Gardening in Nevada’s Soils

Gardening in Nevada can be quite a challenge. Temperature extremes, drought and other factors can make any gardener begin to lose hope. We can’t control the weather, but we can try to give our landscape a fighting chance by improving the things that we can control, such as our soil.

Native Nevada soils are highly variable, very young geologically and lack organic matter. Plant nutrients and water are held in the soil on organic matter particles. A productive farm soil has 5 percent organic matter, but our native soils have less than 1 percent. Think of these organic matter particles as pantry shelves. They hold nutrients and water at the root zone of your plants, making them readily available when they are needed by your plants.

We all want to improve the fertility of our soil, but if you add fertilizer to a soil with little organic matter, the soil will have a limited ability to hold onto the nutrients for later use by your plants. The excess fertilizer will move through the soil in water, potentially polluting surface and ground waters, and you will have wasted time and money applying the fertilizer.  So, how do you make your soil more productive?  Add more “pantry shelves” by adding organic matter to your soil.

The best way to improve your soil is to add composted organic matter. Composting or aging breaks down the organic materials into stable forms that aid your soil. Composting also helps to reduce weed seeds, insect eggs and larva, and pathogens that may have been present in the raw organic materials.

Adding compost increases the nutrient-holding and water-holding capacity of your soil. Organic matter improves soil porosity, providing spaces for roots to grow. It also provides a home for the wealth of living creatures present in your soil, such as bacteria, fungi, earthworms and other animals. These creatures help convert the nutrients in the soil into forms that plants can use. Make them welcome in your soil by providing space for them to live and your plants will benefit.

Where can you get compost? You can make compost from household vegetable materials and garden plant debris. This is a great way to improve your soil and reduce your wastes. For more information on composting, read University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Factsheet FS-09-16, Composting Yard and Vegetable Wastes,

Many garden centers also sell compost. Look carefully at the compost. It should be dark, crumbly, and earthy smelling. Avoid compost that smells bad or has visible chunks of plant materials or manures that have not broken down. Be cautious when purchasing top soil or fill dirt, as you’re likely to inherit a new set of problems unless you know the seller and the quality of materials.

We can’t control the weather, but we can help improve our native soils by adding organic matter.

Melody Hefner is the Urban IPM and Pesticide Safety Program Coordinator for the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Have a question about your soil or plants? Contact a master gardener at or visit