Starting a garden in southern Utah

seandrobsFebruary 15, 2008

Hi there,

I'm a first time home owner and have a little bit of red clay dirt in my back yard that i would like to use to plant some vegetables in. What is the best way to do this? I assume I need to bring in all my soil. Should I do a raised bed? Or dig out some of the dirt and put new stuff in? Also any suggestions on planting times for St George Utah would be great.

let me know if I should past this elsewhere.


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You do not need to bring in any soil, but you may need to btring in some organic matter. Since the soil is the single most important part of the garden to an organic gardener, so start there. Contact your local office of the Utah State Universtiy USDA Cooperative Extension Service about having a good, reliable soil test for base nutrient load and soil pH done and then dig in with these simple soil tests to see what you presently do have,
1) Structure. From that soil sample put enough of the rest to make a 4 inch level in a clear 1 quart jar, with a tight fitting lid. Fill that jar with water and replace the lid, tightly. Shake the jar vigorously and then let it stand for 24 hours. Your soil will settle out according to soil particle size and weight. A good loam will have about 1-3/4 inch (about 45%) of sand on the bottom. about 1 inch (about 25%) of silt next, about 1 inch (25%) of clay above that, and about 1/4 inch (about 5%) of organic matter on the top.

2) Drainage. Dig a hole 1 foot square and 1 foot deep and fill that with water. After that water drains away refill the hole with more water and time how long it takes that to drain away. Anything less than 2 hours and your soil drains too quickly and needs more organic matter to slow that drainage down. Anything over 6 hours and the soil drains too slowly and needs lots of organic matter to speed it up.

3) Tilth. Take a handful of your slightly damp soil and squeeze it tightly. When the pressure is released the soil should hold together in that clump, but when poked with a finger that clump should fall apart.

4) Smell. What does your soil smell like? A pleasant, rich earthy odor? Putrid, offensive, repugnant odor? The more organic matter in your soil the more active the soil bacteria will be and the nicer you soil will smell.

5) Life. How many earthworms per shovel full were there? 5 or more indicates a pretty healthy soil. Fewer than 5, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, indicates a soil that is not healthy.

Once you know what you do have then you can begin to make plans to amend that soil to make it into a soil that is good and healthy and will grow strong and healthy plants.

Here is a link that might be useful: Utah State University CES

    Bookmark   February 16, 2008 at 7:02AM
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"The Farmer's Almanac" says your area will be warm in early spring. Looks like your frost danger will be over by April. You can start amending your soil now so that the new ecosystem will have a chance to establish before you plant.

As the other poster mentioned, you will need to add organic matter to your soil. Composted manure is good. Additionally, there are amendments available specifically for clay soil. If your soil has too much clay it will retain too much water, which will cause the roots of your plants to rot. The test kimmsr mentioned for determining how your soil deals with water is a good one.

At this time of year you cannot easily tell whether or not you have earthworms, as they go below the frost line during winter. I live in central New Mexico, the frost line for this area is eighteen inches deep. If your soil is nutrient poor, there will be no earthworms. They can only survive in good soil.

I ordered a batch of a thousand earthworms by mail, when I began to garden in New Mexico. I kept them in a large RubberMaid bin in my house until I had amended the soil sufficiently for them to be able to survive.

I have some raised beds and I also have a vegetable plot. I prefer the plot. I did my raised beds French style, which means that I can easily reach across them from either side. However, I do find the plot easier to work in. It is about a hundred square feet. You may have to do wire fencing to keep rabbits out.

Early spring is a good time to plant onions and shallots. Garlic should be planted in fall. Nasturtiums, Santolina, Chrysanthemums and Marigolds help to deter insect pests. I do my vegetable plot cottage garden style, incorporating beneficial flowers, especially around the perimeter. Radishes are supposed to be good for repelling corn and squash borers. Good luck with your new home and your new garden!

By the way, you might want to look up the Three Sisters method of planting squash, corn and beans. It is the long-established way the Southwestern Indians have done companion planting.


    Bookmark   February 16, 2008 at 2:09PM
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I live in st george ut this is my second year planting my garden I have just about had it with the ANTS my garden was really nice for a while until the ANTS I have bought killer from the store it doesn't work does any body have a solution that will not kill my plants?

    Bookmark   April 23, 2011 at 12:02AM
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Re: ants ... I've had luck with diatomacious earth. Also blended slurry of orange peels poured over colony.

Also you might find localized info on the Utah gardening forum --

Re: red clay ... the GOOD NEWS is that clay soils are wonderful. the BAD NEWS is that they take special treatment. No instant gratification... but once ammended, you will brag on your rich soil.

And my usual advice to new gardeners ... KEEP A JOURNAL ... you will see patterns and learn from past mistakes ...

    Bookmark   April 23, 2011 at 5:34AM
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