Roots and soil have quite a relationship, it's a relationship that goes beyond a place to anchor the plant or a place from which they get a drink of water. It's a complex relationship involving the elements of plant nutrition aided by fungi, bacteria, composted organic material and insects; however the subject of dirt and roots is a big yawn for most. There may come a day when you are tired of replanting the same spot in your yard where everything seems to die or you want the rose bush your family gives you every year for Mothers/Fathers Day to live for once. It could all boil down to a problem with your roots or the soil around them, so if that day is today, listen up!
The science behind soils, roots, and nutrient uptake is extensive, so this is the extremely short version for the rookie gardener. I am hoping it will be enough to start the problem solving process. Maintaining adequate soil moisture, understanding adequate air circulation, replenishing a level of soil fertility, and making sure conditions are suitable for the plant to easily use nutrients is the heart and soul of soil science. Soil is composed of sand, silt, clay and organic material and the percentages of each in the mix range from soils found in deserts to soils found in swamps, marshes, and everything in-between. Which plants grow in these various soil profiles can be limited to those considered to be “native” for the most extreme ranges, as in extremely dry or extremely wet, and will include greater variety for those in the middle ranges, like the ones in my backyard in the mid-atlantic.
I am sure you have all heard of pH balancing for skin and hair. Do you question why it matters or what it means? The pH number designation is merely a measure of acidity or alkalinity. The only way to actually identify the pH of soil and fertilizer needs is by having the soil tested. A soil test can identify levels of the macro-nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium; micro-nutrients; and pH levels as well as the soil profile percentages. Why soil pH varies is a whole other blog post, but knowing the current pH value in different parts of your yard can help with soil corrections that may be required to grow the specific plants you desire.
Dead spots in a yard can be caused by many factors. Sometimes the soil is too compacted, sometimes it is too wet, sometimes the soil is too acidic or too alkaline and these extremes can cause plant death. There can be “micro-environments” created by the dumping of a leftover bag of lime or ashes from the grill or salt from the roadway that can affect a plant's ability to grow. Soil testing can be a helpful tool in the arsenal to diagnose the problem and to provide recommendations to fix it.
Growing plants is, after all, a science and this is the part of the science that needs to be treated scientifically. Before you go squinching your nose, keep in mind plants have individual optimum ranges for soil acidity and soil alkalinity. It is pH that makes the pink hydrangea pink (alkaline) and the blue hydrangea (acidic) blue. It is always something that can't be seen that can be upsetting the balance of nature. So, okay, most homeowners ignore the pH. Most will replant and learn through trial and error. It may be attributed to the “black thumb” or the lack of “luck” with plants, but you don't need to be like most homeowners. You can send a soil sample from this location to a soil testing lab to find out what the pH is and what else may be out of balance.
The chart below, which is the go-to chart for checking nutrient availability at various soil pH's, shows how available several nutrients are at various pH's. I referred to this chart many times in my career. The element, Nitrogen, is less available at low pH of 5.5 (strongly acidic) and becomes more available up to medium alkaline, pH 8.5. This is a lovely wide range and I am very proud of Nitrogen for presenting itself over such a wide range of pH's but I am a bit disappointed in phosphorous. Phosphorous has made itself available over a much narrower range. Phosphorous is the go-to element in the making of flowers and the subsequent fruit (basically it is crucial to everything you want in a plant), so it requires a bit more attention than the Nitrogen.
Chart of the Effect of Soil pH on Nutrient Availability
I know you are struggling to keep your eyes open so I will leave you with this “pretty short” story...When I was in college, we grew vegetable seedlings as an experiment, leaving out one micro-nutrient per plant. Even those plants from which boron and molybdenum were withheld showed flaws in their cell division and grew in a very twisted and wonky way. It was evidence of the importance of each nutrient element (macro or micro) to a plant and why paying attention to the pH and nutrient levels ensures that they have the essential elements they need to grow properly. Plants are relatively simple organisms that are dramatically affected by the absence of even one nutrient element. I wonder what impact that would have on the human body with all of that cell division going on? It is a case for eating all fruits and vegetables of every color to make sure you get the full compliment.
There are lots of philosophies out there concerning landscaping and gardening design. Whether it is residential landscaping or commercial landscaping, selecting the “best design” of plant material is subject to interpretation. While it is important to place plants in appropriate environments to optimize their growth potential, the creative placement of plant material is not. You don't need to be a “professional” singer to enjoy singing and to love music, it is for everyone to enjoy. I always wished I had perfect pitch. Oh well. I love to sing, what can I say. The same is true for gardening and landscaping, it is for everyone to enjoy and interpret however they want. While I love to tour an arboretum and stroll the grounds of beautifully manicured gardens, I also love to see the backyard gardens of the weekend warriors who have put some of their heart and soul into their piece of the earth. They may not remember the names of the plants but they bought them for a good reason.
The “principals of design,” used universally in art genres, most people understand and use with discrimination, whether they learned them in school or sense them through observation. Even children who are provided crayons, pencils and chalk to use at will for the development of fine motor skills, will demonstrate these same principals learned from their own observations. Without even knowing the principals of design or their relationship to each other, children develop an unspoken sense of balance, color, texture, space and scale. The refinement of this relationship in art genres becomes important in landscape architecture as an art form but in everyday residential landscaping the principal that matters is what the homeowner likes and thinks is appropriate.
There are houses with grass all of the way up to the foundation of the house, not a tree, not a shrub. This is a homeowner who clearly relishes the efficiency of the lawnmower to get the weekend chore done! There are other houses that picked one plant and repeated the theme all of the way across the front becoming the homeowner who knows what he/she likes and went with it. The gamut runs from homeowners who couldn't make up their minds and planted one of everything to those who do not want to rake any leaves and have only grass and evergreens, to those who don't change a thing and just take over the plants left by the former owner and let the plants do their thing. All of these scenarios exist, all are okay, most important they work for those who live there.
There are those homeowners, however, who have a greater sense of adventure. They want to plant shrubs they saw at their parents house, or flowers their grandma loved. They always wanted to have irises and a house with a Kwanzan cherry. Some homeowners want a garden they can eat from while others want flowers they can go out and cut and make beautiful dining table arrangements. The only limit is your imagination.
It is your option to follow the principals of design in planning your house's ultimate landscape and the shortcut is to surely hire a landscape architect who can help with the “hardscape” decisions. The hardscape includes retaining walls, sidewalks, patios, stairs, fencing, etc. They can also help if there are drainage problems or city/county code enforcement issues.
If the hardscape is to remain status quo, you are free to do your own creating. There may be some guidelines to pay attention to as you are rearranging the yard around your house.
It is highly likely that, during the course of a yard clean up, desirable plants will be over pruned, stepped on, crushed, and otherwise destroyed. Oops! I have done all of the above at one time or another. Now there is a space that needs to be filled but what do you buy? In MY world of landscaping I want things to look pretty, to have as much color as possible with the least amount of maintenance required. So, selecting trees and shrubs that will fit and not outgrow a site means much less work from season to season.
You cruise the garden center aisles looking for something to fill in the blank spaces and you will see plants with pretty flowers, colorful foliage, or a plant that used to be in your Nana's yard but is it the right plant for that space? They are all small in size and will fit the space now but what will happen when the plant reaches maturity? The sheer quantity of trees and shrubs, perennials and annuals can make the choice(s) daunting but there are ways to make the choice(s) simple and easy, so don't stress. The easiest choice is the pick something like the existing neighbors in the shrub bed. If there are already azaleas and they look good, get another azalea. Don't know what the shrubs are – take a picture and pick a leaf/branch off and bring it with you to the garden center. Also, there are site considerations that can help narrow the choice(s) as well as plant characteristics to fit each space.
Prepare for shopping by collecting some site information. Get a tape measure and take a cursory measurement of the space. If the space is along the foundation of your house note where the windows are in relation to the space. Take out your phone and access the compass feature to find out which side of the house faces north, south, east and west. If you don't have the fancy phone then notice which side of the house the sun rises on (east) and which side the sun sets on (west). The north side is shady all day and the south side is sunny all day. Some houses are angled to face south-west, north-east, etc., note the directions the best you can. Next, take some pictures: take pictures of the area to be planted, take pictures of plants in your neighborhood you like, take pictures of plants you want to know the name of, take pictures of landscaping you like and want to copy. It is all helpful to give you ideas and help narrow the search.
Most plants in a garden center come from the growers with Identification (ID) tags. These ID tags are useful in providing basic information that will be helpful in placing a plant and in making a selection. Along with a picture and the name of the plant, the ID tags list the mature size of a plant usually the height, sometimes the width too, and the light requirements.
1. SIZE - The size listed on the ID tag is the ultimate size the plant could grow under optimum conditions. You have an idea, from the tape measure exercise, of the maximum size a plant can grow before it outgrows the space. Good to know. If the plant will outgrow the space by inches, it can be contained by pruning but if the plant will outgrow the space by feet it makes sense to pick another plant. Why put a plant, that will grow 6 to 8 feet in height, in a space where the house overhangs it at 4 feet. This will become a plant that needs serious pruning every year. Some ID tags list the width which should also be considered in that tape measured space. Apply the same thinking to the width of a plant. If the space is 3 feet wide it makes no sense to plant a shrub whose width will exceed this unless that is the goal all along. If a row of azaleas has been planted, it can be desirable for the plants to grow together and touch. But if a Hemlock is planted next to a front porch it will grow 50 to 80 feet in height and will be at least 30 to 40 feet wide. Why would you do that to yourself?
In the world of trees and shrubs there are many different classifications. The size classification is based on ultimate size. Shrubs are easier to conceptualize fitting into an existing space but selecting a tree is a bit more of a challenge. Small trees range from 15 to 25 feet in height, medium trees can range from 25 to 50 feet in height and large trees can range from 50 to 80 feet in height. For the purposes of locating the tree on a site, assume the ultimate width of the tree will be the same as the height to keep the placement process simple. Use the internet to verify the width, if this is more comfortable. Make sure you type in the name as it is written on the ID tag.
If you are planting this tree next to your house it will not stay small forever so it is helpful to consider the maximum width of a tree. If the tree width is 50-80 feet the tree should be planted at a distance of 25 to 40 feet from the foundation. This avoids conflict between the house and the tree. My parents allowed a pin oak seedling, that was five feet from the foundation of their house and four feet from their driveway, to grow to a mature tree. As it grew over the roof, it became a ladder for squirrels, leaves and acorns filled the gutters, roots began to heave the driveway. A pin oak's lower branches droop, which is a morphological feature of the tree. The lowest tier of branches can be removed but the next tier will start to droop. The drooping lower branches make a pin oak easy to identify but in my parents case, the branches interfered with the car passing by it in the driveway and kept interfering with the power lines coming into the house. If they had known this about the tree before they let it grow they would have removed it as a seedling. This poor placement cost them lots of repairs over the years and the tree still had to be removed. There were repairs to the roof and replacement of the Victorian trim pieces where the squirrels damaged the house, and they had to remove and replace parts of the driveway to repair damage caused by the tree roots.
2 . LIGHT - After size is considered, take a look at the light designation shown on the ID tag: full sun, part sun, part shade, shade. The importance of the light designation is actually about a tolerance for shade more than a tolerance for full sun. In general, most plants thrive in full sun provided they have adequate moisture. Most plants do not do well in shade, hence the light designations.
The designation “Shade” is basically saying this plant will “tolerate” low light or shady conditions where it may see no direct sunlight from sun up to sun down. Clear as mud, right?
The designation “Part Sun” or “Part Shade” means these plants will not tolerate complete shade but can tolerate a “reduced” length of direct sunlight, usually from 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight per day. Part sun designates a need for the higher side of 8 hours and part shade is less than 8 hours of direct sunlight.
The designation “Full Sun” is basically saying that this plant will require 8 or more hours of direct sunlight per day to grow optimally.
Plants will slowly fade away if the light is not within the “optimal” range. They will let you know by their failure to thrive. If you don't – oops! Don't panic, you will make mistakes, everyone does, it really is how you learn. The good news is you can try again. Landscaping and gardening is as much about trial and error as it is about enjoying the learning and caring whether they live or die. Look around your neighborhood for plants that catch your eye. See how they look when they are older. This also will help you decide. Keep in mind even professionals pick the wrong plants for the wrong spaces. It happens every day. My goal is to teach you enough so you feel prepared for the garden center and know how to select plants that you will have to provide low to no maintenance on. We all have busy lives and a yard full of overgrown shrubs all requiring pruning does not have to be on your weekend “to-do” list unless that is your idea of relaxation. It is okay to remove those trees and shrubs that usurp your maintenance activities each available weekend and replace them with ones that will grow gracefully into the space allotted.
Most of us start our gardening/landscaping journey when we rent or buy our first house. Somewhere along that same journey we have been presented with a challenge, some small but some big. Those big challenges could be regaining control of a yard that has been neglected for several growing seasons. A “jungle yard” is that neglected yard. The two big questions are “What has to be done first?” and “What, if anything, is worth salvaging?” If the property has been neglected for many seasons, it may be best to just start over, if you have the resources. A backhoe and chain saw can make very quick work in reclaiming an overgrown yard. Every situation is unique and, rest assured, there is no right or wrong way. Trees and shrubs are over pruned every day, by professionals too, some live and some die and life goes on. The difference is in the dollars because renovating, involving removing and replacing, costs money while rejuvenating, if done by the homeowner, can cost mostly time and effort and much less in real dollars. One caveat though, if you plan on removing trees, check to see if permits are required by the local HOA, city or county. Permits are less expensive than penalties.
The condition of the yard is usually an afterthought for most first timer buyers. Outside of cutting the grass, the condition of the trees and shrubs was not even on the radar. Landscaping matters to some and is irrelevant to others. I have seen houses with nary a tree, just lawn all of the way up to the foundation of the house and other houses displaying every shrub ever grown or cultivated. There are conventions and standards developed by the industry that professionals in the industry learn and apply. Homeowners can choose to follow these as well or take the road less traveled.
Landscaping can be an art form used to accent architectural features of a house or provide a soothing vista to those who habituate. Landscaping can really be what ever you want it to be. There is no one right or wrong way to approach your new patch of land. So, the only real way to answer the questions in paragraph 1, is to be honest with yourself about how much time you want to spend out of doors and how much effort you are willing to expend.
When I taught “Residential Landscaping” the most common question was, “What should I do to my yard first?” Surely hiring a professional to get a design or plan of action takes some of the guess work out of the equation. But rest assured that if you are one of those who love the May flowers, there can be rewards to learning on the job, for it is from your failures that you will learn and achieve success. Most local ordinances cover lawn mowing as a mandatory activity but there are, generally, no provisions for weeding and mulching flower beds. There are laws on property line clearing and rights of way stipulations on certain pieces of property but for the most part house owners can ignore the trees and shrubs around their property.
So, take time, break the tasks down into small jobs that will not break your spirit. Pruning, weeding, mulching will be covered too in this blog to offer helpful information. These are the beginning activities you will need to learn to get a yard under control. Most communities offer yard waste recycling and you will need to find out the specifics of the programs in your area. It is important to note how the waste needs to be contained or tied. You do not want to have to prepare the material more than once.
Concentrate on the area of the yard you use the most or that bothers you the most. Learn how much time certain tasks take and make sure time is left to finish the job with mulch and cleanup of debris. Cleaning up the whole yard is going to take some time so take heed of the adage, “Do not bite off more than you can chew.” Make sure one job is completed before moving on to the next one so you can see the progress being made and so you can see an end to it all. Nature is a tough taskmaster, it will dominate, it is constantly changing the environment right in front of your eyes. It will resist your control and fight back with an equal and opposite reaction to all yard maintenance activities. Physics uses the word “entropy” to describe a way to measure randomness and disorder. Entropy can be applied to the natural world because it is not a static system, this silent world is whirring and changing daily. It is only through human intervention that order can be restored to the kingdom.
In the process of restoring control, you may become curious about the trees, shrubs, perennials, weeds, and bugs around you. There are many sources waiting to give you information. The starting point can be the local garden center and home improvement stores. There is another layer of information suppliers, depending on the state you live in, called agricultural cooperative extension. They also sponsor classes and here in Maryland have a Master Gardner program for those who take the industry seriously. A visit to the local extension office can provide information on printed material they may offer as well as other information services they may provide. Many of their publications exist on-line and they provide top notch, accurate information, based on scientific research and is the most accurate. It is a source I use to double check other sources. As you see something you haven't seen before, take pictures, with your phone or with whatever technology you're savvy enough to handle, and forward it to them for identification. If you notice a bug, or strange leaf markings and suspect a pest, take a picture and/or bring a sample for an accurate diagnosis to determine if it is a garden friend or foe.
Keep in mind that gardening and landscaping has been around for a much longer time than you have and all of the answers exist somewhere. It is merely a matter of finding the right sources. You don't need to guess at anything or jury-rig that broken so-and-so. There is someone, or some piece of literature that can supply corrective action. Do the job once and do it right so you will never have to do it again during your tenure. Look at your house and yard as a work in progress, there will always be more to do so take your time and celebrate each victory.
If this is your rookie season in the garden, there are a few things that are good to learn to prevent injury from exposure to plants that carry rash-causing resins. It is helpful to know what poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, look like. All three of these plants can cause rashes if contact is made with the leaves and/or resins. Inadvertent contact with these plants has stopped many a gardener-in-the-making and confounds many others season to season. There are procedures recommended by the medical community to wash both skin and clothing ASAP but it is also prudent to wash work gloves and tools that may have come in contact. The rashes can range from mild nuisance of small oozing blisters, requiring calamine lotion to dry it up, to large oozing painful blisters, requiring medical treatment. It takes 7 days after exposure for the rash to appear which can be a long enough to forget that you may have picked it up from the garden.
For poison ivy and poison oak, there is a cute little saying, “Leaves of three, let it be.” It is a great saying but it is not really useful because in the learning stage lots of plants look like they have three leaves on a stem. All three of these poison plants are so benign looking, without major distinguishing traits, that they are easy to miss, hiding in plain sight. A good ID website for these plants is www.poison-ivy.org. The pictures on this website show the variations in the leaf shapes, the colors of the leaves season to season how they can go from dull to shiny. They also have gross looking pictures of the rashes, if you dare.
Notice how variable the poison ivy leaves can look, sometimes like an oval and some with a mitten shape with a bump like a mitten's thumb. How helpful is that? (tongue in cheek) Poison ivy leaves can also be shiny and other leaves can be un-shiny. They can be growing along the ground or along vines up a tree. I bet that is helpful?!?!?! (tongue in cheek). Some of the leaf margins have small teeth while others are very jagged. The best way to find poison ivy is to train your eye to really look for it. Look past the perennials in the garden and along paths as you walk. The more you look for it the better your chances are to really see it.
Poison ivy is the most common of the three to find. It grows pretty much everywhere along the eastern seaboard and heading west. Poison Sumac, while also tricky to identify, is a bit easier to avoid. There are many different varieties of Sumac, to my knowledge only one of them is poisonous and is found in marshy, swampy areas. The internet is a handy tool for cursory identification of plants, pictures abound, but misinformation abounds too, so use it to assist with identification but always get confirmation from sources ending in .edu or .org or USDA, university, or Cooperative Extension resources out in the field. If you are unsure about a plant, take a photo, and take it to the local garden center expert or agricultural extension office for confirmation. Or take it to both, once to get identification and a second for confirmation. You can also start with the www.poison-ivy.org since their information seems to be on target and the pictures show lots of examples of these misty maidens.
The best defense with these plants is a good offense. Assume poison ivy is there until you know for a fact that it isn't. Wear long pants, long sleeved shirts and gloves and make sure all are washed including the tools at the end of the day. There are topical cremes that can be used before possible exposure. I have contracted the rash many times over the years and made sure I started treating it with calamine lotion right away. I am not highly allergic to it and the lotion works well in drying the rash up. If you notice the rash spreading make sure you seek medical attention immediately. The good news is the more you look for it the more you will see it and the better you will get at avoiding it. But most importantly, do not let it stop you from conquering and reclaiming your yard.