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Hallelujah! Spring thaw signals planting season for gardeners

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A check of the vegetable garden offers hope for the coming season. In some places the snow is gone and the soil has started to dry. The time for planting has come and gardeners are singing hallelujahs as they start the first real planting of the season.

A few guidelines offer help in determining determine how, when and what to do in the garden, especially in preparing the soil.Soil is the basis of all good plant growth. Take the soil out of gardening and nothing grows. Because it is so important, take the time to understand how to maximize soil productivity. Never work soil while it is too wet. Disastrous results will follow, particularly if your soil is the heavy, wet, sticky, muck that most gardeners (including me) complain about. Till these soils too soon, while they are too wet, and they will make a pretty fair imitation of adobe bricks or a paved parking lot when they dry out. Wait for garden soil to dry so this does not happen.

Try out a traditional garden method to decide if the soil is ready to till. Dig a couple of inches below the surface and grab a handful of soil. Squeeze it into a ball to determine when to till based on the following criteria:

- If water runs out of the ball, you will probably follow the groundhog's lead and forget about gardening for at least six weeks. Obviously, gardening under these conditions is not a good idea.

- On the other hand, if a ball will not form or if it crumbles when tossed gently in the air, it is time to get the tilling and planting done. If the ball stays intact, wait until the soil dries out enough to till without turning the soil to ce-ment.

As any true gardener knows, soil can never be too good. Add organic matter before you till, if possible. Two inches of compost or other types of organic matter will do wonders for all types of soil whether it is sand, clay or something in between.

When using soil amendments containing lots of material that has never been decomposed, add nitrogen fertilizer to break down the material. Follow the 1:1:1 rule. This means that for every inch of organic matter, add one pound of ammonium sulfate (21-0-0) for every 100 square feet. Add a 2-inch layer of material and you double the amount of fertilizer. Ammonium sulfate, like many other granular materials, weighs about one pound per pint.

This prevents one of the supposed maladies of young plants in the vegetable garden. The one I am referring to is erroneously called "turpentine poisoning" and is a favorite explanation of many so-called experts in the gardening field. Actually it is nothing more than an old spouse's tale and has nothing to do with turpentine.

If plant residues that are very high in carbon are added to the soil, the fungi and other microorganisms immediately start to decompose them. Because there is an available food supply, the microbes multiply rapidly. This creates a critical need for nitrogen for the microbes to use in their own bodies. Because they rob or take it all, the plants have none and quickly turn yellow. The cure for this alleged "turpentine poisoning" is to add some nitrogen fertilizer. Miraculously, the plants turn green and recover.

Well-meaning publications from the eastern or northwestern parts of the country also recommend adding lime to your soil on a regular basis. If you are used to doing this and have just moved here, I say, "Welcome to Utah." Our soils come from limestone mountains. We have so much lime that we never need to add any. As if there weren't already enough in the soil, we add more from our water. The same calcium that makes the hard water spots on your windows and dishes also adds lime to your soil every time you irrigate.

One of my first lessons in soil science came in grade school when my teacher used an eye dropper to put hydrochloric acid on limestone rocks. Because of the alkaline-acid interaction, the rocks fizzed vigorously. Interestingly enough, the soil underneath the rock fizzed just as much when the droplets washed down and touched it because of all the lime in the soil.

Dolomite is just a form of lime that has a chemical makeup of magnesium carbonate instead of the more common calcium carbonate. It is not needed for changing soil pH in Utah.

Gypsum is another often recommended soil amendment or alkali fighter. It supposedly softens the soil and makes it better for plant growth. Gypsum is neutral in reaction, so it does not acidify the soil. It has very limited use in sodium-affected or black alkali soils. This condition is not generally found with common Utah garden soils. Plants do not grow or grow very poorly on these kinds of soil. Do not apply gypsum unless you have done a soil test that results in that recommendation and gives the amount needed to treat the problem.

Soil medicines are also of little value. Plants use 17 basic nutrients, but almost all of these are supplied by good garden soil, air and water. Adding vitamins, hormones and other supposed improvements is not necessary. Add what nature adds to the soil when blades of grass, leaves, logs and animals die. Rich organic matter will help a garden soil more than any other amendment you can add. Forget the lime and plant the seeds.

Spring weather is an unstable but precious commodity. Now is the time to take advantage of it and get to work in your garden.