The Q&A Archives: Improving Perennial Garden Soil

Question: This summer, I am planning on improving the gardens in my yard. I would like to enlarge the ones that are against my house and raise the beds. However, I do not want to ruin the plants that are already established there. How do I raise the beds? Should I dig up each individual plant and then replant them? I would like to incorporate compost and manure into my front beds. How do I add this to the soil without disturbing the root systems of the plants already there? Lastly, I have ordered a variety of perennials to add to both my gardens. However, last year I planted some perennials that were supposed to be full sun and are in part shade. Should I move those plants into my full sun bed? Will it set back their potential to bloom this year?

Answer: Improving the soil is so important and so beneficial for the plants in the long run that it is worth the trouble -- you will have to lift the plants, incorporate the amendments and then replant. (You can't raise the soil level around existing plants -- they will smother for lack of air at the roots and/or the crowns will rot.)

The plants should be dug up with hefty root balls and should not be out of the ground any longer than necessary -- protect the roots from temperature extremes, drying sun and wind and place them in the shade. If you think it is going to take you a while to accomplish the work (more than a day or so), you might consider designating a holding area where you can set the plants into the soil temporarily.

Early spring is a good time for transplanting. Take a large root ball, replant immediately at the same depth the plant grew before, firm the soil gently but firmly around it and water it in. Most plants won't know they've been moved if you work carefully.

Finally, keep in mind that once the soil in your perennial beds is well prepared, then regular mulching with organic materials and occasional top-dressing with compost or shredded leaves or well-rotted aged manure can all help to build and maintain the soil on an on-going basis. Your plants will definitely show the difference, too!

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