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Make soil preparation a resolution for 2003
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
2003 garden catalogues are arriving every day, and Norman Winter is constantly telling you about new plants for the spring. As you sit by the fire on these cold blustery days making plans for the garden, reflect back and ask yourself how your flowers performed last year.
Did the water drain well after the heavy rains? Did the roots expand outside the rootball? Did the flowers perform well? These are all good questions, which lead me to remind you that the key to the green thumb is how brown it gets first in soil preparation.
With every plant I've promoted in my columns, I have mentioned soil preparation. Very few plants can thrive by simply digging a hole and planting them. I have seen some practically use a hammer and chisel to form a hole in the clay and then cram in the marigold -- that never had a prayer of surviving.
Actually, most of us do not have the ideal soil for bedding plants, annuals or perennials. Roots of bedding plants have to penetrate soils quickly, anchor plants and absorb water and nutrients, often under adverse conditions.
In many cases, the lots where our homes are sitting have had the topsoil scraped off and a material that is hardly suitable for plant life brought in for the foundation and unfortunately, the flower or shrub beds, too.
But all hope is not lost. We can have beautiful flowers, and many are indeed tough in our climate, but we first have to give them a good home for their roots. With such a great importance aesthetically and financially to our home, it only make sense to do the job right the first time.
Plants require oxygen, nutrients and water for proper growth. The soil texture plays the most important role in determining whether or not those three needs are met sufficiently to allow the plant to become established and perform to expectations. Desirable soil has the ability to hold water while allowing for adequate drainage. It also provides proper oxygen for root development.
If you are unsure of your soil type but believe internal drainage is poor, you can do a simple test. Use a large coffee can (about 46-ounce size) with the top and bottom removed. Dig a 4-inch-deep hole and set the can on the floor of the hole; firm the soil around the can so water cannot slip under the bottom edge.
Fill the can to the top with water; wait an hour and then measure the water level. If the water level drops at least 2 inches in one hour the drainage is considered normal. If the level drops more than 5 inches in 1 hour, it is considered excessive. If the level doesn't seem to drop at all, the soil drainage is poor.
Clay soils usually result in poorly drained planting sites unless steps are taken to correct the situation. Not only do they have a tendency to be poorly drained, but they are also easily compacted, which prevents water penetration, oxygen exchange and good root development.
Amending the planting area is one of the best ways to have success over these conditions. Add organic matter such as fine pine bark, (pieces less than one-half inch), leaf mold, compost, peat and sand. Incorporating a 3 to 4 inch layer of organic matter in with the native soil allows the bed to be built up and provides excellent drainage.
This same organic matter will benefit gardeners with an excessively sandy soil structure. These sandier soils dry quickly and allow for rapid leaching of nutrients. The organic matter will assist the water holding capacity greatly and will hold valuable nutrients.
Next week, I'll be back touting a new plant to look for this spring or perhaps a tree or shrub that needs planting. But rest assured, I'll still preach soil preparation first.