The Q&A Archives: Depleted Soil

Question: I live in fairmont montana and their is an old smolter plant about 10 miles from our house. I have heard that the soil around here is extremely bad due to the smolter plant. I recently did a soil test and determined that my soil has absolutely nothing in it at all. I am wondering what is the best, quickest and cheapest way to get my soil to good conditions so that we can start a vegetable garden, flower garden and plant a bunch of trees scince their are no trees at all (except juniper trees in the mountain range close to us.) in our area. What should I add? And will this take several years or can we do it right away? I tried to do a vegetable garden last year and added some cow manure but we had no luck at all. The plants sprouted and grew veggies on them but they were very small and shriveled up and died about as fast as they grew. Thank you

Answer: Since you bring up the issue of soil contamination, I'm going to refer you to Montana State University Cooperative Extension office in your county. (Each county has an office.) They should have info on any problems, and will also be able to provide details on regional soil profiles and what amendments are needed. They'll also have plant lists of what performs best in local conditions. I'll still provide some basics on soil improvement for vegetable and flower gardens below, but follow the local recommendations you receive. As a general guideline, experts don't recommend improving soil for tree planting, as the tree roots have to expand far beyond the maturing canopy, so it's not practical. It's better that root systems start out in the same native soil that they will have to grow out to. Good luck!

Deerlodge County Extension Office
800 South Main St.
Anaconda, MT 59711-2950
PHONE: 563-4035 or 563-4036

Soil Improvement for Gardens
To improve your soil, incorporate plenty of compost. In sandy soils, compost improves soil fertility, water and nutrient retention. In clay soils, it improves fertility and drainage. Add a 4-6 inch layer of compost and incorporate it about 12-18 inches deep. You can use manure if it is well-aged (6 months) or you won't be planting until it has lost it's heat and decomposed. Each planting season, add more compost. Incorporate a balanced fertilizer (e.g., 10-10-10) or add organic fertilizers such as fish emulsion, bone meal, and seaweed/kelp. Follow package instructions.

After planting, add a 1-2 inch layer of mulch. Mulch is great to help retain soil moisture, reduce weeds, and as it breaks down it provides nutrients to the soil. Any organic matter can be used as mulch. Try compost, bark, wood chips, straw, or pine needles. As it breaks down, dig it into your soil and add more.

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