Longer Days and lots of sunshine gives many in Arizona the gardening bug. Bookmans has a large and varied gardening section to help you get started. We also have our resident Garden Guru at Bookmans Speedway to help you with tips and tricks to guide you as you plan and plant. Enjoy the first in an upcoming Bookmans.com series from Poe as the Garden Guru talks dirt. Let us know what you think and how it all grew.

Garden Guru talks dirt

The Dirt: Let’s be frank. Southern Arizona is hot and dry; our soil is naturally sand, packed clay or caliche; some of us are cursed with all three. Don’t despair! I know of a few solutions to help you get your garden growing. Our natural soil is alkaline our native plants have adapted, but many of our favorite plants need neutral or acidic soil to flourish.

Drainage: An essential but frequently overlooked part of soil preparation is drainage. If your soil is sandy, then your drainage is good. If you have clay soil and/or caliche like I do, then you have a lot of work ahead of you. First break up the hard clay and caliche with a pick axe or motorized tiller. Don’t add water while digging in pure clay. It becomes a sticky monster that will try to eat your tools. If your caliche is really hard, you can buy chemicals to dissolve it. I’d rather have sore muscles or rent an auger than play with acid. Once the clay is broken up you can add amendments. Adding pumice or perlite to your soil prevents pooling and root rot, which can become problematic during monsoon season. To prevent this dig deep, 4-8” deeper than the recommended root depth for your garden basins. Place 2” layer of pumice, sand or gravel along the bottom. Then top with a layer of newspaper. A blend of 1/4 pumice or perlite, 1/4 fertilizer (recipe options follow) mixed with roughly 1/3 amendments to 2/3 soil can be used to fill the basin. Fill the basin 2” higher than desired as the soil will settle and compact with watering.

Adjusting pH: Most popular fruits, veggies and flowers hate our alkaline soil. Fortunately lowering your soil’s pH is easy! Amend your soil with compost, manure or coffee grounds. Don’t compost? Horse or steer manure is fine; so long as it is labeled “composted” it won’t burn your plants. You can mask the stink easily with coffee grounds. Coffee grounds are acidic and high in nitrogen, making them a fantastic additive mix for the alkaline soil of a Southern Arizona gardener. I like a 50/50 blend of manure and coffee grounds, mixed to form a 1/3 fertilizer to 2/3 earth ratio.

You can buy composted manure from a local nursery, but do not buy chicken manure unless it’s from a local backyard farmer you know. Many commercial chicken farmers raise their birds on feed treated with arsenic to prevent internal parasites and bacterial growth. Birds are tolerant of it, but arsenic is hazardous to mammals like us. Manure sale is not regulated by the FDA, so the producer isn’t required to label a complete chemical analysis on the packaging. Thus, commercial chicken manure is best avoided. Huffington Post offers additional information if you care to read further. I wish to return to the subject of gardening.

Helpful Hint: Most local coffee establishments are more than happy to give you 10-30 pounds of coffee grounds for free so long as you are polite and willing to wait for them to help you after their other customers. The best approach is get in line around 10:30 or 11 a.m., order a beverage and ask if you can have a bag of grounds for your garden. Then relax with your cup until they have your grounds ready. Coffee grounds are great to scatter around your tomatoes and acid loving plants each month since our hard water will slowly raise pH with each watering.

Get that soil going and soon we will discuss plants — what to choose and how to get them in the ground. Great gardens to you!