Author Archives: Barbara Rogers

A Feast for the Eyes

Traditionally, when planning a vegetable garden, the focus has been primarily on function with aesthetics as an afterthought – a productive harvest has usually been more important than any visual appeal. This year, why not try a new approach? Thoughtfully combine beauty and performance to create an edible garden that will explode with a variety of color and an abundance of produce. It can truly be a feast for the eyes as well as the table!

Planning a Beautiful Vegetable Garden

Color, texture and form are characteristics we keep in mind when combining plants in the flower garden. We plan flowerbeds so that plants enhance each other, repeating colors and shapes for continuity and flow. We add a variety of texture and form for diversity and interest. Vegetables, herbs and fruits can be just as vibrant, exciting, diverse and easy to combine as annual and perennial flowering plants are.

To begin, provide structure. Placing a picket fence around your garden offers instant structure and visually sets it apart from the rest of the landscape. If you plan on planting along the outside of the perimeter, you will create the allure of a garden within a garden, with a hint of secret places. Place a straight pathway through the center, starting at the entrance. Divide the larger garden into smaller square planting beds using pathways to separate the beds. This will enhance the structure of, and provide easy access to, the garden beds as well as lead your eye through the garden. If desired, you can also used raised beds for this formal structure.

Next, focus on plant selection. Begin with a plant plan or layout. Initially, base your selections on what is pleasing to your individual tastes. Consider unusual varieties of vegetables and herbs that come in unique colors. Repeat colors, both horizontally and vertically, to add depth and dimension to the garden. Don’t forget to add brightly flowering annuals such as zinnias and marigolds to mingle amongst the edibles. Another consideration is edible flowers like nasturtium and calendula. Contrast colors for a striking, eye-catching effect. Keep in mind, also, texture and form. Bold textures add drama and are often combined with fine-foliaged plants for a softening contrast. Short, stout plants anchor the garden bed while tall, willowy plants raise the eye and lead you farther down the garden path. Take all these characteristics into account when planning and place plants in geometric patterns to create a quilt-like garden tapestry.

Finally, your spring edible garden will emerge invoking a feeling of calm, displaying a variety of cool greens, purples and blues found in peas, lettuce, cabbage and broccoli. Shortly after, the summer edible garden will be completely transformed at harvest time with an explosion of vibrant shades of red, purple, orange and yellow. With so many stunning options to combine, you can truly create a feast for the eyes that will be beautiful in every season!

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Dividing Hybrid Hellebores

Hybrid hellebores bring us all sorts of happiness. These are one of the first plants to bloom in the late winter and early spring and are available in flower colors of chartreuse, cream, white, pink, red and deep purple. Hybrid hellebores are also those rare and treasured perennials that provide year-round interest, giving you the most bang for your buck and brightening your landscape in every season. As evergreens, they never lose their luster, and their flower shapes and textures are quite varied for even more interest, with a cultivar to suit any gardener’s taste. What’s not to be happy about?

A Love Divided

To keep these plants healthy and thriving, and to increase your quantity, division is a necessity. It is important to divide these plants carefully, however, or else you risk sadness with fewer blooms, lopsided plants or even losing these gems. Fortunately, it’s possible for even a novice hellebore lover to divide their plants with confidence.

  1. Divide hybrid hellebores in the spring when it is in bloom. This will also let you see how the blooms are positioned on the plant so you can divide shapes appropriately.
  2. Choose a plant that has at least 5 flower stems. Each one represents a division and will give you great new plants to bloom.
  3. Dig your hellebores up with a garden spade by inserting it deeply into the soil around the perimeter of the plant about 6 inches away from the outer stems of the clump. This will keep the root system largely intact and uninjured.
  4. Lift the clump and shake off loose soil or any trapped rocks or ensnared mulch. You can gently loosen clumps with your fingers, but take care not to damage the roots.
  5. With a garden hose, wash away any additional soil from the clump so the plant roots are exposed. This will help them get established in their new location more quickly.
  6. Divide the clump by cutting through the roots with a heavy-duty serrated knife. Make your root cuts where you see obvious natural divisions between the flower stalks.
  7. Replant your divisions at their original depth, in a shady location. Include plenty of compost in the planting hole for good nourishment. Water well and continue to keep soil from drying out until your new plants are well established.

Before you know it, you’ll have many more hybrid hellebores to enjoy! If you have a few too many, be sure to share the happiness by giving them to family members, friends, neighbors and anyone else who can fall in love with these beauties.

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Holey Moley, Shrew or Vole!

Mole, vole or shrew: ever wonder what the difference is between these pests, or why you should care? All three of these mouse-like creatures may be seen in or around your garden. Identification is important in determining if and how you should control these critters.

Moles

  • Identification: A mature mole will grow 5-7 inches from snout to tail. Moles have soft, thick, velvety-gray fur, a long, blunt snout and an approximately 1-inch long tail. Their eyes and ears are inconspicuous, hidden under their fur. Their paddle-like front paws are two to three times wider then their rear paws.
  • Damage: Moles, in search of grubs, beetles and earthworms, burrow in the ground and create tunneling in the lawn and garden. They surface occasionally leaving small hills of loose soil. Moles are solitary, subterranean creatures.
  • Control: Reduce food supply by controlling grubs in the lawn. Use repellents containing castor oil, or toxic baits placed in the tunnel but out of reach of pets. There are several different styles of mole traps available on the market.

Voles

  • Identification: Voles, often called meadow mice, are a little larger than moles reaching 5-8 inches long at maturity. Their heads are rounded, their eyes are larger than shrews, their fur is brown, short and smooth, their front paws are about the same width as their rear paws and their tails are about 1 ¾ inches long.
  • Damage: Voles are herbivores that feed on bulbs, tubers and tender young plants. During the winter, often under the cover of snow, voles will eat surface roots and chew bark from the base of trees and shrubs often causing the plant to girdle and die. Voles, unlike moles and shrews, are social and where you find one, you will find many. Voles will often tunnel in mulch or ground cover above ground leaving surface trails. They sometimes run through old mole tunnels eating plant roots.
  • Control: Use Thiram-based repellents. Set up mouse traps baited with peanut butter or apple slices. Keep mulch away from tree trunks. Remove snow from the base of trees and shrubs in the winter. Protect young trees by wrapping the lower trunk in wire mesh. Apply predator urine to the area and reapply frequently. Do not use poisons.

Shrews

  • Identification: A mature shrew will reach 4-5 inches long. Shrews have a thin tail about 7/8 of an inch long, soft, grey, short fur, small beady eyes, small ears and a pointed snout.
  • Damage: Shrews, like moles, are insectivores. They eat earthworms, grubs and other insects. Shrews, however, are often seen above ground although they tend to use old mole and vole tunnels to get around. Shrews cause no real damage to plants and eat a variety of insects making them beneficial in the landscape and garden.
  • Control: None necessary.

Not sure what to do about these pesky garden visitors? Stop by to see our complete line of safe, effective pest control products and to ask for expert consultation about which visitors should be welcome in your garden and which ones you should gently encourage to leave.


How To Succeed At Seed-Starting

It’s easy to buy seedlings, but there are many reasons why you may wish to start your own plants. By starting your own seeds, you have a much greater selection of flowers, vegetables and herbs to choose from. For example, old favorites like hollyhocks and less common varieties of herbs and perennials as well as heirloom vegetables might not be available as plants, or stocks may be limited. Plants with fine seeds should also be started indoors because they can easily wash away in the rain and they may have a difficult time competing with weeds. Starting your own seeds can also help you extend the growing season so you can enjoy a longer, more productive harvest. So why not get started today?

Containers for Starting Seeds

Traditionally, seeds are started in flats or peat pots. There are various sizes of plastic trays, cedar flats, peat pots and the popular Jiffy-7, a flat, peat-moss wafer, available. When moistened, the Jiffy-7 expands to form a small, self-contained pot of soil into which a seed is sown directly. This is an excellent choice when sowing seed of plants that do not like their roots disturbed during transplanting. You might also use eggshells or folded newspaper pots to start your seeds.

Seed-Friendly Soil

It is best to use a light, soilless mix when starting seeds. These mixes are sterile, meaning young seeds do not have any weed seeds to compete with, and there are no harmful bacteria, insects or other pests in the soil right away. Good seed mixes also contain adequate nutrients to carry seedlings through until transplanting. Do not use garden soil, as seeds will not germinate well in the heavy soil, and a fungus disease called damping off is common.

Temperatures for Seeds

Most seeds require warm soil in order to germinate. You will need to heat the soil of the seedling flats with a heat mat, heat tray or heating cable. Seed trays can also be placed on top the refrigerator or hot water heater. Do not put seed-starting trays on a windowsill; nighttime temperatures are too cool to allow for good germination. Seeds need consistent warm temperatures of 75 degrees or warmer for optimum germination.

Seed Watering Needs

Seeds need to be kept constantly moist in order to germinate. Moisten the soil thoroughly before planting. Water when the surface is dry with a misting nozzle or plastic spray bottle until the soil is saturated. The medium should be constantly moist, but not soggy. It is important not to overwater, which could drown the seeds and tender seedlings, but also not to permit the flat to dry out.

Sowing Seeds

Seeds should be sown 2-10 weeks before the last spring frost date. Your seed packet will provide this information as sowing dates can vary for different plant varieties or even cultivars of the same plants. Fill your containers almost to the top with moist growing mix. Tamp it down gently and smooth it out. Gently press the seeds into the mix or simply set them on the surface of the soil and place milled sphagnum moss over the top to prevent damping off. Cover the container loosely with plastic wrap or a clear dome, which will help preserve moisture and warmth. Be sure to label your containers with plastic or wood plant stakes and write the plant name and the date sowed. Set trays in a warm spot and check daily to keep evenly moist.

Seedling Care

Once seedlings have grown a half-inch or so, you should water less frequently. Let the soil dry slightly between watering, which will help the seedlings stretch and develop a strong root system. Seedlings will also need light and the best method is to use the traditional fluorescent fixtures or the new energy-saving LEDs. Suspend lights just an inch or two away from the plants. Lights must be on at least 14-16 hours a day. As your seedlings grow, raise the lights accordingly so they do not bump into the lighting fixture. If your seedlings do not get enough light, they will become weak and spindly. Fertilize seedlings weekly with half-strength, balanced, organic fertilizer. A fish and seaweed blend works well. Thin seedlings if they become overcrowded, choosing the healthiest, strongest seedlings to save.

Hardening Off and Planting Out

When the weather is warm, move your seed trays outside gradually over a 5-7 day period. Start by putting them out just for a few hours during the late morning to mid-afternoon, and then gradually increase until they are left out all day and night. Keep them in a lightly shaded, protected spot during the day to prevent sunburn. After a week or two of this transition, gently transplant seedlings into the garden. Try not to handle the root ball too much, as they are quite fragile. Water thoroughly after transplanting and again every day for about a week. Newly set out plants will look sparse at first, but they will grow and fill in quickly, leading to bumper crops and a lush, delicious harvest!

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Seedling Box Tray in Greenhouse

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Trees For Small Spaces

There’s something about putting a tree in the ground that just feels right. In many cases, you start with just a bare trunk with a few branches and then, rather quickly, it begins sprouting new growth. You nurture your new acquisition and each year it increases in height and girth. Finally, one day, you look out the window and a magnificent mature tree is there to greet you!

Choosing Your Best Tree

Trees are a permanent addition to the landscape and therefore require a great deal of thought and planning in their selection so you are not regretting your choice as the tree matures. When choosing, not only do you need to keep climate and soil type in mind, but you will also need to consider how much space you have, both above and below the ground, and how large your tree will be at maturity. Large trees should be given the room that they need to grow and thrive. Planted in the wrong location, some large trees have far reaching roots that can damage plumbing, break underground utilities and buckle pavement, not to mention branches that can tower dangerously over your roof. Fortunately, there are many small to medium trees available that look great and cause no damage when planted close to your house, sidewalk or driveway.

Top Trees for Small Spaces

  • Acer ginnala (Amur Maple) – Multi-stemmed, rounded habit, bright red fall color, 15-20’ h x 15-20’ w
  • Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple) – Upright, irregular habit, exfoliating bark, excellent red fall color, 20-30’ h x 15-25’ w
  • Acer palmatum (Japanese Maple) – Numerous varieties, textures, colors and forms and sizes for every taste and situation
  • Aesculus pavia (Red Buckeye) – Native to the southeastern United States, red upright flowers in May to early June, flowers attract hummingbirds, 10-20’ h x 10-20’ w
  • Amelanchier canadensis (Shadblow Serviceberry) – North American native, shrubby, multi-stemmed trunk tree, white flowers in early spring, edible purplish-black fruit, reddish-orange fall color, 6-15’ h x 15-20’ w
  • Betula pendula ‘Youngii’ (Young’s Weeping Birch) – Strong weeping tendency, attractive white bark, yellow fall color, 8-12’ h x 10’ w
  • Carpinus caroliniana (American Hornbeam) – Eastern North American native, multi-stemmed, smooth muscular gray bark, yellow/red/orange fall color, 20-30’ h x 20-30’ w
  • Cercis Canadensis (Eastern Redbud) – Eastern North American native, often multi-stemmed, purple-pink flowers in early spring, 20-30’ h x 20-30’ w
  • Chionanthus viriginicus (Fringe Tree) – North American native, multi-stemmed, rounded habit, fringe-like white flowers in May to early June, golden-yellow fall color, 12-20’ h x 12-20’ w
  • Cornus alternifolia (Pagoda Dogwood) – Eastern North American native, tiered horizontal branching, white flowers late May to early June, blue-black fruit, persistent coral colored fruit stalks, yellow/reddish/purple fall color, 25’ h x 25’ w
  • Cornus florida (Flowering Dogwood) – Eastern North American and northern Mexican native, rounded habit, white or pink flowers in mid-May, reddish-purple fall color, 30’ h x 30’ w
  • Cornus kousa (Korean Dogwood) – Rounded habit, vase-shaped branching habit, flowers white aging to pink in early summer, red to purple fall color, 30’ h x 30’ w
  • Cornus mas (Cornelian Cherry Dogwood) – Multi-stemmed, rounded habit, small yellow flowers in early spring, bright red berries in the summer eaten quickly by birds, 20’ h x 20’ w
  • Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’ (Winter King Hawthorn) – United States native, broad horizontal crown, white flowers in spring, yellow fall color, abundance of small red berries in winter, 15’ h x 20’ w
  • Halesia tetraptera (Carolina Silverbell) – native, irregular to rounded and broad shaped, pendulous white bell-shaped flowers in May, Smooth muscle-like bark, 30 – 40’h x 25 – 35’w
  • Magnolia stellata (Star Magnolia) – Multi-stemmed tree with oval habit, lightly fragrant showy white blooms in early spring, ornamental smooth silver-gray bark, 15-20’ h x 10-15’ w
  • Malus sargentii (Sargent crabapple) – Mounded habit, blooms April through early May, fragrant flowers, pink-red in bud opening to white, very showy deep red fruit held in clusters, 6-8’ h x 9-12’ w
  • Prunus cerasifera ‘Thundercloud’ (Thundercloud Plum) – Rounded habit, deep purple foliage all year around, slightly fragrant pink flowers in the spring, 20’ h x 20’ w
  • Stewartia koreana (Korean Stewartia) – Pyramidal or oval in shape, white flowers in June and July, long bloom time, excellent fall color orange/yellow/red/purple, 25’ h x 12’ w
  • Stewartia ovate (Mountain Stewartia) – Slow grower, dense with spreading branches, white flowers in July, orange to red fall color, 10-15’ h x 10-15’ w
  • Stewartia pseudocamellia (Japanese Stewartia) – Slow grower, pyramidal, solitary white camellia-like flowers June to August, excellent fall color yellow/red/purple, beautiful exfoliating camouflage bark exposed in the winter, 40’ h x 20’ w
  • Styrax japonica (Japanese Snowbell) – Horizontal branching, broad flat top at maturity, hanging white flowers from late May into June, good fall color of yellow with a reddish cast, 20-30’ h x 20-30’ w
  • Syringa reticulate (Japanese Tree Lilac) – Stiff spreading branches, fragrant showy white flowers borne in early summer on panicles up to 12″ long and up to 10” wide, 20’ h x 15’ w

Overwhelmed with small tree varieties and not sure which one is best for your yard? Let our experts help you choose the perfect tree to fit your space!

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What is “pH?” Why Is It Important?

Devised in 1909, the pH scale measures the concentration of hydrogen ions in a solution. The scale ranges from 0-14. Pure water is “neutral” and has a pH of 7, midway between 0 and 14. If a solution has a low concentration of hydrogen ions, the rating will be a higher number and is considered basic or alkaline. Likewise, a high concentration of hydrogen ions rates a lower number and is considered acidic.

What pH Means to Your Garden

There are four important reasons to monitor your soil’s pH level:

  1. pH affects the availability of other nutrients in the soil. If the nutrients are not available because they are chemically bound to something else, plants can’t use that nutrient.
  2. A high or low pH level in the soil allows some plant diseases to multiply more quickly, infecting an entire landscape or garden.
  3. Most organisms living in the soil have pH preferences. For example, earthworms are not as plentiful in acidic soil.
  4. Most plants have specific pH requirements to flourish. Those specific requirements are what the plants need to absorb nutrients more efficiently and resist pests more effectively.

Where Soil pH Occurs

Acidic soil generally occurs in heavy rainfall areas, as the rain will pull acidic compounds from the air and allow them to leach into the soil. Alkaline soil, then, is more common where there is less rain. However, this is just a generalization and neighbors across the street from each other may have a large pH difference. Reasons could include the origin of topsoil brought in, the tillage done in the area and prior occupants’ gardening habits. Even simple changes like how drain spouts are positioned or a watering schedule can impact pH.

The pH Your Plants Need

Most plants will grow well in the neutral zone of 6.5-7.0. However, some plants grow best in specific soil pH conditions. Interestingly, hydrangeas grow well in both slightly acidic and slightly alkaline soils, but the flowers will be blue in acidic soil or pink in alkaline soil. The colors and flavors of fruits and vegetables may also vary somewhat depending on the soil’s pH, even if the plant will thrive in a wider range.

This chart illustrates how slight pH changes can dramatically impact which plants will thrive in certain soils…

Highly Acidic Conditions

(pH between 5 and 6)

Slightly Acidic Conditions

(pH between 6 and 6.5)

Slightly Alkaline Conditions

(pH between 7 and 7.5)

Rhododendrons Blueberries Arrowwood Viburnum
Azaleas Magnolias Box Elder
Camellias Ferns Locust
Pieris Firs Philadelphus
Astilbe Viburnum davidii Hellebores

As you see, pH can influence your gardening choices. Knowing the pH of your soil is the first step towards understanding your soil and improving your garden. By knowing the pH, you may choose the best plants for your site. You may also decide to amend your soil to increase or decrease the pH to grow a wider variety of plants.

We offer several inexpensive and easy-to-use pH test kits. We also offer amendment advice and can help you choose the best plants for your soil’s condition. Stop in for pH help today and we’ll help you make the most of the natural acidity or alkalinity of your soil, or else help you turn that soil into just the pH you desire!

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More Than Just Mulch

Not only does mulch add a decorative finish to your flower beds, it also keeps the soil cool and moist and thus reduces the need for watering. By using a pre-emergent herbicide with mulch, weed seeds are discouraged from germinating and growing. But which mulch should you use?

Types of Mulch

There are several types of mulch to choose from, and each type can give your landscaping a different finishing touch.

  • Pine Bark and Nuggets
    These types of mulches release acid when they break down. Pine mulches should be used around plants that need a more acidic soil. Use around azaleas, rhododendron, pieris japonica and holly.
  • Shredded Hardwood
    This is by far the most popular mulch. It has a dark color and knits together well so that it does not wash away. This mulch is often available in different colors, including black, red and brown.
  • Cypress
    This long-lasting mulch has a pleasant fragrance. Cypress mulch also knits together well, and it is thought to repel insects.
  • Artificial Mulch
    Artificial mulches may look like bark, nuggets or hardwood shreds, but they are really shredded rubber or similar materials. They are often dyed in natural tones to mimic organic mulches, but could also be dyed in outrageous colors. These mulches do not break down and will not benefit the soil, but they do not need replacing as often as organic mulches that will eventually decompose.
  • Yard Waste
    Many gardeners use yard waste such as shredded leaves, grass clippings or pine needles as mulch. While these can be effective mulches to conserve moisture and repel weeds, and they are certainly more economical, they do not have the refined look of wood mulches. Yard waste mulches will also decay and discolor much more quickly than wood mulches.

Using Mulch

No matter which mulch you choose, it is important to use it properly. It is recommended that mulch be applied 2-3 inches deep around plants, in flowerbeds and in garden areas – less depth will not be as effective to shield and protect the soil, while deeper mulch may actually protect too much and could restrict water from entering the soil. Take care not to pile mulch directly next to stems and trunks, which could invite insects and rot to invade the plant.

Over time, mulches will decay and compact, at which time they can be removed and added to a compost pile, or simply turned and worked into the soil around the plants they’ve been protecting. To preserve mulch a bit longer, raking and turning it over will refresh its color and reduce compaction.

Not sure which mulch will be best for your plants? Our experts will be happy to help you choose!

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Spring Lawn Renovation

Spring is the ideal time to spruce up your lawn. After a long winter, you can easily see where any bald, bare or thin patches exist, as well as where weeds or fungus may be taking over the lawn. Fortunately, there are easy ways to set your lawn to rights!

Seeding

If you are planning to seed a new lawn or overseed an existing lawn, it is best to seed as early as possible. It is important to get seed germinated and growing before trees begin to leaf out, when the trees will be usurping more of the soil’s moisture and nutrition and new leaves will block sunlight from the grass seed. This is especially true in more heavily shaded areas. Keep the area moist at all times until the roots of grass seed become established, then you can gradually decrease the frequency of watering. The new grass can be mowed when it reaches a height of about three inches.

Rejuvenating a Weak Lawn

Your lawn cannot live without air, water and nutrients, but decaying material matted down between grass blades can smother even the healthiest-looking lawn. This decaying material is called thatch, and when a thick layer of thatch builds up, water and fertilizer may run off instead of penetrating the soil. Aerating and dethatching can help rejuvenate a lawn by restoring passageways to the soil. Late spring is an excellent time to dethatch cool-season grasses. Thatching rakes can be used, or you can use a metal rake to remove thatch by hand.

Adusting pH 

The pH of your soil has a direct impact on the health of your lawn. Test your soil to determine the pH (simple kits are available to do this). We recommend a small handful of soil taken from a depth of 3 inches to get the most accurate reading. At a pH of 6.8-7.0 nutrients are most readily available to turf grasses, and beneficial microorganisms are more active to decompose thatch and keep the soil structure healthy. If your pH is too low or too high, consider amending the soil as needed to help bring it to a more desirable level.

Crabgrass Control

On established lawns that you are not overseeding, apply a fertilizer with crabgrass control in early to mid-April. Straight Team products can be applied with separate fertilizers like Espoma Organic 18-8-6 or similar fertilizers. Reapply Team in early to mid-June for the second germination of crabgrass. Remember, crabgrass seeds start to germinate when the soil temperature reaches 50-58 degrees. Use corn gluten as an organic alternative for crabgrass control on an established lawn.

On newly seeded lawns and those seeded in late fall or during the winter months, use a starter fertilizer with crabgrass control. You will need to reapply in four weeks or however the manufacturer’s instructions indicate. Proper applications will keep your new lawn crabgrass-free.

Maintaining your lawn at a higher level, 4 inches, throughout the growing season will allow you to control crabgrass without the use of chemicals. Taller grass will shade out the crabgrass seed preventing it from germinating.

Insect Controls

An early season application of Merit or a similar insecticide will provide effective white grub control for the growing season. This preventative method tends to give better results than applying insecticides when you notice damage as it then may be too late. If you have routinely had problems with other insects, opt for products specifically targeted for those pests to ensure effective control.

A lot goes into having a lush, healthy lawn, but if you take the appropriate steps to rejuvenate your lawn in spring, you’ll be rewarded with thick, healthy, resilient turf to enjoy from early spring until snow flies again.

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Soil 101

How well do you understand your soil? It’s more than just dirt, and the more you learn about soil, the better you’ll be able to care for it to ensure a stunning landscape, healthy lawn and productive garden.

All About Soil

The four elements of soil are minerals, water, air and organic matter. Different combinations of the four elements create the four main categories of soil: sand, silt, clay and loam. Of course, we all want loam – that rich, vibrant soil thriving with beneficial bacteria and with a smooth but crumbly texture ideal for root growth. Unfortunately, true loam soils are rare, especially around homes where topsoil was removed and heavy machines compacted the remaining soil during construction or renovation. Most of us have clay soil, which has finer particles that compact easily into a dense mass. Clay soils also retain more water and can easily become too soggy or waterlogged for healthy plants. But just because your soil may be clay, it doesn’t have to stay that way!

Improving Soil

Improving soil is actually quite easy. All soils are improved by adding minerals and organic material that help balance out the overall components of the soil’s structure.

Before adding minerals, test the soil to determine its pH (acidity or alkalinity) and determine any mineral deficiencies. Lime decreases soil acidity, gypsum adds calcium and helps break up heavy clay and sulfur increases acidity. Other soil amendments to add to a clay soil include sand, cottonseed meal and peat moss, all of which will help improve the drainage and structure.

Organic matter refers to plant or animal materials decomposed into compost or “humus.” This residue comes from leaves and other plant materials, as well as certain animal wastes. Grass clippings, paper and certain types of decomposing food can also be ideal compost. The quality depends on the origin of the original biodegradable matter. Many people make their own compost using bins in which materials are mixed until they decompose. Others purchase finished compost. When compost is added to soil, it releases nutrients that are vital for healthy plants, and healthy bacteria and microbes will thrive in organically-rich soil.

The Magic of Mulch

Mulching is a simple way to add biodegradable materials to the soil. Evergreen needles, tree leaves, lawn clippings, chicken manure, etc., can be worked into the soil to decompose. This process improves the air spaces between the soil particles and rearranges the sand, silt and clay to produce optimum soil structure, improving the water retention and drainage balance and making nutrients available to plants.

When soil has proper structure and sufficient nutrients for healthy plants, optimum health has been achieved, and great soil will lead to great landscaping, turf and gardens. Congratulations and keep on growing!

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Over-Wintering Container Plants Outdoors

All containerized plants that are considered hardy in your zone can spend the winter outdoors, but you do need to take a little special care to keep them safe and comfortable as temperatures drop. Despite their hardiness, winter is still a challenging season, but it is possible to keep your container plants healthy until the days grow longer and warmer again.

Options to Overwinter Your Container Plants

  • In the late summer or fall, removed the plant from its container and plant it in the ground while the soil is still warm. Another method is to bury the pot, with the plant in it, in the garden and remove the pot following spring. Both of these methods will help insulate the root system, preventing it from freezing solid and killing the root system.
  • Place containerized plants in an unheated garage but along a heated wall. This is an excellent method for very large pots or porous pots that tend to break apart from the constant cycle of freezing and thawing, and so would not be very hardy if buried. For extra root protection and insulation, wrap the pots in plastic bubble wrap or wrap an old comforter or quilt around the pots.
  • Group pots together along the sunny side of your house or shed. If this area is windy, create a windscreen with stakes and burlap. Place bales of straw or hay around the perimeter of the grouping up against the pots to further protect plants from cold winds. Fill in areas between pots with mulch, shredded leaves, grass clippings or hay for insulation. Lay evergreen branches or place a layer of mulch on top of the pots for additional protection.
  • Use a cold frame covered with plastic or Reemay fabric to help control temperatures and reduce light as well, helping plants stay dormant in winter. It will still be necessary to use mulch, shredded leaves or hay around and in-between pots for insulation. Rodent control, such as Havahart traps, may be necessary when using this method.

Watering Container Plants in Winter

Make sure that plants go into the winter with moist soil so that there is water available to plant roots. Check soil moisture occasionally, never allowing it to dry completely. It is also a very good idea to spray needled and broadleaf evergreens with an anti-desiccant. This acts as a protective coating for plant foliage and stems as it helps them retain moisture.

With just a little care and forethought, you can easily prepare containers for winter without risking the plants and arrangements you have so carefully cultivated.

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