Maryland Extension Hort Guru Lew Shell on Soil

Lew Shell Teaches Soil Improvement at Governor's Garden

by Susan Harris
Remember the lovely kitchen garden on the grounds of the Governor’s residence in Annapolis?  It’s used not just for teaching kids to grow food and, you know, growing actual food for the governor’s kitchen, but also for free talks to the public about such important matters as Improving Your Soil.  So that’s what Maryland Extension Horticultural Consultant Lew Shell explained recently to the rapt attention of some Maryland gardeners (me included – hanging on every word!).   He had lots more to say than these quick notes reveal, but these were the highlights for me.

Lew’s Quick Tips About Soil

  • Don’t put sand in your clay soil to improve the drainage because clay+sand=concrete!
  • The way to improve the structure of your soil (its water-draining ability) is to add organic matter.
  • But good soil structure means more than moving water – it includes the ability of soil to move nutrients.  Ah, so that explains why dumping fertilizers on the soil isn’t always enough because the question is:  Will the plants be able to get the nutrients to where they need them?
  • When organic matter is added to soil it creates clumps of lignon that can move those nutrients.
  • For a vegetable garden, the soil should contain about 10% organic matter.
  • Hot composting (the kind that produces compost in just a month or so) is labor-intensive.
  • Free compost bins are available at the Millersville landfill, but Lew really loves the $20 composters from Presto.
  • A perfectly balanced compost is bedding straw from horse stables.
  • He recommends compost tea for ornamentals but not for edibles – because of reported incidences of E. coli contamination.
  • For lawn, Lew recommends doing core aeration, then filling the empty cores with compost.   And for that, Maryland-made Leafgro can’t be beat.
  • Fall’s a good time to plant cover crops over the vegetable garden, and great choices include red clover, alfalfa, and winter rye.  It’ll then serve as a mulch in the spring.  But to protect the garden from pests that might be there now, rake the vegetable garden carefully first and remove all debris.

Lew Shell isn’t just an Anne Arundel Master Gardener but also a Master Composter, and he gives frequent workshops around the county on composting.   He told me proudly that Anne Arundel’s Master Gardeners are the second most active of all the programs in Maryland, and won a prize for the most “client” contacts (meaning contacts with the public), of which they had roughly 3,000 this year at their Master Gardener Clinics.  Congratulations to a terrific Master Gardener program, y’all!

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