Superior Soil

By Stacee Sledge
For the Bellingham Herald

Dave and Teresa Anderson were lucky. After Herald garden columnist George Kaas taste-tested their soil at the Herald’s Garden Makeover winners’ home he declared it in decent shape but in need of nutrients. When they purchased a pH testing kit from Bakerview Nursery, they found that their soil had a pH level of 6.5 – smack dab in the middle of the ideal 5–7 range.

The couple had been mildly surprised to learn that their soil fell short of just right. “When we first moved here I thought this was really good soil, because it wasn’t clay, like at our previous house,” says Teresa. “But George said there wasn’t much organic material in it.”

The long, narrow flowerbed along the west fence line of their property was overrun with kinnikinnick. First, it all had to go to make room for the compost and peat moss.

Ground Work

Fall is the best time to amend soil for the first time, as it gives the added materials time to breakdown. Winter freeze and thaw naturally aerates the soil.

If you must amend only in the spring, test for readiness first. Take a handful of dirt and squeeze it into a ball; if the ball breaks apart easily, the soil is ripe for amending; if it doesn’t, the soil is too moist and you should wait two weeks and try the test again. Working soil too soon in the season can break down its structure.

Nutrients are depleted over the course of the growing season. Always amend soil at the end of the season and add organic matter again in the spring.

Further proving Kaas’ point, they encountered few worms as they dug up the ground cover.

For compost and peat, the Andersons made their way to Cloud Mountain Farm & Nursery on Goodwin Road in Everson. Owners Tom and Cheryl Thornton were extremely helpful in pointing the couple to the correct peat moss for the job, but suggested they travel to Smit Dairy on Meridian in Lynden for top-of-the-line compost manure.

Nathan Smit of Smit Dairy proved just as obliging, as he set Dave and Teresa up with two yards of the nutrient-rich fertilizer.

Once the couple had secured the needed materials, they pushed up their sleeves and dug in, working two bales of peat and two yards of compost into the soil.  

The flowerbed is roughly 7 feet wide and 48 feet long. “It doesn’t seem like so much land when you look at it,” says Teresa. Dave interrupts with a laugh: “But when you’re digging in the dirt, it sure does!”

“We were going to create some distinct berms or mounds for visual interest,” says Teresa, “but George pointed out, since this is a cutting garden, it would be harder to walk on and around. He suggested making the dirt higher at the back, near the fence, sloping gently down to the concrete.” Kaas stopped by a few days later and commended them on a job well done. While there, he helped them place large landscaping stones throughout the bed, adding visual interest.

Dave and Teresa have been doing more than getting their hands dirty. “In the past month,” admits Teresa, “we’ve really only spent a few hours digging in the dirt.

“When you have a full-time job and family commitments, most people can’t and don’t want to spend every minute in their garden,” she adds. “We’ve had a couple hours each week to dedicate to the yard.”

“We’ve spent a fair amount of our time researching plants and looking at fruit trees,” Dave says. “We went down to Wells nursery in Mount Vernon. We’re thinking longer-range and to the final product. Teresa’s been finding bargains.”

Has the work so far been worth it? “There are other thing I’d like to be doing, as opposed to digging in the dirt,” Dave answers with a chuckle, “but if you’ve gotta do it to get to the finished product, you’ve gotta do it.”

Stacee Sledge is a Bellingham freelance writer.

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