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For this month’s column, I asked a long-time colleague to develop a ‘soils’ article for your general gardening knowledge.  I’m always discussing plants and this article talks about what’s needed to keep those plants happy and healthy.  FYI, our contributing columnist, Karen Benson, is a WSU Master Gardener based in King County, a biologist by training and owner of her own landscape design and maintenance company, Earth Healer LLC.

Soil is important to our daily lives!  It is a complex, changing and important part of our environment. Composed of organic and inorganic matter, soil may contain nutrients, minerals, micro-organisms, decaying organic matter and other essential elements needed to sustain plant growth and keep the world on an even keel.  But most of us take soil for granted until we have a problem! One good realization is that plants will usually let us know if they are unhappy with their surrounding growing medium because they “don’t look right” – if we only look!

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Potassium-deficient cashew leaf

Here are a few common questions I am often asked when I design or renovate a landscape:  

The first question is, “How do I know what kind of soil I have?”  Soils are arranged in a particular structure (e.g. layers) – that you may be able to see if you dig down 18” in your yard - and a texture that you can feel if you put some damp soil in your hand.  Good planting soils should feel loose in your palm – not too sticky and not falling through your fingers.

Soil testing is especially helpful if you are starting a new garden or your plants are not doing well.  If you live in King County, you have already paid for five soil tests at the King Conservation District with your property taxes.   Their website provides directions for submitting soil for testing.  Then they will provide the test results to you with amendment recommendations.  Most garden nurseries or Master Gardeners ( can help you interpret the results.

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The second question is usually, “What is wrong with my plant(s)?” Adequate water and light are needed for proper plant growth.  Soil temperature, soil pH, and what nutrients are in, or added to, the soil can all make a difference.  Nutrients are dissolved in water, absorbed by roots and carried up through the plants.  If these factors vary, not all nutrients are readily available to be used by the plants.  These deficiencies will often present themselves as  changes in plant  leaves, stems, or crop production.

A third question is “What do I do if there is a nutrient imbalance?” Fixing a nutrient deficiency is usually easier than fixing over-abundance. You can easily add a soil amendment, add organic matter, improve aeration or help manage water retention/drainage,  to improve a nutrition deficiency .  If there is too much of a certain nutrient, it will often wash out of the soil, but, this takes time – sometimes years. 

The last question is, “What is compost and when should I add it?” Compost is made from broken-down vegetable matter and/or manure. It can be used as a soil amendment when planting or as a top dressing.   Keep in mind that home composting usually does not reach temperatures adequate to destroy disease organisms, while commercial compost undergoes hotter aerobic processes that destroy insects and diseases. In the PNW, adding compost is often done when planting and, again, if needed, in the autumn.  Because it is organic, compost will not burn plant roots and will release its nutrients throughout the year as the plants need it.

As a gardener, be patient – with the weather, soil, plants, and other challenges.  Soil changes slowly over time.  Nothing teaches patience better than growing plants when the weather and soil changes from season to season and year to year. If in doubt, try small amounts of amendments and see what happens.  Paying attention to the needs of your plants will result in fresh food, beautiful flowers, and personal satisfaction!

If you have questions about soil issues or garden maintenance services, you can reach Karen at  

Do you feel the rumble of life beneath your feet telling you that Spring has begun and plants for your landscape and vegetable garden need buying?   What better place (with better prices) to do this than at the Master Gardeners of King County Plant Sale & Garden Market.  Like last year, the sale will take place online April 21 – April 27. Search through thousands of plants, plus garden craft items. Purchases and pick-ups can be made at the Bellevue Demonstration Garden (Bellevue), Shorewood High School (Shoreline) and Soos Creek Botanical Garden (Auburn).  For more information, go to:

Until next month, stay dry and Happy Gardening!!

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