Bring Your Soil Back to Life for a Healthier, More Resilient World  

Test your soil type, learn how to rejuvenate your soil with compost, and more!

In recognition of International Compost Awareness Week, we are celebrating the often overlooked stuff beneath our feet—soil!

Healthy soil nourishes our gardens, filters our water, supports ecosystems, and sequesters carbon. Unfortunately, human activity, such as conventional agricultural methods, overuse of pesticides and herbicides, and construction, have damaged much of the soil we rely on. 

Applying organic matter, such as compost and compost tea, including Eco-Cycle’s Microbe Brew, is an easy way to help restore soils and fight climate change. Everywhere we see soil, including our own backyard, is an opportunity to create a healthier, more resilient world. 

Colorado’s Soils: A Challenging Growing Environment 

You likely know Colorado’s state bird is the lark bunting, and our state flower is the blue columbine—but did you know Colorado has an official state soil? Sietz soil, named after the Sietz stream in the Rio Grande, is found mainly in southwest Colorado in higher, cooler elevations on hills, high valleys, and slopes. The deep, well-draining soil provides the base for Colorado’s world-famous recreational activities, cattle grazing, and forestry. 

Along Colorado’s Front Range, we generally have clay soils, which are dense and poorly draining and can make it challenging for plant roots to grow. Conversely, you may have sandy soil, which does not retain water well. Understanding soil structure is important because it impacts the soil’s ability to store nutrients, carbon, and water. 

Sand, Silt, and Clay Soil Structure

Soil is made up of three main types of particles: sand, silt, and clay. Sand is the biggest, while clay is the smallest. Usually, soil has a mix of these three. The amounts of sand, silt, and clay create the soil’s texture and characteristics. For example, sandy soils have the least capacity to store organic matter and water, while silt particles are medium-sized and balance nutrient- and water-holding capacity with porosity. Clay soil holds nutrients and water very effectively; thus, it offers the highest capacity to store organic matter and sequester carbon. 

To determine what your soil is made of, you can perform an easy test at home with just a jar and water. 

The Soil Type Jar Test

  1. Collect about one-third to half a jar of soil from your backyard. Remove any rocks or large objects present. Tip: If you suspect the soil conditions are not uniform (for example, soil has been introduced, or the ground has been disturbed due to construction, etc.), you may want to collect from a few different places in your yard. 
  2. Fill the remainder of the jar with water, leaving a little space at the top. 
  3. Cap the jar and shake vigorously. 
  4. Let the jar sit for one minute. 
  5. After a minute, check the bottom layer of the jar. You will see the coarse sand layer at the bottom. Mark the top of the layer. 
  6. Let the jar sit for 2 hours. 
  7. Mark the top of the next layer—this is the silt layer. 
  8. Let the jar sit for 48 hours. 
  9. The last layer to emerge is the clay layer. Mark the top. 
  10. Now, use a ruler to measure the height of each layer and the total height of all layers. 
  11. Calculate the percent present of sand, silt, and clay.  For example, if the height of all layers is 6 inches, and the bottom “coarse sand” layer is 2 inches, the middle “silt” layer is 2 inches, and the top “clay “ layer is 2 inches, then the percentage of each layer is 33%.

Use this soil texture pyramid to determine your soil type. Simply enter your percentage for sand, silt, and clay in the form, then scroll down to find your “USDA Texture” type! Or use the graphic below for quick reference.

You can also have your soil tested in a laboratory. Two laboratories we recommend are Colorado State University and, if you want a more thorough analysis, Ward Labs’ Soil Health Analysis

A Tip on Plant Selection: Native Plants Are Naturally Compatible  

A loamy soil (40% sand, 40% silt, 20% clay) creates the ideal growing conditions for many plants, particularly vegetables. But fear not if you find yourself in the likely scenario of high-clay soils. You can still create a lush garden by planting native species adapted to Colorado’s soils and low-precipitation climate. Native plants require less water and fertilizer, are pest-resistant, and help foster biodiversity by supporting insect and bird populations. The Colorado Native Plant Society has an excellent list of native species to plant in your yard. 

Bring Your Soils to Life with Compost and Compost Tea

No matter the texture, the soil in your backyard may be depleted of its microbial activity from pesticide and fungicide use or due to depletion through harvesting, lawn clipping removal, or neglect. 

Restoring soil health is vital for addressing climate change. Soil rich in nutrients and microbes promotes the uptake of carbon dioxide by plants and converts it into vegetation––in other words, it sequesters carbon from the atmosphere and reduces greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. Soil’s ability to store carbon is three times more than that of plants or our atmosphere.

To restore the health of your soil, just add organic matter! In nature, as vegetation falls to the ground, it slowly decays, providing minerals and nutrients needed by plants. We can mimic this natural cycle by applying compost or compost tea to our trees, gardens, and lawns.

Spread Compost. You can add organic matter to your soils by spreading compost directly to your backyard landscapes. Commercial, homemade, or farm-sourced compost will do. For grass cover, place the compost on the surface of the grass at a depth of ½” so as not to smother the grass and gently rake it in with a leaf rake. Try to spread it over the grass as evenly as possible. You can also add compost to plant beds, shrubs, and vegetable gardens. 

Apply Eco-Cycle’s Microbe Brew Compost Tea. Compost tea is a liquid concentrate of living microorganisms that boost soil health. These microbes digest organic matter and minerals and turn them into plant-available forms that can be readily absorbed by roots, stimulating growth.

Microbe Brew can be purchased at the Eco-Cycle Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials (CHaRM) window. We recommend applying the brew to lawns, gardens, flower beds, trees, and shrubs the same day you purchase it because the tea will become less oxygenated over time, reducing active microbes.

This May, raise a glass, or better yet the whole jug, of Microbe Brew to build healthy soils in your own backyard!