The   magic of compost!! If your soil is too acid, or more likely here in Nebraska too alkaline, the best treatment is compost.  If your soil is heavy clay, add compost to loosen it up.  If it is sandy, add compost to hold fertilizer and moisture.  If you don’t like to use weed killers, try several inches of mulch (compost) so the weed seeds won’t germinate. If your soil seems tired from having the same crop year after year, rejuvenate it with compost which will probably contain the “foods” you need.  If your water bill has been too high, add compost into and on top to prevent evaporation from the top soil and hold moisture in the soil itself.

          When I was on the Master Gardener Hotline at the County Extension office this morning, a caller wanted to know how many bags of compost were in a cubic yard. If you are buying compost by the truck load or in bulk, it is usually sold by the cubic yard. At garden centers, box stores, hardware stores, and farm stores it is sold by the bag. Or here in Lincoln and in many communities you can go out to the recycling center and get free compost as long as you load it yourself. No matter how you get it, when you go to shop you start to wonder how far it will go, and how much should I get?  

          Most garden centers will have a chart that shows how many square feet of area at different depths a bag of compost, wood mulch, bark mulch, rock, and peat moss will cover. Most bags of compost and/or mulch  contains 2 cubic feet. For compost, this will cover about 96 square feet at a depth of one-fourth inch. This is about the right amount to apply to an existing lawn BEFORE you core aerate. If you have a new lawn or want to enhance a lawn that was planted over hard clay soil, at least once per year in the fall or in the spring, add 1/4/inch of compost over the yard and then core aerate. The compost will go into the holes and break up that hard soil. One cubic yard will cover 1,296 square feet at a depth of ¼ inch.

          If you have a new yard or garden and want to work 3” to 4” of compost into that hard clay soil before planting, 1 cubic yard will cover about 325 square feet. To find how many square feet you have in the yard, flower bed, or vegetable garden, measure how long it is and how wide it is in feet and multiply these numbers together. That is the square feet. For example, if the new bed is 12 feet long and 10 feet wide, you have 120 square feet. For irregular beds, just square the corners and you will be close enough.

          Knowing the climate of your yard will make a good deal of difference in how and where you plant.  The amount of sun is number one.  Go outside and wander around at different times of the day and year to find out where the shade falls as well as how heavy it is.  Older yards usually have more shade while a newer one will mean waiting a year or so before planting any shade plants.  Where does the wind usually come from in your yard? Are the flowers heavy so that they will flop in a wind? Is the area low so that the roots are often in water or on a hill that dries out fast?  One hears the word “micro-climate”-meaning a small area different from the rest of the yard.  Apricot trees bloom very early so seldom do we get a good crop. So can you find a spot that stays cold longer in spring to keep them dormant longer?  When I shovel in the winter, I try to throw the snow on my plants to keep them cold longer to avoid the freeze and thaw cycles.  I have had some success keeping plants alive that belong in a warmer zone by putting a cage around them and fill it with leaves or compost after the first freeze.  Some plants are very sensitive to freeze and thaw cycles.

          Drainage is very important.  Many plants like their roots damp but not wet.  If you have a slight slope this helps.  One of the most sensitive plants for me is the Penstemon.  Sand is never recommended as it combines with clay to make cement. But in one area here in Lincoln , I had 12 tons mixed into an area, plus large amounts of compost, in order to get an area to drain.  Depending on the density of your clay, it will take up to a third of the volume of soil to loosen up the area with sand. This is not an easy thing to mix well. Another thing you can do is build raised beds. This will make your soil loose and easy to work. The roots love it where it is easy to travel. 

          Pathways are important to me as I don’t like to compact my beds by walking on them.  Bark paths look good and are easy to walk on.  I can pull weeds after a rain by staying in the path.  They do breakdown and have to be added to. But you can scoop it up and add it to your bed. Gravel paths are the easiest to rake in the fall and if you want to change it can also be tossed into your beds for drainage.  I like to use the little short plants as edges such as Johnny Jump Ups and Snapdragons.

          Spring is a good time to divide those crowded plants. Do this just as soon as you can see they are up so the roots get a chance to develop before it gets too hot.  Virginia Blue Bells are up. Your shovel needs to go quite deep to get a good set of roots.  Blood Root flowers come ahead of the leaves. I like to get a clump rather than single plants as I think they do better.  May Apples are showing pink tops and move very easily. These three all like shade and will disappear when the weather gets hot.  Plants will tell you when they need dividing.  They look pushed together and generally do not bloom as well as before.  Look at the center.  Sometimes it is gone, or may not look as good as the edges, as their roots are too crowded and cannot find food or water.

          Knowing your root systems is important. Large wide root systems that spread out will need a spade.  Some, like Daylilies, work best with 2 spades back to back down through the center. Ornamental grasses may take a chain saw. Bleeding Hearts break very easily so I like to back up a little and get more soil around the roots. Some of the tiny ones near the surface can be divided by a trowel.  Bulbs should not be divided before the foliage turns brown, as they need those food making leaves to build new blooms for the next season.  Peonies have been known to be in the same place for over 50 years without dividing.

Copyright 2009