Soil amendment options in Reno

korerkoSeptember 29, 2006

Hello, we just moved from the midwest, and when we purchased a newly constructed home here in Reno, it was shocking to see what kind of soil we got to deal with...

Well first thing I guess is to amend the soil, and I was wondering what was the cheapest and most efficient way to accomplish this using our local resource... Any free, or cheaper, source of compost or manure than those $40+/cu.yd at the nurseries? Should we moisten the soil a little before we mixed these in?

Also, how much compost (or aged manure) would we need to make this bare soil to something that can be grown in? The soil we got is bare... I mean, bare and dry. And a lot of rocks! I'm thinking the ordinary 2 inches of compost is not going to be enough for our yard? Maybe 4 inches? 6 inches?

Lastly, is there a good cover crop that you can recommend to use here?

Thank you!

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jason_reno(z5 NV)

As a displaced Iowan, let me extend my sympathies.

What you do depends a lot on where you are and what the soil type is. Certain places will need mineral amendments as well as organic. I tell all newcomers to talk to the county extension office (784-4848 ask for the horticulture desk). They will do basic soil testing and give you loads of information.

Look for a yellow newspaper called the Big Nickle in the stacks of free literature in grocery stores. There are usually a couple of people advertising free manure for the taking. I've heard of people tilling in 6"-12" of manure on new places like yours. You may have to wait until we get some moisture, as the ground is hard as a rock now.

Get a catalog from High Country Gardens. They have a lot of xeric plants and information. Think a little about this before you amend. Many western natives prefer "lean and well drained" soil. I've seen a lot of wildflowers in the Sierra thriving in decomposed granite.

Take wind into account in your planning. It can be bad depending on where you are. If you are out on some land, you also need to consider a fire break.

What kind of cover are you thinking of. Some sort of wheatgrass is often used for large areas. Sow it soon and it will germinate in the spring. It grows in bunches, not turf. Comstock Seed has many native grass and flower mixes you could try. I'm experimenting with buffalo grass, but I think it is a little too cool for it to do really well (i'm at 5700'). Mine has taken 4 years to fill in and it's still not real weed resistant. You might think about grama grass.

You can't really recreate a Midwestern landscape here, (you kind of can with a lot of water) but there are a lot of other neat things you can grow. The winters here are milder than most of the Midwest. The High Country Gardens catalog will show you that xeriscaping doesn't mean a yard full of gravel.


    Bookmark   October 10, 2006 at 11:32PM
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ljrmiller(z7 NV)

I started gardening here in Reno, moved to the midwest (thanks to the Army) and returned to gardening here. Things are definitely different in this area.

For soil amendment, what seemed to work best was a mix of about 3 parts straw (wheat or oat) to one part alfalfa hay for about 3 years. During those first three years we used the Ruth Stout no-till method, just tossing on more straw and hay. Then we tilled, until we hit the first dozen rocks...end of tilling.

Probably the best cover crop for this area is alfalfa--after all, it's what the farmers grow. It does require watering (everything does, here, even cactus), and you would have to keep it fairly well trimmed to keep the neighbors happy.

If you add enough organic material (straw, hay, manure, etc) to the top of the soil, the worms will come and do your tilling for you. In the mean time, use containers and raised beds. You may even want to continue to use raised beds, because it just takes so much organic material to correct the soil here.

Since you bought a new home, I'm assuming it's either in Spanish Springs, the Northwest, or South Reno. The first two locations you might as well stick with raised beds for at least the first decade or two. The soil is that poor. If you are in South Reno, you are probably in the flood plain. Watch out for a high water table, but the soil is already pretty nice down there other than being heavy clay.

It took about 10 years of continuous dumping of organic material on to our garden in Sparks (near Prater and McCarran) to get the soil into decent shape, and I'm now working on 33 years of continuous amendment at this location.

I highly recommend Jason's suggestion that you get the High Country Gardens catalog--and for local suppliers use Dry Creek Gardens (they carry a lot of xeric plants). Also, check out the Rancho San Rafael Arboretum--they have a display garden with plants suitable for our area. Okay, so right now is NOT the time to be doing that.

If you want a landscaper to put in a garden, I have a friend I can recommend--she and I have been gardening "partners in crime" (we are no longer allowed to go out plant-shopping together because we were eclipsing the national debt...) for 8 years now. She's developing a landscape business, and she knows what she's doing. She is especially familiar with Northwest Reno--that's where she lives and gardens.

Now for the truly GREAT news: You know all the roses you loved but had to spray constantly to keep the blackspot at bay in the Midwest, the hybrid teas you had to prune and cover every Fall? Forget spraying, and forget covering. Roses, as long as they get the water they need, do extremely well here--they are kind of a plant-and-forget it thing in this area.

You know all the Japanese Maples that struggled in the Midwestern summer heat? Given adequate water and shelter from the sun and wind, they do beautifully here.

And the plants that melted out on you from high humidity? Not here!

Replanting tulips every year? Not needed! Most of them will come back for years if sited properly.

I live in a very mild-weather part of Reno-Sparks, I admit, but I grow all kinds of things I could NEVER grow in the Midwest, plus most of what I did grow there. I grow bamboo and figs, grapes and roses, clematis and hostas, lilies and primroses, chrysanthemums and snapdragons (the latter are completely perennial in my garden). I even have a hardy fuchsia, some ferns, coneflowers, a large selection of hardy salvias, cacti, agaves and yuccas...

Don't give up hope in any case. Just keep amending your soil, and remember that what never needed water in the Midwest will need regular watering here.


    Bookmark   November 2, 2006 at 4:23PM
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We're moving from Boise to Reno and the home we are moving to literally has had nothing done in the back yard. It's good in the way that we won't have to re-work any old landscaping. But, I need some good contacts for Landscaping, etc. I really want to grow some bamboo as a neighbor screen and to provide stakes for a raised-bed garden.
I also can't wait to start some grapes. Any tips and/or tricks?

Would anyone recommend a good place to buy a good quality shed?

Lisa, could I get the name of your landscaping friend? We're in NW Reno also.

We'll also be looking for compost and wood chips since we have been using the Back to Eden gardening method in Boise for three years.


    Bookmark   July 7, 2014 at 12:47PM
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albert_135(Sunset 2 or 3)

Check your water cost. Fernley was too expensive, prohibitive. Carson city expensive but some landscaping/gardening is OK. Don't know about Reno.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2014 at 3:51PM
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Amending the soil here strikes me as a losing proposition - unless you stick to raised beds and square foot gardening (along with heavy mulching).

Much to my surprise, bamboo will grow here - but it will cost you in water. A lot. Don't do it. Xeriscape instead. I fully understand the need for green - but some things we just shouldn't have in this area, because they just aren't suited and water is not unlimited. Outdoor pools and huge expanses of lawn are only two of the many things that just ought not to be here.

Xeriscape. Look for plants that are drought tolerant - such as yellow trumpetbush, lantana, etc. The UNR has a lot of online resources to help you find native or at least adapted landscaping options that will minimally impact your use of water. You may water your lawn only 3 days a week in Reno, during restricted hours. Xeriscape instead and keep the lawn to a smaller space where you can relax and enjoy it, instead of trying to sod and maintain an entire yard.

Plant trees and shrubs in catchment basins. Make use of native or adapted ground covers where ever possible. Xeriscaping does not mean putting down black plastic and then dumping rocks on it. Look around at other people's yards to get some ideas. Make use of pergolas and arbors (and climbing plants such as Cardinal Climber, Scarlet Runner bean, or clematis) to provide shade. Build a patio of paving stones or a wooden deck instead of solid concrete to allow water to seep in instead of running right off. Plant drought tolerant varieties.

If there is an outdoor patio or deck, it will be burning hot for most of the day unless it is shaded. A pergola or partial roof is necessary if you expect to have the use of the area throughout the day, and not just in the early morning or late afternoon/evening. A wooden deck won't be nearly as bad as a concrete patio - but it'll still be too hot to spend time out there during a large portion of the day unless there is shade (or it is on the north side of the house). Our patio is on the south side of the house and it is unusable most of the day in large part because of the reflected heat from the concrete.

But back to "soil amendment" - once you stop trying to turn this into a climate that it is not and cannot be, there is a LOT you can do to satisfy the need for green. Some things that I struggled to grow in lusher climes do VERY well here - such as lavender, rosemary, and German thyme. German thyme (and some other thyme varieties) make nice ground covers or edging plants for raised beds. Dwarf rosemary and thyme both will spill over edges of raised beds very nicely and in an attractive manner. All three plants are well adapted to the dry, gritty soil typical in many areas (there is clay in the flood plains to the south). All three are drought tolerant, and in fact don't typically do well in anything other than well-drained soil. You won't need to water these much or at all sometimes.

Roses do VERY well here and don't require nearly the level of care they do in wetter climes.

For the garden, I am using the same technique I have been using for several decades, only with no need to deal with slugs. Mulch, mulch, mulch! In an urban setting like this, I use broken down cardboard boxes (such as are used for shipping or moving) as a weed barrier, cover with the cheapest landscaping mulch I can find (currently 2.50 @ Home depot for 2.5 cu ft), plant in raised beds, and square foot garden. Wet down the soil in the raised bed - I amended the native soil with some peat moss, dug down as close to 10-12" as I could get because that is where your garden plants will keep 90% of their roots - break up hardpan at the bottom, if any.

Wet the cardboard and lay it on the damp (but not waterlogged) soil. Cover with an inch or so of the wood mulch. Drip irrigate. Cut holes through the cardboard for individual plants, leaving enough space around the plant so that water can soak directly into the soil from your emitters. Plant them indented - sort of in a basin, to catch, retain, and deliver more water directly to the roots. For row veggies like carrots, lay cardboard between rows. Cover over all with the wood mulch. This cools the soil significantly even in a raised bed and makes it much more worm-friendly, as well as providing garden veggies with a cooler, more evenly moist environment for root development.

If you are building new raised beds above grade, I'd just break up the top 6" of the native soil, work in some of your soil mix, and fill with a good soil mix. Look for Al's mix on these forums and go from there. You will still need to mulch.

If you are trying to recreate a mid-western style garden, in a huge plot at ground level, that just isn't your best gardening solution in an area like this, no matter how much you amend the soil. By amending the soil significantly, you are making it inappropriate for native plants, and you will still need to water like a mad thing. It will also take DECADES and be a constant on-going process.

Consider switching to a raised bed/square foot gardening approach instead - it will conserve water and make weeding/watering/growing much much easier. This isn't like many other places in the country, where wood mulch can be had for the asking for free or at very low cost. There are no sawmills here. There are no hay pastures to speak of and straw and hay are at a premium. If the municipality has a wood chipping facility, I haven't found it yet - but in this arid region with few trees, I'd be surprised if there is enough yard waste to warrant such.

I'm pretty sure drip irrigation is limited to the same days and conditions as the lawn watering schedule - I think that's for all automatic watering. You are allowed to hand water at any time - but your water bill will be much smaller if you minimize that to emergency situations and/or container plants. Because we just moved in here, I don't have drip irrigation set up and am watering my dozen or so plants this year by hand - but next year the drip irrigation will be in place and I will build additional self-watering raised beds out on the otherwise useless Astroturf a previous owner thought would be a wonderful idea (it wasn't).

Check out the Master Gardener classes this coming spring at your local extension office - learn about xeriscaping. You are not limited to cacti and sagebrush in a xeriscaped yard. Some xeriscape plants are quite attractive, such as the lavender, lantana, yellow trumpetbush, and many other xeriscape-appropriate plants that can serve to stabilize soil and attract bees, butterflies, and birds. There are some quite attractive xeriscape-appropriate ground covers that will help to conserve what little moisture there is and cool the soil. Planting xeriscape-appropriate plants with a mind to water conservation will give you an attractive but still sustainable landscape. It doesn't have to be tumbleweeds, rocks, dirt, and concrete.

You will still amend the soil, but on nowhere near the scale necessary if you are trying to recreate the soils from less arid regions.

Finally, be aware that because of the swing in temperature between day and night, we get frosts here earlier and later than you would think, going by day time temps. Average last frost date is mid-April; average first frost date is mid-September. You can extend this somewhat if you can protect plantings. Mid-August is the time to plant fall crops of lettuce etc.

Some useful UNR extension publications:

Irrigating your vegetable garden
Raised Beds
Desert Landscape & Gardening
Becoming a Desert Gardener
Container Gardening
Gardening Guide for High-Desert Urban Landscapes
Getting Started with a Vegetable Garden - planting dates!
The All Seeing All Knowing Lawn Care Manual

More can be found at -
UNR Extension Publications
UNR Extension Resources

Keep in mind that a lot of the publications are for Southern NV (eg Las Vegas, Mojave, Moapas Valley) - so check to make sure the specific information is useful to YOUR area here in Reno. And remember that areas of Reno can differ dramatically in elevation, and a small change in relative elevation can make the difference between success or failure with a particular plant, even if it is a native species.

BTW - if you are interested - backyard chickens are legal in Reno and Sparks. Much to the dismay of my son, heh heh heh!

Backyard Chickens in Reno

Check with the city but they seem to be legal in most places inside the city limits.

Here is a link that might be useful: Desert Denial - Get Over It!

This post was edited by zensojourner on Mon, Jul 21, 14 at 15:32

    Bookmark   July 19, 2014 at 4:48PM
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