Gardening: From the Ground Up

You go to the nursery on a mission for plant A. But you end up seduced by that new foliage, waves of color, or an intoxicating fragrance and you're a goner. Who can blame you? Not us. I never met a gorgeous plant that I could resist! You picked the plant for the correct light in your garden but it's performance is lackluster at best. Why? Because gardening is science. Gorgeous gardens don't just happen, they are built - from the ground up.

Picking a plant by light requirements is only a starting point for plant perfection. Plants, while highly adaptable, only perform optimally if all three conditions for growth are met:

1. Correct Light 2. Healthy Soil 3. Adequate Water

Understanding Soil PH

The quality of your soil is as important, if not more so, as the lighting a plant receives. A plant can adjust to different light exposures but soil is a tougher nut to crack. Without the proper nutrients, good soil texture and organic matter, a plant can and often does, fail - spectacularly. Poor plant growth, prone to diseases. After all, that gorgeous plant you picked up at the nursery is carefully coddled from germination to perennial splendor, in a light, fast draining plant mixture, receives a regular dose of fertilizers and daily watering.

In order to provide an ideal new home for your plants, you need to be knowledgeable about your garden soil. We advise all new clients to have a soil test done as it provides you with critical knowledge, like your soil's PH and organic content. The PH determines availability of nutrients and ranges from 0 to 14. Different plants have different requirements. Since soils in NJ tend to be slightly acidic, due to the amount of rainfall, monitoring soil PH should be done every three years. PH can be adjusted by applications of lime and a good laboratory soil test will provide you with the amount and timing of lime applications based on plant types. For more on soil PH, see here.

For example, we receive a lot of requests for sod installations gone wrong. Homeowners become frustrated because their sod installation performed so poorly and became weed infested. Soil tests usually show that their soil PH was too acidic for optimum grass growth. Meanwhile, the homeowner has spent a significant amount of time and money over fertilizing to combat these issues.

Armed with this knowledge, you, or your landscaper can (a) adjust your planting selections to match your PH requirements or (b) amend your soil to provide the desired PH for perennials, lawns, etc. For more on plant PH requirements, check here.

Soil Content & Texture

The second key component to building healthy soil is organic content. You can easily tell if your soil is rich in organic matter by getting out your shovel and examining the soil. Look for color, worms and good, crumbly texture.

  • Best Soil: Rich, dark color. The darker the soil is, the higher in organic matter it is.
  • Adequate Soil: Dark Red/Brown usually indicates adequate air and drainage.
  • Problem Soils: Blue/Green, Gray or Yellow are all indicative of drainage issues.

Worms are always a great indication of soil friability and microbial activity. Their presence indicates a healthy soil web. Worms aerate the soil and even fertilize it with worm castings.

Is your soil clumpy, or does it easily breaks apart? Most plants prefer loose soils as it's easier for their roots to penetrate and spread. The bigger the root system, the better the plant is able to withstand drought and the bigger the plant. Organic matter, over time, greatly improves soil texture.

Amend & Feed

The second thing you should do when planting, or during landscape renovations, is amend all beds with organic material. While you may be tempted to skip on this step, we advise against it as it's a great way to safeguard your investment and give you long lasting results.

Adding organic material like compost, humus or peat moss, improves texture, water retention and microbial activity in your soil. Monrovia compost is stellar. The best perennial beds are amended annually. We recommend top dressing your beds with compost at the top of the season. The difference is often dramatic.

Lastly, you should get in the habit of applying organic fertilizer to any new plant in your garden. We love Espoma products, which are available at any quality nursery, or garden center. Espoma is organic and provides lasting nutrients. Organic fertilizers are superior to chemical fertilizers which must be applied repeatedly and do little to encourage microbial activity.

Voila! Your garden is on it's way to a blossoming beginning. :)