Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
May, 2001
Regional Report

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Soil that has been well prepared with plenty of organic matter dug in will produce lush, hardy perennial plants that survive well.

Building a Perennial Garden

If someone gave you advice on how to eliminate 80 percent of your perennial plant problems, would you listen? Research has shown that that is the percentage of problems related to poor soil. With well-prepared soil you can have healthy plants that are better able to withstand pests, drought, and other potential problems.

Do Soil Improvement Now

The key to improving the soil is to do it before you plant a new perennial bed. If you incorporate the proper amounts of organic matter and soil amendments, your soil will provide nutrients and make air and water more available to plants. This may be hard work, but in the long run the rewards will amaze you.

Check Soil Drainage

When you choose a site for a perennial bed, first check the water drainage, as good drainage is a key factor in winter survival. Dig a hole 12 inches wide and deep. Fill it with water and let it drain. Fill it with water again. The water should drain in less than an hour. If it doesn't, consider another location or install drainage tiles.

Test Your Soil

Once you have chosen your site, test the soil to determine the soil type, pH, organic matter content, and available phosphate and potash. You can buy soil-testing kits at garden centers or send a soil sample to a soil-testing laboratory. The Perennial Plant Association has set the following standards for perennials: a pH of 5.5 to 6.5, 5 percent organic matter, 50 pounds per acre of available phosphate, and 120 pounds per acre of available potash.

Clean Out Weeds

Get rid of perennial weeds. This can be accomplished by applying glyphosphate herbicide once or twice and then working the soil 14 days later. A nonchemical alternative is to cover the area with several layers of moistened newspaper or a sheet of black plastic. With this method, you'll have to wait about 6 months for weeds to be destroyed. Of course, you can always hand dig all the weeds in a bed area.

Add Organic Matter

Now comes the most important part: adding organic matter. This improves all aspects and types of soil. What organic matter you use depends on local availability and personal preference. If you have enough homemade compost, use that. Otherwise, check garden centers or the yellow pages for companies that produce compost in bulk. In my area, it costs about $24 per cubic yard. Visually check the compost for weeds, insects, and foreign material.

You'll want to have enough organic matter to spread a 4-inch layer over the bed area. Sprinkle fertiizer on top at the rate recommended by the soil test. Add lime or sulfur, if needed, to adjust the pH. With a rototiller, work the mixture into the soil to a depth of at least 8 or 9 inches. Finally, rake the bed to level it.

Now you're ready to plant, mulch, and enjoy beautiful perennials!

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