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I Can’t Get Anything To Grow!

What To Do When Your Soil Rejects You

I went to visit a garden design client a while back, and as we walked around her backyard, she lamented, “I can’t get anything to grow back here”! We went through a checklist to see if we could figure out the problem:

Sun – Her planting beds had the right types of plants for her partly sunny yard, which got about 4 hours of sunlight per day with dappled light in the early morning and late afternoon. However, the Hydrangeas, gardenias, azaleas, and other part sun-loving plants looked anemic, stunted, and were not blooming.

Water – The irrigation system seemed to be working well. On the surface, the soil was evenly moist. There weren’t any dry spots. The plants didn’t show any signs of being over or under watered. For the season, these plants should have been lush and full of blooms, so maybe water was part of the problem.

Soil/Nutrition – Next we turned to the soil. Soil provides support for plants as well as a place to hold water and key nutrients that plants need to grow and thrive. You can’t tell how good or fertile soil is just by looking at it. I got out my trusty shovel and dug a small hole. I noted that the soil was very compacted and hard, which makes it difficult for roots to spread. Also, the water from her irrigation system was only penetrating the soil about a ½” or so. Seeing how dry the soil was worried me, and my client confessed that a couple of newer plants she had put in hadn’t made it.

I looked at her and said, “The ground is hard and dry, which is definitely a problem, but beyond that, I can’t tell what’s missing from the soil without doing a soil test. A soil test will let you know the levels of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium in the soil plus the pH (which measures acidity).

A basic soil test can either be done DIY with an at home test where you mix soil samples in provided test tubes with a liquid solution. There are also digital versions of at home tests available. These kits run $12.00-$20.00 and are available in nurseries or online.

If you don’t mind spending about $75.00, you can send a sample to a laboratory that will perform a more comprehensive test on your soil to include micronutrients, soil make up, and water absorption. Google ‘laboratory soil test in (your area)’ to find the nearest lab.

This is what we decided to do, and in about 10 days, we received a detailed report that showed that her soil was more alkaline (not so good for acid-loving plants like her azaleas), had low levels of Nitrogen and several micronutrients, and was hydrophobic (water was running off and not being absorbed). The report also detailed out which soil amendments and fertilizers to add to the soil to increase its nutritional level and to make it more receptive to water.

We’ll be acting on those recommendations when we replant her flowerbeds this fall, and I can’t wait to report back to you!

Let me know what your soil (or other garden questions) are at The Garden Friends Club on Facebook http://bit.ly/GardenFriendsClub.

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