Patience, persistence pays off

Gardening is a combination of patience and persistence before you can see performance. What I am saying is, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." How many times have I heard that in Indiana, Ohio, Oregon or California I could grow anything. Well, the good news is you can grow in Kingman, Arizona, too.

One of the first things you need to identify is your soil. Unlike many parts of the country, you can have three different types of soil structure within your own back yard. Soil structure refers to the arrangement of sand, silt and clay particles in the soil, which determines its permeability and ability to retain water. Soil particles might be clumped together in large chunks that allow water and air to pass through easily, or separate into tiny pieces that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle and prevent water and air from penetrating.

Soil types

There are basically three types of soil texture - sandy, clay and silt. An easy way to determine soil texture is to shake some soil in a jar of water and watch it settle. First, sift some soil to remove chunks, pebbles and debris. Put a cup of sifted soil into a straight-sided quart jar. Add one tablespoon each of table salt and laundry detergent. (These act to disperse the negative charge of clay particles and help eliminate binding between the different soil particles.) Add water until almost full. Secure the lid tightly and shake vigorously for at least five minutes, then set the jar where it will not be disturbed.

As the particles settle, sand will reach the bottom first, silt will be next and clay will be the slowest to settle. When the water is clear and all the particles have settled, you will be able to determine the percentage of sand, silt and clay.

Clay is often referred to as "heavy" soil. Clay soil is composed of flattened, platelike microscopic particles that are packed closely together, leaving little pore space for either water or air. Because these particles offer the largest surface area of all soil particles, clay soil can hold the greatest volume of soluble nutrients. They also hold water the longest, thus are very slow to drain.

Sandy soil particles are comparatively large, and they are irregularly rounded rather than flattened. Their size and shape allow for much larger pore space between particles than clay soils, therefore, sandy soils contain lots of air and drain quickly. But by draining so quickly, there is also a significant loss of nutrients.

Silt is granular material of a grain size between sand and clay derived from soil or rock. Silt may occur as a soil or as suspended sediment. In other words, it is somewhere between sand and clay and has little value in air capacity or water retention.

Grow with loam

The ultimate growing medium is loam. It contains an equal mix of all three particle parts - sand, clay and silt. With the combination of large and small pore spaces, it drains well (but does not dry out too fast), loses nutrients only at a moderate rate, and contains enough air for healthy root growth.

Although you cannot change soil's basic texture, you can improve its structure by adding organic matter. In sandy soil, organic materials occupy some of the space between the sand grains, thus binding these together and increasing water-holding capacities. In a finely textured or clay soil, organic material on and around soil particles create aggregate of the fine soil particles, allowing water to move more rapidly around these larger particles. The most important factor regarding organic material is that it has good effects on the physical properties of soil. Be patient, this will not happen overnight.

Organic material especially tends to counteract the unfavorable effects of exchangeable sodium on soils. Simply put, heavy applications of organic mulches will increase water holding capacity, infiltration rate, tilth, and soil aggregation. It has also been proven that organic material will prevent deterioration of the physical properties of the soil by serving as an energy source (food) for microorganisms which promote stable aggregation of soil particles.

Watch the salt

Use caution when applying manures as a source of organic material. They typically contain large amounts of soluble salts, so be sure the manure is well aged and the salt has had a chance to leach out.

In general, the one nutrient lacking in our local soil is nitrogen. Most likely, if you have added organic material, everything else will equal out. Can you over-fertilize? Most definitely, and over-fertilizing is like adding too much flour to a cake. You can't take it out! Well, you can with a lot of effort, but adding is a lot simpler than removing.

So before you get over-exuberant and add all that fertilizer, try growing first. I think you will be surprised at your success.

Keeping track

Keep a diary or notebook. This is important, because if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. But to be more successful the second time, we need to know what went wrong the first time.

In this diary, note when, what and how much of each organic material you added. Note weather conditions, variety and source of seeds. Your soil may be fine but the seed variety may have been incorrect for our region, or you may have simply purchased some inferior seeds.

Gardening anywhere can be a challenge. So talk to your neighbors or the master gardeners to find out what grows best for them. Unfortunately, what worked on the East Coast or in the Midwest will probably not be so successful here. But if you have something that works, keep doing it!

Home grown always taste better!