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Building Garden Soil

Soil mixed with compost materials

When planning the garden of your dreams, the best place to start is underfoot – with the soil. A healthy soil is alive with the right kinds of organisms and rich with nutrients, making it the key to a successful garden.

If you’re lucky, you may live on a piece of property that already has a fertile soil. However, you’ll more than likely need to put forth a little work to get a nice, healthy soil.

Raised beds are a popular choice among many gardeners for this very reason. While there is more effort up front in preparing a raised garden for planting, it offers gardeners the option to immediately start with a nutrient-dense soil.

Whether you garden traditionally or in raised beds, a good compost will be essential to building and maintaining a healthy soil over time. Start by selecting a good site for the pile, where it doesn’t interfere with neighbors or your day-to-day outdoor activities. Keep in mind, a compost pile needs to stay wet, yet not saturated, so staying within a hose’s length to water access will mean less effort down the road.

Compost piles should be a minimum size of 3 feet in height, width and length, but can be built as a stand-alone mound or within a homemade bin. Grass clippings, leaves, yard trimmings, small twigs, livestock manure, straw, black and white newspaper, coffee grounds and fruit and vegetable food scraps are all safe to compost. Diseased plants, pet waste, meat, bones, grease and dairy products make the short list of things that should not be composted.

Compost piles work by keeping the soil microorganisms supplied with oxygen, water and plenty of material to feed on. As the pile heats up, decomposition takes place. Regularly turn your compost pile and you’ll have a fresh soil amendment in no time.

An unturned, unattended pile will still turn into compost, but will take much longer. A finished compost, dubbed “black gold” by gardeners and farmers, improves soil’s nutrients, structure and water-holding ability, making it a sustainable addition to any garden.

Emily Wells, WVU Extension Agent – Jefferson County