Sinkin Eco Centro enriches community’s knowledge of healthy soil

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Calvin R. Finch, who has a Ph.D. in horticulture from Texas A&M University, speaks about the importance of organic material in soil and ways to incorporate it into gardens and lawns April 19 at Eco Centro. Photo by Alison Graef

Expert in horticulture presented on how to enrich soil in gardens and lawns.

By Alison Graef

An expert horticulturist described the South as one big compost pile.

Because of the combination of heat and humidity in Texas, the nutritious organic components in garden soil decompose quickly and need to be replenished, said Calvin R. Finch, who has a Ph.D. in horticulture from Texas A&M College Station.

Finch, retired director of Texas A&M Water Conservation and Technology Center and of Water Conservation at the San Antonio Water System, presented on the importance of healthy soil in landscaping and gardening April 19 at Sinkin Eco Centro.

“If we’re going to be successful here, we have to address the soil situation,” Finch said. “One of our issues is how to incorporate organic material into our soil.”

Finch said one of the easiest ways to incorporate fresh organic material into soil is to allow leaves to decompose rather than raking them. The leaves will decompose over a few weeks and enrich the soil with nutrients.

“People don’t like to see leaves on their lawns,” Finch said. “I know great gardeners who have gotten into the bad habit of raking their leaves. I say leave them.”

Another way to incorporate organic material into a lawn is to aerate and top-dress. Aeration is the process of punching or cutting small holes in the soil to allow oxygen into the soil and decomposition gasses to escape. Top-dressing is a prepared, nutrient-rich soil mix that is applied over an existing lawn.

“The best aerators are the ones that cut rather than force,” Finch said. “There are aerators that compact, but it’s better if you get one that can cut those plugs out.”

Directly after aeration, Finch recommends applying a top-dressing of compost so it can reach deep into the soil. Finch recommends buying compost rather than products marketed as top-dressing, because commercial top-dressing is often compost diluted with sand.

Finch said it is important to work with the natural landscape of the area. He said it is best to use indigenous and well-adapted plants to be successful and maintain the natural beauty of the area.

“Everybody appreciates the Hill Country landscapes and brags about them,” Finch said. “But then they try to put a St. Augustine lawn in, and it’s a tough task and inconsistent with what makes the Hill Country attractive.”

Texas has shallow topsoil, which can be a challenge to gardeners. Finch suggests using hardscapes such as flagstone and decomposed granite, and maintaining good drainage with rock drainage paths.

Finch said it is best to work with native plants that are accustomed to the climate and require little soil. For larger plants such as trees, Finch recommends planting them as small specimens to allow them to find their rooting over the course of years. Planting larger trees puts them at greater risk of being blown over in a storm.

Graciela De Leon, agriculture general science sophomore at Palo Alto College and volunteer at Eco Centro, came to the presentation after seeing it advertised on Eco Centro’s Facebook page.

“I just wanted to learn more about how to improve my soil for my garden,” De Leon said. “I’m not doing much right now because I am a full-time student and I work full-time, but I am growing leafy greens.”

De Leon said her experiences at Eco Centro have changed her personally and set her on a life track in horticulture.

“The first time I remember being here at Eco, I didn’t know anybody, I was so shy, “ De Leon said. “And then my life changed, it was just amazing. Before coming here, I didn’t know anything about composting, I didn’t know anything about burma compost, I didn’t know anything until I started volunteering here.”

Eco Centro Coordinator Julie Cornelius said Finch was invited to present at Eco Centro as a part of the center’s Earth Week celebration. The center’s grand opening was on Earth Day in 2014, so Cornelius said Earth Week is always a co-celebration of the center’s anniversary and the values of conservation and respect to the planet.

“It’s our signature week,” Cornelius said. “What I hope is that through these events we are fulfilling our mission: to equip people with education and resources necessary to adopt a sustainable lifestyle.”

Cornelius said this city is growing so rapidly in population that it is important to foster earth-friendly worldviews in residents.

“We need to look for ways to be more sustainable and not waste our resources,” Cornelius said.

Eco Centro has several more events planned:

“Make and Take Rain Barrel Workshop” 9 a.m.-noon May 13

“The Value of Water Series, Lecture 3: World in a Drop” 6 p.m. May 17

“Sustainable Landscape Tour” 9 a.m. June 10

“Master Composter Certification Workshop” June 23-25

For more information or updates/rescheduling, please visit Eco Centro’s Facebook page at or email Jess Mayes at


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