how do i get anything to grow in this soil?!?!?

KerriGerrishFebruary 18, 2014

I live in Arvada, 13 miles west of denver, cute little city... and my neighbors have beautiful yards... then you come to my house.. my grass looks like the clampets meet the addams family... last year i spent over a thousand dollars trying to get flowers to grow. we tried clay buster stuff, we tried planting seeds, we tried planting live flowers, we tried turning the soil.. we tried just putting top soil over the top, we tried everything we could think of or the gardening center sold us. we tried throwing seeds in the ground during the winter... we tried bulbs... yeah.. please help this girl who only grew up by the oceans... (massachusetts, texas, and california) grow something here in the mountains... we usually are fruit and veggie growers and i have always had an amazing green yard with flowers galore... and here... i can grow dirt... help??

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treebarb Z5 Denver


First off, welcome! You've found about the friendliest, most helpful gardening group around. Several people that visit this forum live in your area, so I hope they see your post. This is kind of a slow period, so be patient.

Gardening here is a challenge. Many of us came from other parts of the country, where you just stick a plant in and off it goes. As you now know, that doesn't necessarily work here.

We've also been in severe/exceptional drought for several years, followed up by last September's epic 12" precip. event. ...THE FLOOD. There doesn't seem to be a "normal" here.

The first thing I would do is a soil test. You need to find out what kind of soil you have and what nutrients it's lacking. Take samples from areas you haven't amended yet. Basically, you dig about a shovel length deep in several areas of your yard then take a handful of soil from each hole and put it all in one ziplock bag. Then seal it up and mail it in with the form you can print from the link below. It costs $31 for the test. In a few weeks they mail or email you a soil report. Once you have that, you know where to begin. You can come back here with the results and we can make suggestions for amendments.

You may need to look at building raised beds or lasagna beds as amending your entire yard may be too much to tackle all at once. You've obviously gone to a lot of work and expense already, it's time for some success!.

Make friends with some of those neighbors with beautiful yards. They can be very helpful in recommending plants and techniques that will work here.

RMG has a plant swap in the spring, usually in May and another in the fall, September/October . We will probably start planning it in the next month or so. We have a pot luck lunch and people bring plants to share. We welcome newbies that may not have anything to share yet. It's a great way to meet local gardeners and get some plants that are proven to grow here.

I hope this helps.


Here is a link that might be useful: soil testing

    Bookmark   February 19, 2014 at 8:48AM
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gjcore(zone 5 Aurora Co)

As Barb said a soil test is the best way to start. There are two types of soils here in the metro area, clay or sand, and the one thing they have in common is the lack of organic matter. The quick fix for that is to buy compost by the yard though a soil test will give you the percentage of organic matter. Long term especially for vegetables, in my opinion, it's hard to go wrong with lasagna gardening.


    Bookmark   February 19, 2014 at 10:07AM
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The coastal soil may be, may not be, a whole lot different from what you have now. One thing, the climate may be different. Obviously, the elevations are different.

Barb has already mentioned the drought and/or flooding. I'm often startled by Colorado's weather "events."

Water. I'm dismayed by some homeowners' ideas, at times. I'll pick on my (non-Colorado) neighbors. I had one who left his early morning automatic sprinklers run through November!! Man. It wasn't just wasteful. It was a safety issue!

Wasteful. Put a sprinkler out that lays down an inch of water every 30min and leave it running all night. In this porous soil here, I call that recharging the aquifer! Measure. Measure against the clock. Sixteen inches of water or 1/10 inch of water? Every night? Twice a week? Whenever?

What are the requirement for the crop? The crop of bluegrass, the crop of petunias, the crop of zucchini . . .

With the weather, things are beyond our control but not entirely. The soil beneath our feet lies there in great depth, not mere inches. Do what we can and touch bases on our way around. It is probably the best that we can do. ( Now, I will retreat back to the north country ;o)


    Bookmark   February 19, 2014 at 11:12AM
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david52 Zone 6

If there is one trick, its be fanatical about adding organic matter. If conditions allow, make your own compost, if not buy it, always mulch heavily with what ever organic stuff is available, leave the clippings on the lawn, etc.

Thats going to go a long way towards improving what ever soil you have. It may take two-three years to get everything going, but then its a lot easier.

    Bookmark   February 19, 2014 at 11:27AM
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popmama Zone 5

How? Trial and error, some luck, and a lot of hope! You have to be willing to try and fail. You have to be willing to grow plants that like to grow here. Be prepared to lose some. Get excited when you don't!

I've never once soil tested. I'm not saying it isn't a bad idea, just that maybe I'm not that scientific.

I echo the "raised beds" suggestion and amend, amend, amend. When you want to plant a new garden bed and you aren't doing raised beds, dig down about 7 or 8 inches and then throw all that clay away. Back fill with good soil and compost. Plant and mulch. I really like Soil Pep for mulch. It mixes right in next year.

I also echo the "make friends with other local gardeners" and attend plant swaps. You'll get proven plants.

Ask questions to neighbors, people here, friends, random people at garden centers (haha).

The fact that you care enough to be here shows great courage and enthusiasm. I suspect you'll do well.

    Bookmark   February 19, 2014 at 11:17PM
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Hey!!!! I'm in Colorado Springs, not too far or different from you! I am originally from Iowa, land of the super corn, so I'm used to sticking something in the ground and having it flourish. Not exactly the case here.

I have learned that compost and water conservation is everything. Our rocky, sandy, clayey, granitey soil and drying winds are not exactly conducive to beautiful lawns and vegetables. The trick I have found is to work with what you have. Don't try to grow things that are going to have a bad time here, at least at first. I have found that raised beds are lovely. You can control their contents, and they are easier on your back!

I find lawns to be a bit silly here anyway. Like a golf course in the Arizona desert, it just doesn't make a whole lot of sense. When I'm brave enough, I will end up getting rid of my lawn, and replacing it with native plants instead.

    Bookmark   February 21, 2014 at 3:20PM
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ZachS. z5 Littleton, CO

I disagree with throwing your clay soil away. Clay has a fantastic amount of nutrients and minerals in it, its just locked up tighter then Ft. Knox because there's not enough air space for the plant roots and oxygen to reach it. Mix your existing clay soil with large amounts of organic material and you'll open it up to oxygen and space for your plant's to stretch their legs. Above all, its much cheaper to fill a hole with 50% of your existing dirt and 50% of purchased dirt rather then 100% purchased dirt.

    Bookmark   February 23, 2014 at 10:25PM
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david52 Zone 6

When it comes to clay, worms are your friends.

    Bookmark   February 24, 2014 at 11:15AM
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mayberrygardener(z5a, Broomfield, CO)

Hey, neighbor! I'm not sure where in Arvada you are, but I am in the Lake Arbor area. New to the area myself, transplanted just last year from Broomfield, where I gardenened everything in containers due to a bindweed and landscaping concern. I'd love to get together and we can compare notes--I'll be 'relearning' how to garden in-ground, so I'm sure I'll have some interesting lessons to learn myself!
Sounds like lots of other folks have already given you the same advice I would, and then some, especially water control, lasagna like mad, plan on losing some plants, rejoice in the ones that thrive, and above all things, patience. We're definitely in our winter still here, and even the things that don't die, don't really "grow" over the winter, they just kind of go somewhat dormant. Which is to say that some of what you think may not have survived may just be dormant, which brings in the patience thing again! David's brief but wise words on worms, I would embellish by reminding that lasagna layering encourages worms.
For now, though? Research what plants grow well, and yes, do come to the swaps, even if you don't have anything of the plant nature to swap; there is always a ton of information, interesting plants (that have been spaded up from this area, so proven to grow here... in the right conditions), and oodles of wonderful people and company.
Above all else, ya gotta hold your mouth right when you plant those suckers! *wink*
Welcome to the group!

    Bookmark   February 25, 2014 at 2:45PM
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Don't fall into the add compost to clay trap without creating a way for the soil to breathe. There are many types of clay. The darker the better. The light colored bluish clay is the worst kind because it's practically devoid of minerals or nutrients. If you have the dark clay great!

When amending with compost, don't be afraid to use perlite or vermiculite to create air gaps in the soil. If you add compost to clay, you can sometimes make concrete. You can also use a coarse sand. Something that's grainy or pebbley, not powder. If you're going to use a lot of sand, be sure to check and see if it's going to leach salt into the soil. Most times, no biggie, but if you're using a lot, it's something to be conscious of.

If you're sandy, or have a lot of the decomposed granite, compost, organics, and top soil are your friends. IMHO, the granular organics you can get from commercial landscape places is far better for raising organic content in soil once you have a good consistency in the soil texture. It's organic and adds organics. Know the difference?

Raised beds! I love them! Extend the growing season, improve the soil and have total control over moisture content! Place you bed edges down, dig or till as deeps as you can, break up clumps and get rid of big rocks, and amend and mix as you add and as you progress. If you dump all your amendments in at once, that makes it hard to mix. Add your amendments slowly, kind of like adding flour in slowly to something to wet when making a dough or dumpling.

Get to know your fertilizers! N-P-K! Up, down, all around. Don't forget micro nutrients!

    Bookmark   March 9, 2014 at 7:48PM
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