A garden writer for the Boston Globe recently said that 80% of the people who garden are just starting out or call themselves beginning level gardeners. Last year I asked the Master Gardener Class to share with me what they would say if one of these new or novice gardeners asked “How can I improve my landscape?” Or “How can I make my flowers, shrubs, and trees grow better?” The group broke into small groups and provided written tips and recommendations.

          The #1 tip from almost every group was improve your soil.  When starting a new garden or improving an existing garden, or prior to planting a new lawn or shrub, add humus, such as compost, peat moss, composted manure, leaves, grass clippings, or any organic matter to improve your soil. DO NOT USE CHEAP TOP SOIL that is sold by hardware stores, drug stores, box stores and/or some garden centers. These cheap bags are usually not any better than the soil you have now and some are not as good because they have very little organic matter, which is what you need to improve your bed.          When I built my house and started my vegetable garden, which is now a flower bed, I double dug the new garden area even though it had very nice, black soil. For over 40 years it has paid off and has been worth the initial effort. Double digging means laying out your area and then digging down two spadefuls deep for the width of the bed. I saved the dirt I took out and used it at the end of the bed. In the bottom of this area I put leaves and peat moss and then dug the next row and put the dirt over the leaves and peat moss. I did this until I reached the end of the bed and then put the saved soil over the humus in the last row. If you are starting a new lawn you can add peat moss, compost, grass clippings, or composted manure and then till this in. Anything to improve the organic matter in the soil will be worth the extra time. After the grass comes up DO NOT PICK UP GRASS CLIPPINGS as these clippings add humus to your soil.

          Every year in my vegetable garden I dig in compost, and put a layer of compost over the perennial flower beds. I also add a layer of compost to my raspberries, rhubarb, asparagus, and peonies.

Before you start improving your soil, it is recommended that you get a soil test so you know the pH level (how acid or alkaline the soil is). Most good testing sites will also tell you, if requested, how much organic matter is in the soil, and if you need to add any nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous, potash, or micronutrients. Make sure you let those who are testing your soil know what you are going to plant in that area so they can give you a specific recommendation. This may mean a separate test for your flower garden, your vegetable garden, your lawn, and where you are going to plant a tree or shrub. To get your soil tested, contact your County Extension Office for a packet of instructions and a postpaid envelope to send to the University of Nebraska Soil Lab. Some garden centers also have the packet.

          The second tip from the Master Gardeners is ASK QUESTIONS and LEARN as much as you can about the plants you have or are planning to buy. The following questions are important to ask before buying a plant or planting one:

1.     Does this plant like sun, part shade, or full shade?

2.     How tall and how wide will this plant get? Is there room where you want to plant it? Do not put a tree or shrub too close to the house or any out building. Give it room to grow. Give vegetable plants room to grow. Especially vining crops as some, such as pumpkins produce primarily at the end of the vine. Lack of air circulation brings on disease problems for any vegetable or flower plant.

3.     How much fertilizer does this plant need, if any, and how often?

4.     How much water does this plant need and how often? Will this plant tolerate wet feet? After the first year or two will this plant tolerate a location that does not get any water except the rain? Water is always needed the first year or two.

5.     What kind of soil does this plant prefer? That is, does it like sandy soil, well drained soil, moist soil, and will it tolerate our hard clay soil? Also, what pH level does this plant need? For example, Blueberries, Azalea, Rhododendron, and some other plants prefer and need acidic soil (pH of 5 to 5.5) to grow well. Our soil in Southeast and South Central Nebraska is neutral with a pH of 6.8 to 7.2.

6.     Will this plant reseed itself or produce suckers or off shoots that get in the way? Will this cause the plant to become invasive in the landscape?

7.     Is this plant an annual (grows one year and then dies), a biennial (grows one year, then in the second year flowers and produces seeds, and then usually dies), or a perennial (will live for a number of years in the right location with the right care)? A catalog may list a plant as a perennial but does not indicate in what zones. We are in USDA hardiness zone #5. Zone #6 starts just south of the Nebraska border and what is a perennial there and in Kansas City and especially in Wichita, may be an annual for us.  Find out what zone your plant will survive in.

8.     Will this plant take any special care during our hot, dry, summers or in our cold winters? Every plant has special needs and/or preferences. Learn what those are and you will be more successful.

If you want to have a green thumb you need to ask questions and learn about your plants so you can give them the care they need.

          The last tip I will share with you today from the Master Gardener Class is mulch, mulch, mulch, mulch. Mulch will help control weeds, help conserve valuable water during our hot summers, and moderate the freezing and thawing cycles during the winter time.  2 to 3 inches is sufficient and more is not better. In fact, more than 3 inches of mulch around your trees, roses, shrubs, and flowers will make things worse. Gladys likes compost as mulch. I use wood chips and compost. I use wood chips around my roses, trees and shrubs because of the appearance.

          I will share more tips in another article but for now if you need more help contact your County Extension Office, or ask a Horticulture professional, or read about the plant in a good book or from a University based website. If you learn about the plants existing in your yard, or plants you want to add to your landscape, you will be surprised how green your thumb will get.

Copyright 2007