Improving Garden Soil

gidget1963March 8, 2006

I have a garden which is not very good. I'm in CT and the garden gets full sun and little/no maintenance all year. The soil seems very dry and sandy and in the summer, it is so dry that it is dusty. I have planted Black Eye Susans and Phlox thinking that they would spread but neither seems to be doing well and neither is really spreading. I also have some lilys as well. Is there anything that I can buy to put on the soil to improve it this spring before the plants come up or is there any special fertilizer I could put out. I really would like the BE Susans and Phlox to spread and think the soil is my problem. I'm one of those old fashioned people who would like the garden full of flowers for weed control rather than using mulch. Thanks for the help. G.

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philomena(z 5A NY)


Generally, the answer to almost all garden soil problems is to add organic matter to the soil, such as compost. It helps sandy soils, clay soils, any soils. Organic matter will help with water retention also. You can get bagged compost at garden centers, which will certainly help your soil, but usually the helpful bacteria in the compost are already dead. The best compost, besides your own, is compost you buy in bulk from garden suppliers. You can even mix in good topsoil to what you have - that also can't hurt.
Also, pertaining to mulch - you'll need a lot of flowers to supress weeds, and if you have lillies - well - they're not going to supress any weeds at all. Mulch will help also with the water retention in the summer. You'll certainly need to do *some* maintenance to bring the garden back to life, and mulch should really be part of that maintenance.

Hope that helps :-)

    Bookmark   March 8, 2006 at 7:00PM
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meldy_nva(z6b VA)

The rudbeckia [probably the family of your black-eyed Susans] would likely have done better if it were watered regularly... it will tolerate poorish soil, and likes the good drainage of a sandy soil, but it must have a regular drink!

The problem with not using mulch is that the soil is bare and ready to incubate every passing weed seed, not to mention open to let all the inground weed seeds sprout. Using plants as a shade crop to help deter weeds requires that the plants used be spaced *very* closely [if you were growing vegs that method is called 'French intensive"] as well as requiring enough time that the desired plants can establish better/sturdier root systems than the invading weeds. Even when planted closely, weeding is required until the plants are near-grown (else the weeds take over) and also after the good guys are grown, because there will always be weed seeds sprouting, just not quite as many as there would be if the plants were spaced properly. In all cases, unmulched soil is going to grow weeds -- so if you don't want to mulch, you must either plan on the labor-intensive and time-consuming task of pulling those weeds, or develop a liking for weeds rather than conventional flowers.

If you inspect those "old-fashioned" flowery meadows, you'll find they are mostly weeds (and their flowers are in bloom for limited periods). And, if you were to look closely at those lovely garden beds full of blossoms with no apparent mulch you will find one of three things: weeds; or a person with lots of time who is willing to pull weeds; or a well-planned bed with layers of plants properly spaced to make the bed look "full" which also conceals the mulch used!

Also, remember that to use close-spacing of plants for shade-control also decreases the amount of air circulation (which will increase the chance of mildews etc) and increases the amount of water needed per square foot of garden. Lack of mulch also means any available water will evaporate more rapidly, which means far more water will be required (easily 50% more) just to meet basic needs.

Read up on 'lasagna' to improve the soil; you can adapt the method to layer around existing plants (just not as many layers at once, and each layer very thin). And before you ask: you can spread any of the many chemical formulations, but they don't improve the soil-just provide specific nutrients for a specific (usually limited)period of time.

There is no miraculous fairy-wand we can wave for weed-free gardens; but we can plan ahead, and expect to labor either before- when preparing the soil and spreading mulch, or during- while trying to grow the wanted plants and pulling weeds.

    Bookmark   March 9, 2006 at 8:35AM
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Thanks for the advice.
This garden is at another house I own and last summer, I was only there 2 weeekends -- hence the reason it gets no attention. Also last summer was a very dry summer so I'm sure the watering on those 2 weekends was not much help. I will read up on the Lasagna method although I am not quite sure what that is. Take Care. G.

    Bookmark   March 9, 2006 at 12:31PM
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meldy_nva(z6b VA)

I do understand the problems the occur with being an absentee gardener. Have you considered using drip irrigation and a water timer? That works for regular flower beds but is not suitable for really large areas. It would also help if you could locate a responsible person who would check that all was going well.

Lasagna is method of making soil by piling up layers of "brown" and "green"; that is, dried organic matter such as autumn leaves or hay is spread in layers alternating with green organic stuff like weeds, grass clippings, and/or non-animal kitchen scraps; there are as many "formulas" as there are gardeners but it's nearly impossible to make it wrong. Most difficulty is when judging moisture: damp like a squeezed sponge is wonderful, too wet is not good, too dry will take ages for layers to turn into composty soil ... but a deep (12"+ tall) lasagna is an easy- and inexpensive- way to improve the soil, especially if left alone for a year; while shorter heights act as a sort of composting mulch. In-soil weeds and weed seeds are smothered by making the bottom-most layer of thin cardboard or many layers of sopping-wet newspaper (I consider 1/4" minimum for the bottom layer of lasagna - and I often use 1/2" of wet newspaper). In effect the bottom layer acts as the weedkiller but it's a good one which in a couple seasons turns into soil; the middle layers are compost-builders and worm-feeders; the topmost layer is *always* at least 2" organic mulch such as shredded leaves. I've found that most annuals and many perennials do astoundingly well when grown in lasagna, even when the lasagna is fresh.

If you can't spend more than a couple weekends in a growing season, then I think making a deep lasagna may not be your answer... but I do believe that spreading about 3" depth of shredded leaves around the plants will help tremendously in maintaining a better moisture level while deterring many/most weeds, especially if you can put down the newspaper-layer first and then mulch on top.

    Bookmark   March 9, 2006 at 3:40PM
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meldy_nva(z6b VA)

Mentioned this to my neighbor (who is a fabulous gardener) -- she suggested using an assortment of daylilies; they will shade out most weeds, and you can find them with different blooming times, including repeat-bloomers or the almost-all-season Stell D'Ora and relatives. She also suggested nepetas and mints [which have a tendency to take over the whole bed and then the whole yard], and monarda [which can be subject to mildew] to consider. The rudbeckia family have a tendency to be short-lived (only lasting about 4 or 5 years), but she said she had better luck with shasta daisies. We agreed that the regular (Oriental, asian) lilies want somewhat richer soil than you describe, but keep trying and you may find a variety or two that tolerate what you have; perhaps try a few of the Regales at the edge of the daylilies. If you can find some at a reasonable cost, also consider some of the bearded iris - They won't shade weeds, but they will provide floral and visual interest.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2006 at 7:46AM
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