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Improving Your Soil

If we ever want to see cool, clean water flowing through Sligo Creek, we will have to stop treating our soil like dirt.

If we ever want to see cool, clean water flowing through Sligo Creek, we will have to stop treating our soil like dirt.

Unfortunately, much of the soil in the Sligo watershed is degraded.  Years ago Franklin D. Roosevelt noted that “the Nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”  This is as much applicable today as it was 70 years ago. The government alone cannot solve this problem.  Many, many property owners will need to improve their soils before we will see healthy watershed and clean water in our streams and rivers.

Why is improving soil so important?  Improving your soil will help increase water retention and penetration, improve drainage, and remove potential pollutants. Rainwater, instead of rushing hot and polluted into Sligo Creek, needs to soak slowly into healthy soils where it will be cooled and cleansed.

Healthy soil is alive with microorganisms. A teaspoonful of healthy soil contains billions (yes, billions) of beneficial organisms! These organisms naturally metabolize many pollutants, producing byproducts that are less toxic than the original chemicals. The good news for homeowners is that improving your soil is not toodifficult if you gradually improve your lawn by sections and from time to time. Watch where stormwater runoff flows from your roof, patio, porch, and other hard surfaces; target first the soil in those areas where this stormwater flows.  

Healthy soil needs a good balance of air (pore space) for water and air, organics, and nutrients. Compacted soil does not have enough pore space to grow healthy vegetation and allow rainwater to soak into the ground. 

To improve your soil, the Environmental Protection Agency’s GreenScapes webpage recommends digging (or rototilling) one to three inches of compost (such as decayed or shredded leaf litter) into 6 to 12 inches of top soil. Compost helps sandy soils hold nutrients and water, loosens clay soils, and feeds the beneficial soil organisms so the soil can, in turn, feed and protect your plants.

To improve an area of your lawn, you need to first remove the grass. We have found that a sod-cutter works well. Not only does it remove the sod, but it leaves the sod in strips that can be used to re-sod the ground or used elsewhere in your yard if you are going to create a garden in your newly improved soil.

What is compost? It can be shredded leaves and other organic matter, brimming with healthy bacteria and fungi such as mycorrhyzae that help plant roots absorb and process water, gases, and other nutrients. You can help our local municipal recycling programs by using city compost from Takoma Park and College Park.

Leafgro, which is made from leaves and grass clippings from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, is also a great local source of compost. The “greenest” source of compost is from your own yard. 

For more information about improving your soil with compost and other techniques, see my blog about conservation landscaping http://wheaton-md.patch.com/blog_posts/a-simple-way-to-green-wheaton-conservation-landscaping For information about RainScapes and the County rebate program, go to www.rainscapes.org

To keep soil healthy, try to prevent compression by walking on pavers instead of on the soil and not parking heavy equipment on the soil. Planting native plants with deep roots in the soil will help maintain your good soil structure. 

I will close this blog with this useful hint: a cubic yard of compost will provide three inches of compost for just over 100 square feet of yard.

Interested in learning more?  Visit Friends of Sligo Creeks website and get on our email list, or follow us on Facebook.

About the author:

Ed Murtagh is the Chair of the FoSC Stormwater Committee and a board member of GreenWheaton.    

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Maureen Malloy November 28, 2012 at 07:11 PM
Thanks for a great post. What is the best time of year to amend the soil?
Ed Murtagh November 28, 2012 at 08:38 PM
thanks for your comment Maureen. I don't think there is a bad time to amend your soil, but if you want to create a garden you might want to amend in the fall. That will allow the compost to breakdown and you will have great soil in the early spring for your plantings.
Danila Sheveiko November 28, 2012 at 09:06 PM
Thank you, Ed, for the great article. It is crucial to highlight that soil is a living system that accumulates for thousands of years, while it only takes humans decades to squander this investment, like it happened during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Similarly, Piedmont soils like Sligo Creek watershed have been reduced from feet to a couple of inches through logging, for ships and construction, then for charcoal for the iron furnaces, then farmed with soil-destroying crops like tobacco and cotton, then over-grazed and otherwised abused. Please need to understand that healthy soils perform ecological services with great economic benifits. Every little rain garden or bioswale helps us recover the Chesapeake Bay's maritime economy and create green jobs in the process.

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