The soil in your backyard is one of the most important things to succeeding in the garden. It is about the least understood as well. Having studied soil for five years at Cal Poly, I couldn’t be more passionate about helping folks master the soil in their garden. I figured this month, I’d offer my introduction to the “black gold” much of the Salinas Valley is blessed with.

Most text books define soil as the surface layer of the planet that is capable of supporting plant life. This layer is composed of both organic and inorganic sources. The inorganic components of soil are weathered rock, air, water and minerals. The organic matter is made up of both live and decomposing plant and animal material.

Soil takes many years to form based on the parent material or rock it originates from. I often tell folks just one inch of soil can take thousands of years to form. The breakdown of the parent material is made possible by weathering. This weathering includes physical, chemical and biological processes.

More important than the inorganic components to soil are the organic components. Both live and decomposing plant and animal material in the soil improve aeration and drainage. Many of the more microscopic organisms actually make essential plant nutrients available for uptake by plants. When plants die, the many nutrients they utilized to grow are returned to the soil for use again.

Soil is actually organized into distinct “horizons” for purposes of study. The topsoil is the darker layer that is most important to the plants. The subsoil horizons generally contain more clay and play a key role in storing water. Finally at the deepest layer, we find bedrock or parent material. For most gardeners and landscapers, I often direct the most attention to the topsoil.

Depending on when your home was built, there is a good chance the topsoil was either “graded” off-site or ripped and mixed with the subsoil. Either way, it’s a good idea to add “fresh” topsoil immediately. In addition, I often tell folks to add compost on an annual basis as a way to “invest” fresh organic matter into your garden. This compost adds key organic nutrients and keeps weeds under control. Organic fertilizers are a key annual investment as well. Organic fertilizers break down slowly and feed the soil, which in turn feeds the plants.

In South County, many folks suffer from clay. High doses of organic matter worked deep into the soil help to break up clay. I often recommend gypsum as well. On a microscopic level, gypsum (mostly calcium) helps to break apart the many small “sheets” of clay present in the soil.

Incredible soil is easier to attain than most people believe. The key is both understanding your soil and investing in it. One of the best things you could do is take a sample by a local nursery. Almost immediately, they can offer expert advice and make recommendations for incredible results in the garden.

Owner Steve McShane studied soils for five years at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Steve knows that in order to grow great plants you must have great soil. Don’t worry, even if your property is not blessed with naturally good soil, you can STILL have a beautiful garden. The key rests in investing time and resources in your soil.

Take the time to improve your soil and you’ll spend less time and money watering, fewer plants will become sick and die, and you’ll be able to grow a wider variety of plants. Here are several ways to improve your soil with both existing and new flower beds. Need more help? Look under our “helpful info” tab and there are some great PDF flyers about different products that will help your soil become the best. Here are just a few of the products we keep here at McShane’s Nursery.

How To improve Your Soil For Great Results In the Garden

How To Analyze Soil

How to Get Started in Extreme Gardening