The Q&A Archives: Low Cost, Poor Soil Gardening

Question: I live on the campus of Rutgers Univ. while my husband completes his PhD and therefore am looking for some low-cost ideas for starting a garden that will "spruce up" the drab family housing apartments. Though I know little about the soil here, it seems very poor and very hard/compact. Do you have any suggestions? Last spring I planted impatiens and petunias in containers but was looking for something to put in the ground this year. I would love to get something that is colorful and easy to take care of. (Am I asking too much?)

Answer: What a fun project! With a little thought and work you can certainly create some colorful plantings!

You are right to be concerned about the soil. Most plants, whether annual, perennial or vegetable, will perform far better in good soil. Usually, this means loosening it and adding quantities of organic matter such as compost or aged manure and bedding, chopped leaves or some similar material. Additional amendments such as lime or fertilizer should also be added based on the results of soil tests. Your County Extension (745-3445) can help you with the tests and interpreting the results.

After planting, your flowers will need about an inch of water a week from you or the sky and will appreciate a few inches of organic mulch. Again, local materials will vary in cost so you might consider alternatives such as straw or perhaps a layer of newspaper covered with a thinner layer of bark mulch. If you prepare your soil and provide minimum care, most annuals and many perennials should grow well for you.

Plants do not have to be expensive. Many gardeners are happy to share excess seedlings and perennial divisions, so let people know you are starting a new garden. Annuals can be grown from seed (a single packet can produce dozens of plants) and large perennials can be grown very quickly by starting from divisions.

For sun, direct-seeded batchelor buttons, marigolds, zinnias, sunflowers and nasturtiums grow quickly and make a splash of color. Inexpensive gladiolas corms add a big accent -- plant a few each week for a continuous show. For shade, coleus and impatiens are very colorful and reliable but are best if started early indoors under lights or purchased as transplants. You might consider trying some caladiums (purchased as bulbs) for a bold accent, too. (Both the glads and caladiums can be saved from year to year.)

Enjoy your garden!

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