The Plant Man by Steve Jones
Turn so-so soil into loam and plants will thrive
Spring is here at last and landscape lovers are happily getting soil under their fingernails as they get back to planting their new shrubs and trees.
It's an enjoyable and creative activity that can involve the entire family. Watching plants grow and bloom as a result of your horticultural endeavors is highly satisfying. But seeing trees and shrubs wither and die can be very depressing!
You can't absolutely guarantee success, but you can put the odds in your favor by paying close attention to these two important factors: Good soil and correct planting procedures.
If you are fortunate enough to be blessed with perfect loamy soil, give thanks to St. Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners. Fiacre was a monk who lived in Ireland about fourteen hundred years ago and was renowned for his beautiful gardens and for developing herbs with healing properties.
How well do you know your soil? There are three basic types of soil: sand, silt and clay.
Sandy soil has fairly large particles that don't stick together. Water, air and plant roots easily penetrate sandy soil.
Silt, as you might guess from the name, is smooth and slippery. It can hold water better than sand when wet.
Clay consists of very small particles than bind together easily. Squeeze a handful of predominantly clay soil when wet, and you can mold it into a clump. Water, air and plant roots have trouble penetrating clay. Dry clay can be as hard as a rock!
The ideal soil contains moderate amounts of all three elements and can then be described as "loam." As a rule of (green) thumb, loam has less than 52% sand, between 28% and 52% silt and 7% to 27% clay. Get your soil to that kind of ratio and you're definitely putting the odds in your favor!
It's not easy to determine the state of your soil just by looking at it. Rather than waste money by trying to grow plants that always seem to die or look sickly, invest a little time and money in a soil test. There are DIY test kits on the market or you can get a professional soil evaluation at a very reasonable price. If you'd like specific advice about soil testing, send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
As you know, I'm a strong advocate of organic solutions to garden and landscape problems, and that is definitely the case when it comes to soil! I believe that chemical fertilizers, aside from being potentially toxic, are short-term plant boosters that can leave behind a salty residue in the soil, preventing some plants from absorbing necessary nutrients.
So I encourage you to seek out organic solutions when you need to improve the quality of your soil. There are a number of organic products on the market and I've been getting good results from some of them. If you need some more information on organic solutions or shopping information, send me an e-mail and I'll send you a personal reply.
Next time, I'll discuss some planting tips that will help you get the best results from bareroot, balled-and-burlapped and container-grown plants.
Meanwhile, a comment from a reader...
Jeff Johnson from Brooksville, FL, sent me an e-mail after reading a recent column about growing a variety of bamboo named Fargesia robusta. Jeff said that, several years ago, he had tried growing Fargesia but the plants died, presumably due to the hot, humid summers in his area.
Individual results can vary, of course, and Fargesia robusta ("Green Screen") does well in Zones 5 - 9 on the USDA Plant Hardiness map, something I didn't specify in that column. Brooksville, FL, is in Zone 10, and excessively hot and humid conditions such as you'll find around Miami are not recommended for Fargesia. Thanks for your comment, Jeff.
The Plant Man is here to help. Send questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to email@example.com. For resources and additional information, or to subscribe to Steve's free weekly e-mailed newsletter, go to www.landsteward.org