If you're planning a flower garden this summer, start getting your soil in shape now. Soil preparation can save you time, labor and money as well as rewarding you with beautiful plants.
"Preparing the soil is the most important step in gardening," says Dr. J. Robert Nuss, professor of ornamental horticulture in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. "Have your soil tested this spring, and use the test results and recommendations as a guide."
A soil test measures nutrient amounts and pH, or level of acidity. Soil pH is measured on a scale of 0 to 14, with 0 being the most acid, 14 the most alkaline and 7 neutral. Most soils naturally have pH levels ranging between 5 and 8. "Many flowers do well in a range between 6 and 7, so chances are you won't need to change your soil's pH much," says Nuss.
Don't guess when it comes to fertilizing and changing pH. Overapplying chemicals can harm soil and plants as well as pollute groundwater and streams.
"Excess lime raises the soil's pH above what plants can tolerate, makes it more difficult for them to draw nutrients from the soil and slows growth of beneficial soil microorganisms," says Nuss. "Some flowers prefer a more acid soil and can suffer from iron deficiency if you apply too much lime."
Soil test kits are available at Penn State Cooperative Extension county offices and larger garden centers for a nominal fee. County extension kits include instructions for collecting soil samples as well as the address of Penn State's soil testing laboratory. Samples can be mailed or delivered to the laboratory.
You will receive test results in about two weeks. Results include levels of potassium, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium, along with the soil's pH. Also included are recommendations for the kinds and amounts of fertilizer to apply and how much lime -- if any -- to add to the soil.
"If you're planning to grow rhododendrons, azaleas, laurels or other flowers that prefer acid soil, you may need to apply a chemical such as sulfur, which lowers pH, " says Nuss. "Apply no more than the recommended amount."
Till the recommended materials about 5 inches into the soil. While working the soil, remove stones, sod clumps, weeds and debris.
"Work in several inches of organic matter," says Nuss. "There's little danger of adding too much. Composted kitchen scraps, well-rotted manures, lawn clippings and decayed plant material all are good forms of organic matter. They help retain water and supply some nutrients for all plants set into the soil."
Add 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch on top of the soil around your plants. Mulch helps keep soil moist, prevents erosion, discourages weeds and builds up the soil's organic matter. "Mulch also tends to be more attractive than bare soil in an ornamental garden," says Nuss. "It keeps mud from splashing on your flowers and gives the ground's surface uniform color and texture."
Several kinds of mulch are available at garden centers, including wood bark chips, shredded bark and peat. If you use grass clippings, leaves or well-decayed compost, periodically loosen them with a hand cultivator or hoe to prevent surface crusting.
When your plants begin to flower, use a high-nitrogen fertilizer on the soil about 6 inches away from the base of each plant. Follow product application rates. This will enhance flowering and give plants a boost for the rest of the summer. "If you fertilize too soon, however, you will delay the plants' maturity and decrease the number of flowers," says Nuss. "Wait until the first flowers open."
Finally, retest your flower garden's fertility and pH levels each year for several seasons. If reports remain similar, you can reduce sampling to every 3 to 4 years. "Nutrient levels and pH gradually change over time," says Nuss. "It's important to keep monitoring the soil to keep levels optimum."
Soil test kits may be purchased for $7 at Penn State Cooperative Extension offices or in 111 Agricultural Analysis Services Laboratory, Tower Road, University Park, PA 16802, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
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