Gardening in the New Year

 Kay Hinkle
Adams County Master Gardener

As I write, the holidays are fast approaching. I am leaving New York City where the tree in Rockefeller Center is already lit even though it is not quite yet December. Christmas carols play on every station and the department stores are decked for a hopeful holiday boost to annual sales. As you read this, the holidays are past and we are wondering how they flew by so fast after what seems like months of preparation!

As we settle in close the fire on cold January days and nights, we catch up on much-needed and well-deserved peace and quiet. It isn't long until our thoughts turn to seed catalogs and shortly after, landscape plans will once again begin to consume us.

Soil Tests - This year, before making plans for a new bed or simply a new addition to an existing landscape, consider having a soil sample tested. Soil test kits are available at your local extension office; for $12 plus postage, you will get an evaluation of your soil and suggestions for amending it. Since our gardens can be a big investment of time and money, this small investment as the first step in the planning process is well worth it!

First, gather a small teaspoon-sized sampling of soil from several spots a few feet from each other in the area to be tested. Add each sampling to the plastic bag provided, allowing them to mix together for an accurate result of testing for the immediate area.

Mail the sampling in the envelope provided and await results - usually returned by mail to you within two weeks. As a rule, Penn State Extension will recommend one or more nutrients available pre-packaged at nurseries and garden centers or perhaps something more complex to be custom-mixed by a fertilizer specialist.

Testing for Soil Textures - Another good means of ensuring soil quality for your plantings is to evaluate your garden soil for texture. Loamy soil is conducive to good plant growth. However, many of us are "gifted" with sandy soil that doesn't hold moisture or clay soil that doesn't allow the proper amount of oxygen to reach the roots. Grab a handful of wet soil and knead it into a tight ball. Rubbing your thumb against your index finger, pinch the soil to form it into a ribbon. If you can make a ribbon of the soil that stays formed beyond your fingertips but is less than 1-2" long, you are blessed with good loam soil.

When you try to form sandy soil into a tight ball, it doesn't hold together, even when wet, with no chance of forming a ribbon. By association, your soil may form a ribbon less than an inch long, and if so, treat it as sandy.

If your soil forms a ribbon 2" long or longer, you have serious clay soil that will adversely impact your plants' health and growth.

Recipes for Better Soils - The test described above should be conducted to determine if you have loam, sandy, or clay soil. Organic ingredients should be used to amend sandy soil to total a 3-6" layer. Organic ingredients for the purpose of amending sandy soil include bark chips, peat moss (milled sphagnum) or compost. Use a garden spade or tiller to be sure to incorporate all ingredients thoroughly.

With clay soil, it is important to loosen the soil first before adding a combination of organic and inorganic ingredients. After the soil is properly loosened, add a 3" layer of inorganic material to include sand, perlite, or vermiculite. Then add at least 3" or more of organic materials - sand, peat moss or compost. As with sandy soil, it is important to mix these new layers thoroughly into clay for improved clay soil conducive to growing healthy plants.

In summary, you can turn sandy soil into soil that holds moisture by adding organic nutrients. At the other end of the soil spectrum is clay. Heavily clayed soil will not allow oxygen to get to the roots, resulting in suffocation. In either case, amending the soil as explained above will create good, loamy soil conducive to good plant growth.

Planting in your perfectly concocted soil!

We have a narrow side-yard that is still unplanned, very bare and in need of a boost. First things first. Our soil is primarily clay and will require amending with a combination of organic and inorganic materials. I plan to leave a 3-foot wide walking path of grass in the center of the 70-foot long strip of land. That leaves about 4 feet on either side of the path to be landscaped.

A few tall grasses already surround the outdoor heat pump in an effort to disguise the metal appliance upon which we depend for heat and cooling. I have already lost two oak leaf hydrangeas due to the problems associated with compact clay soil. By disguising our heat pump and amending the clay soil, two major roadblocks to a great side yard will be gone.

This side of the house gets morning sun; I see beautiful azaleas in spring on the same easterly side of homes near by. Having never had much luck with azaleas, I will be trying again. Staggering 3-5 plants in various spots and a variety of colors will mark the curves of the garden path year around.

We have a very large maple tree toward the front of this side yard, and I plan to try my luck with hellebores, who should do quite well in the dappled sunlight. I recently was intrigued by the possibility of growing Asian Pears at a Master Gardener seminar on "Edible Landscapes"; several of these small trees may become part of our side garden, too. We plan to add a post and wire fence for support at the outer edge of the property line with weeping blue cypress as a backdrop and to serve as a marker for the property line.

Once the path is defined and these anchor plants establish the outline of our landscape, we will use a variety of annuals and perennials chosen for their bloom times and colors to create a 3-season splash of color. I am yet unsure of the amount of shade that will result from the shrubs and the fence. However, I am hopeful that the anchor plantings will provide enough shade and protection early in the year from wind for impatiens and from the sun later in the summer. Impatiens are my favorite shade-garden annual. I envision a border at points along the path of these brightly colored annuals but will have an alternative plan for something sun-loving (perhaps red or purple spreading verbena) if the shade does not materialize.

Once I am able to envision the areas of open space that remain, I will refer to my trusty book of perennials organized by color, then size. I have found various good combinations of plants for pots as well as landscape by "googling" companion plants on the internet. Of great benefit is seeing the results before making the investment; it saves on experimentation and possible undesirable results. While perennials are more costly upon purchase, they continue to provide color and interest in the garden for years to come and are most often the better investment.

The development of this garden project will span at least two summers, as I don't want to prematurely make decisions on what to plant until I better understand the results of the fence and anchor plants. Before I choose perennials, for instance, I need to know more about where I have shade and where I have sum.

One thing I have learned in the last 10 years since I became pretty serious about my gardening is that quick decisions sometimes are bad investments. As you well know, if you're a gardener, gardening is a process rather than an event. Those who hope to plant once with picture-perfect results that last from year to year AND doesn't require much work, you know - planting, moving plants, dividing roots, cutting back and doing it all over again - probably hires a professional landscaper!

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