“Sickly” soil can be saved!

When you have serious soil problems, it can be almost impossible to grow anything successfully. But when you nurse your sick soil back to health, you’ll be amazed at the exciting variety of plants that thrive in your formerly barren wasteland!

Let me reassure you that you CAN revive “bad” soil. Add a little “landscaper know-how” to some of the excellent products that are now available to homeowners and you’ll see a major improvement.

Here are a couple of recent questions from readers who are having soil problems. Like these folks, you can send an e-mail to steve@landsteward.org if you need help with soil or any other plant or landscaping problems.

QUESTION: “We live in an alkaline soil pocket. Our soil pH runs from 8-9 on our property, our soil is very sandy, and our summers are hot, dry but humid and often windy. Our winters are relatively mild. Which flowering shrubs or large perennials would work well here in the shade? Azaleas will not grow here, no matter how much I amend the soil, mulch, and water. I enjoy your e-newsletters very much!” – Robin Glenn

ANSWER: I believe you will find that adding aluminum sulfate will lower the pH level of your soil and mixing in organic matter will certainly help.

Many shade loving plants will grow in the conditions you describe. These include: hostas, Carolina allspice, spicebush, sourwood, itea, hydrangeas, viburnums, red twig dogwood, red bud, white dogwood, burning bush (partial shade), ornamental grasses (partial shade), and daylilies.

You might also consider nandina, junipers, yews, bamboo (non-invasive) and ivy. I hope this list helps you somewhat. Check your local garden center for mushroom compost, Black Kow, or similar organic matter.

QUESTION: “What plants and shrubs available for landscaping near a house that has a clay loam that holds moisture so much so that many plants’ roots rot?” – Carl Sloop

ANSWER: Most plants do not like wet feet! The first thing I would recommend is to loosen the soil. Look for a soil conditioner that increases “friability,” resists crusting and allows air and water to properly permeate the soil. Friable means that the soil will crumble easily instead of forming solid, heavy lumps. If you’re having trouble finding a really good soil conditioner, drop me an e-mail and I’ll give you some buying information.

Use the conditioner and then begin to add some soil amendments to your soil to build up the organic matter. Once you have good healthy soil you will be able to grow a much wider variety of plants than just those might survive in adverse conditions.

QUESTION: “I would be interested in your thoughts about fertilizing trees in general but most especially about young trees as we have planted a number of them near our property border in the last 3 years. We have one white and one pink dogwood, a clump of white birch, a redbud, and added a Yoshino cherry this year. The pink dogwood seemed to struggle for the first three summers but when I fertilized it this spring (a single Miracle Grow spike two feet from the trunk), it grew like crazy this year.

We planted the redbud the same year and it has been busy growing since it went into the ground – it is a beautiful tree. The white dogwood and clump of birches are behaving similar to the pink dogwood – still trying to settle in and not much growth even with the fertilizer.” – Wende Smith

ANSWER: You might consider using a tree fertilizer stake, such as the one made by the company Jobe. They can usually be found at most garden centers. Yes, even large trees need fertilizer in a landscape setting. This is mainly because of all the different things we humans do to the soil around them. Trees get most of their nourishment from the first 10 inches of soil and if they are competing with grass and other plants, sometimes they don’t get the nutrients they need.

QUESTION: “When is the best time to trim lilac bushes; spring or fall? How much can be taken off the top without doing damage?” – John

ANSWER: You can trim now but will be sacrificing the blooms for next spring. The best time to trim a bloomer is right after the blooms are spent.