Building and working to maintain healthy soil


By Robin Young | PREVIEW Columnist

Even if there is snow on the ground, it’s time to think about your plans for gardening. 

Whether you are growing grass, vegetables or flowers, if your soil isn’t healthy, your plants won’t be either. Soil health can be defined as its continued capacity to sustain plants, animals and humans. 

A healthy soil supplies plants with nutrients and water needed for growth and reproduction. Plants also need oxygen from the soil for root function. A healthy soil is a living, breathing ecosystem. Billions of microorganisms can be found in one cup of healthy soil and their job is to keep the ecosystem running smoothly. Management choices that provide a healthy habitat for both soil microorganisms and roots will promote a thriving plant community and garden.

How can we build and maintain soil health? Amend it. A soil amendment is any material added to a soil to improve its physical properties, such as water retention, permeability, water infiltration, drainage, aeration and structure. The goal is to provide a better environment for roots. 

Soil amendments for clay soils improve the soil aggregation; increase porosity and permeability; and improve aeration, drainage and rooting depth. A variety of products are available bagged or bulk for soil amendments. However, soil amendments are not regulated. Many are extremely high in salts. With Colorado’s large livestock industry, manure and manure-based compost are readily available. These are often high in salts, limiting application rates. Use with caution.

Plant-based composts are low in salt. These may be applied at higher application rates, more effectively improving the soil. Plant-based composts are typically higher in price.

To do its work, an amendment must be thoroughly mixed into the soil. If it is merely buried, its effectiveness is reduced, and it will interfere with water and air movement and root growth.

Amending a soil is not the same thing as mulching, although many mulches also are used as amendments. A mulch is left on the soil surface. Its purpose is to reduce evaporation and runoff, inhibit weed growth and create an attractive appearance. Mulches also moderate soil temperature. Organic mulches may be incorporated into the soil as amendments after they have decomposed to the point that they no longer serve their purpose. Deal with soil compaction — soil needs pore space to facilitate air and water movement into and through the soil. Compaction decreases porosity in the soil — slowing water drainage and restricting oxygen for roots.

See CSU Extension GardenNotes and Fact Sheets ( for information on dealing with soil compaction, irrigation management, and the proper use of fertilizers and organic amendments.

Upcoming events

Please visit our Facebook page and website to register for the following events. 

March 2 — Livestock and Forage Growers Online Update. A Western Slope outlook.

March 11 — Landowners workshop. Extension building, 9 a.m. to noon.

March 18 — Seed Class and Swap, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

April 29 — Viticulture Workshop. Details to be determined. 

May 10-11 — Certified seed potato will be on sale for $2 per pound. This year, we will not be taking orders; it is a first-come, first-served service. Please bring your own bag or box to take your seed home. 

CPR and first aid classes

CPR and first aid certification classes are offered monthly by the CSU Extension office, generally on the second Monday and Wednesday of each month from 6 to 10 p.m. The cost for the classes is $80 for combined CPR/first aid and $55 for CPR, first aid or recertification. Call the Extension office at (970) 246-5931 to register.

Visit online

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