A GROWING CONCERN: Prepare your soil for spring

THE LONG ANTICIPATED Spring officially begins Monday, March 20, 2:24 p.m. (PDT) and with spring, thoughts of rebirth, blooms, warm weather and outdoor activities play upon our mind.

Plants officially begin to increase their botanical offerings and many perennials, bare root items and containers should be perfect to plant now. But please resist those bedding trays of sensitive annuals, and instead plant roses, hardy fuchsia, peony trees, lilies, bulbs, palm trees, even grass, rhododendrons and berries.

These are all perfect to plant now, but first make sure they are conditioned.

I understand the urge to jump ahead in your gardening plans. When spring comes, there is an overwhelming urge in gardeners to go out and make big strides in the yard. But restrain yourself to prevent gardening misery later.

Curb that urge by joining me during these next few weeks in soil preparation.

This is the most singly crucial exercise in ensuring a beautiful summer garden.

No matter how perfect the plant it is, picked for all the sun and moisture conditions, ordered specially for its disease resistance, pruned ever so carefully and planted by some wonderful professional landscaper, if your soil is not right, you might as well just send your money to me.

For this discussion, let’s focus on soils for flower beds, baskets, containers, planters and window boxes and go back to the basics.

1. Nutrients and moisture

You first must fully comprehend that 90 percent or more of all nutrients and moisture comes to the plant via the root system.

Minerals, fertilizers and nutrients first must break down and dissolve into water. Then, through the process of diffusion, this slurry of nutrient-rich water enters the microscopic hair roots, and up the root and plant goes the food and water. This means the soil must be able to hold water for a period of time and then be easily drainable.

Water needs to be able to move through soil because it only can dissolve so much particulate and then it stops. Then the next watering is trapped in the pore space, dissolves even more nutrient, is absorbed into the plant, soil drains out as the process repeats.

Pore space is the name of the game! It’s what makes all this gardening stuff work. Poor pore space translates to loose, fluffy soil. Just because soil is fluffy doesn’t mean it won’t compact right away.

Soil compaction occurs naturally by waterings and gravity, and is greatly sped up when soil has too much of the same particle size.

Compaction is the enemy. Compaction simply crushes in pore space, which diminishes the water- holding capacity of the soil, and thus available nutrients.

And don’t forget that the roots are the entrance point for nutrients and essential water for the plant. You must have a well-developed system to get a well-developed plant, but roots grow poorly in compacted soil.

If there are few gaps between the soil particles, where are the small frail, delicate root hairs supposed to expand? This is why the grass still is yellow-green where the truck drove over your lawn two years ago, and fertilizer is not going to help it. The only solution is aeration — loosen that soil up.

2. Compacted soil

Compacted soils don’t allow for roots to grow, nutrients to be gathered and water to be absorbed. If you find yourself planting flowers with a trowel shovel, jackhammer or crowbar, then your soil is compacted.

Ideal flower bed, perennial or container soil is loose and light enough to dive your hand down in at least to your wrist. You should only be using tools because it is more productive or less messy, not because the poor heavy soil allows no other option. How do you achieve such soils?

3. Soil preparation

Soil prep is an ongoing biannual (at minimum) process. You always should be adding different particle sizes to the soil, along with rich organic material. The more particle sizes the better!

Great additives for the soil are peat moss, compost, course perlite, old manure, leaf mold, coarse sand, old decayed bark, lawn clippings or sawdust. Even just adding a 3-inch good topsoil is perfect in most cases. Add two or more of these items per year, and go through the whole list over 10 years, if possible, for bonus points.

For flowers, lime at 50 to 60 pounds per 1,000 feet, along with a good fertilizer, and cultivate in deeply (preferably 8 to 12 inches deep).

Do this process during the next few weeks, and I guarantee a very noticeable difference. You also must add no less than an inch of decomposed organic matter or 2 inches of peat moss — and do it again next year, too.

Finally, with this fluffy high mound of soil, make sure to sculpt it. This is one of my best soil tricks.

Remember it.

A flat bed is noticeable only a short distance away, but a bed which is ground level at one end and mounded (shaped) 14 inches high to the center, is visible down the next block.

Absolutely shape your beds — this is even better than buying more plants!

However, the best thing … is to stay well all!


Andrew May is a freelance writer and ornamental horticulturist who dreams of having Clallam and Jefferson counties nationally recognized as “Flower Peninsula USA.” Send him questions c/o Peninsula Daily News, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or email news@peninsuladailynews.com (subject line: Andrew May).

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