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Our desert soil and composting – a perfect match. Garbage can end up being a nice meal for your garden. Here’s Angela O’Callaghan.

I’m pretty sure that nobody living in this part of the world would be too surprised to hear that our soils are notoriously difficult to work. It isn’t just because they’re dry.  Well, I suppose ultimately most of our problems stem from the lack of water, but there are some specific things we need to pay attention to, if we’re going to keep our gardens alive.

For instance, the lack of fertility. Only a relative few plants grow out there in the desert. That means there aren’t too many animals to eat them and leave their droppings behind. In nature, that’s an major way to cycle important nutrients.

Then we have the problem of salt. For about 400 million years, a large part of the west was an ocean, which means that Southern Nevada was under salty water. The water’s gone, but the salt stayed on, and when the salt concentration’s too high, the soil can actually pull water out of roots. This is not a condition most of our landscape and garden plants prefer.

We also have a large portion of the world’s boron supply. We’re likely to see the twisted, discolored leaves that result from excess boron.

Finally, we have to deal with the soil around construction sites and housing developments. When you think about the kind of dirt (yes, I said it, dirt) that’s put around construction, you can guess - it’s not a big improvement over the native soil. It might even be worse.

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One solution, or at least an efficient treatment for a good number of our garden problems, is to add compost to the soil. Compost is nature’s own nutrition source - an incredible slow release fertilizer. It contains all the minerals that were in the starting material.

But not only does it provide nitrogen, phosphorus and all the other essential nutrients, it benefits plants in other ways.

It loosens the soil, so that roots can grow through it.

Sometimes the soil’s so compacted that the poor roots might as well be trying to get through a block wall!  If you’ve ever tried to dig a hole to plant something, you might’ve experienced that yourself.

Compost helps with drainage and water retention.

It’s a lot like having a million tiny sponges in your soil. If you were to take a sponge and saturate it so it’s dripping wet, and then squeeze it out as hard as you could, you’d see what I mean. The sponge’ll stay moist, but not dripping wet. Most of the plants we grow, aside from desert plants, prefer what we call “evenly moist” conditions.

Even our desert plants benefit from a little compost, since the soil around our buildings can be less fertile than native soils. 

I really like compost. It’s wonderful - it’s so good for the soil and the plants in it, but even more importantly, it’s all from our garbage! We produce lots of compostable garbage. In fact, almost 2/3 of our Municipal Solid Waste could become this perfect soil amendment.

The procedure is simple and it happens whether or not people get involved. Dead things break down as microorganisms eat them.  I must admit I’ve found the occasional bag of mystery mush in the vegetable bin. Whatever it was, it was now starting to turn into compost.  

Here in the great American Southwest you can start composting any time.  Bacteria are always hungry, and while they might be a bit slower in winter, they’re still eating and reproducing. As long as they have trash and moisture, they’ll be composting. To speed up the process, chop your garbage into small bits. That makes it easier for the microbes to get working.

There’s a number of composting methods people’ve designed – indoors, outdoors, tumblers, bins, piles, even worms. We have several publications you might find helpful at the Cooperative Extension website, or you can take one of our courses. If you have specific questions, you can call the Master Gardener Help line, Monday through Friday. 702-222-3130

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