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Curing sick soil

When a recent rainfall left Diane Antonvich's new yard a gooey mess, it was obvious something was wrong. But so wrong it needed four gardeners using rice hulls, sand, decayed leaves and bark to nurse it back to health?

That's right, says Antonvich's landscaper, Chris Day, who suggested the $2,000 makeover. His diagnosis: sick soil. "It was sticky like black chewing gum," he says. "You couldn't get it off your shovel."

If the garden industry has anything to say about it, the next homeowner who calls a dirt doctor might be you. Having convinced Americans to spend endlessly above ground, the $38-billion-a-year industry is pushing a new array of chemical and organic additives to treat soil down below.

Soil's lackluster? There's a new liquid tonic to feed it "good" bacteria. Too sandy? One company is pushing an enricher made of ground-up lobster and crab shells. Even ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry's is getting in on the act, selling a dirt aid in its trademark pint containers (it's made from waste from the ice-cream manufacturing process). The result: Dirt has grown into an $800-million-a-year business.

While dosing your dirt with additives can _ and often does _ help plants fight disease and grow larger, gardeners complain that using the new soil-care products can be confusing, not to mention time-consuming. And though the treatments tend to be cheap, there are some unintended consequences, like errant fruits and vegetables sprouting in flower beds from under-mulched compost.

"There are no standards to call something compost," says Mary Ann Lynch, who ended up with some unwanted cantaloupes and tomatoes in her flower beds in Coppell, Texas.

Mother Nature has a hand in all this, of course. During the past few years, she's produced so much weird weather that serious gardeners are willing to do anything to keep their plants alive.

The organic crowd is also playing a role. Now that people are more worried about things like genetically engineered vegetables and the ill effects of chemical weedkillers, they want to make sure their own back yards are safe. And with so many new gardeners taking up the hobby _ there was a 27 percent jump from 1999 to 2001 _ the industry is looking to promote stuff beginners can handle.

When Elizabeth Thurston decided to plant her first garden in her York, Maine, back yard, a friend insisted that the only way she would ever coax anything out of the ground was to dig out the rocks and roots and replace them with compost. Thurston chose "Quoddy Blend," a concoction of ground-up salmon bones and mussel and lobster shells. For good measure, Thurston hand-harvested seaweed and worked that into the soil, too. After a month of 55-hour weeks in her yard, Thurston's garden is a "riotous success," she says. "Now I know a great garden is all about the soil."

Gardening books have long recommended that homeowners test their soil for things such as mineral content before putting anything in the ground. Until recently, though, few did. Most people simply sprayed a water-soluble chemical fertilizer or worked chemical pellets in around their plant roots. But as research started to show that the organic content of the soil was actually more important to growth than chemical fertilizers, people started looking for stuff to make their soil come "alive," from insects to "good" bacteria.

Nothing could tickle the companies that sell dirt more. They've started cranking out enough soil health-care products to fill a pharmacy. There are compost thermometers, gizmos to measure a soil's pH and nutrient levels, and organic fertilizers made of everything from alfalfa to sea-gull guano. While the packaging for "Hog Heaven" pig manure features pigs dressed like the couple in the painting "American Gothic," GardensAlive.com of Lawrenceburg, Ind., will analyze your soil and devise a custom-blend treatment of 14 ingredients to cover a 2,500-square-foot yard. Cost: $350.

And revenue is soaring. Earthworks Soil Amendments, a Corona, Calif., company that makes a soil moistener called "Clay Cruncher," has seen sales double in each of the past three years. Nature's Way Resources, a Conroe, Texas, maker of 50 soil-improving blends, says revenue is up 60 percent this year. Across the country, about two-thirds of gardening families bought soil additives last year, compared with half five years ago. While Ben & Jerry's is giving the proceeds of its fertilizer to charity, chemical giant Scotts Co., which makes Miracle-Gro, has been so successful with its new organic dirt products that marketing manager James Lee calls them "dirt into dollars."

Yet Susan Taylor found that giving her dirt some tender loving care wasn't as easy as it sounded. After reading that nitrogen was important for plant growth, Taylor bought a 50-pound bag of nitrogen-rich urea pellets at a farm feed store in St. Joseph, Mo. Instead of following the instructions to bury the pellets in the ground, she just threw handfuls around the garden. Half her perennials got so badly burned that she had to toss out $150 worth of the flowers. "It hurts even worse that I lost all the time it had taken for the plants to get established," she says.

In Cupertino, Calif., Paula Larkin Hutton found that some of the gizmos are just that. After spending $15 on a dirt-testing kit, Hutton decided the reading was "wildly inaccurate" for California soil, a problem Florida gardeners can run into because of the differences in coastal and inland soils. Hutton ended up figuring out what was wrong with her soil by plowing through her 100-book gardening library. And that testing kit? It ended up in the garbage.

It doesn't take a soil consultant to know that well-tended dirt will produce healthier plants. Gardeners point to research showing that adding a few inches of compost around a tomato plant, for example, increases the number of tomatoes it produces and cuts the amount of fertilizer it needs in half. And good gardeners have long known that ground-up shells and bones add calcium and iron to soil, help break up hard clay and help dirt hold water.

Still, for some people store-bought additives often work better than home remedies. To break up the hard clay soil in his Asheville, N.C., yard, Michael Gillum followed a friend's advice and spread cat litter around his plants. Instead of "nice and chunky" soil, Gillum ended up with a "white, sticky paste" that took him hours to clean up.

Building better soil

With more gardeners "feeding" their garden soil, manufacturers keep rolling out new products that promise better dirt. Here are a few of the more popular ones.

Fish & Poop: $15/a quart; www.montereylawngarden.com

How it works: Bird guano and fish remains make plants perky.

Comments: This spray-on organic fertilizer delivers a concentrated dose of nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. A surprising plus: no unpleasant smell.

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Red Plastic Mulch: $384; www.territorial-seed.com

How it works: Helps produce more and bigger fruits

Comments: Studies actually show that red plastic sheets stretched over seed beds prevent water evaporation and help red fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes and strawberries grow bigger.

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Clay Cruncher: $6.75 for 25 pounds; (909) 270-0088

How it works: Increases good bacteria in soil

Comments: One of Earthworks Soil Amendment's best-sellers, this mix of chicken manure, rock phosphate, sand, potash and gypsum fills soil with oxygen.

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Lasagna Gardening: $26.95; www.rodalestore.com

How it works: Teaches quick soil-boosting techniques

Comments: This book, which promotes layering newspaper, leaves and table scraps as fertilizer, is a cult gardening favorite and one of Rodale's most popular tomes.

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Chesapeake Blue Crab Organic Soil Enhancer: $7.95 for 20 pounds; www.homeharvest.com

How it works: Wood chips help sandy soil hold water

Comments: Like a seafood feast for your garden. Ground-up Chesapeake Bay blue crab and composted wood chips add calcium carbonate and other minerals to the soil.

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Mighty Mac Leaf Shredder: $599.95; www.thelawnmowershop.com

How it works: Turns leaves and branches into mulch

Comments: MacKissic Inc. has designed this compact model so you can rake leaves directly into its six horsepower engine.

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