeration, water infiltration, water and nutrient holding capacity. Organic matter is an important energy source for bacteria, fungi and earthworms that live in and enrich the soil.

Not all amendments sold on the retail market are suitable for Routt County soils. Soil in Colorado is typically high in pH and salt. Products high in pH and salt should not be used as soil amendments in our area. Wood ash, for example, is not a suitable amendment choice for Colorado.

Sphagnum Peat is a good choice as a soil amendment, especially for sandy soils. Sphagnum Peat is generally acid and can help with plants which require a more acidic soil.

Fresh manure can harm plants due to high ammonia levels. Fresh manure may contain human pathogens and should not be used with edible plants. Only aged or composted manure, piled for at least six month, is suitable as a soil amendment. All manure, aged and fresh, may contain unwanted grass and weed seeds. Manure, including aged manure, may increase salt levels in the soil and should always be used with caution.

Compost is decomposed organic matter. Unfortunately, compost is not a regulated product, so there is no standard regarding the state of decomposition. In Colorado, bagged and bulk composts may be a combination of plant-based compost, manure-based composts, biosolids and other agriculture by-products. Compost made from plant-based products are generally low in salts and are preferred over manure- based composts.

For more complete information regarding soil amendments and recommendations for application amounts visit or

Estella Heitman is a Master Gardener who has made her retirement home in Routt County for the past 12 years after many years of part-time residency. Migrating from the Midwest, she had many lessons to learn as a transplanted High Country gardener. She enjoys the challenges and joys of gardening in the mountains at 8,000 feet elevation at her home near Stagecoach Reservoir.

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