Landscaping Underground: Tending the Unseen Garden

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Lively Soil Composition Makes a Lively Garden

garden care at root zone promotes myccorhizaIn landscaping and garden care it’s all about the dirt. Anything that looks terrific above ground looks that way because of what’s going on underground. The quality and health of the soil is the most important part of a garden that you don’t see. Take good care of it and it will take care of your garden plants.

Healthy topsoil is alive

Soil is composed of organic and inorganic materials. The organic portion of soil comes from living things (plants, worms, insects, birds, critters) and their decomposed remains. All play a role in soil creation and enrichment. In addition, there are many naturally occurring types of bacteria and fungi in soil that are essential to plant health. They help breakdown nutrients and hold moisture in the root zone where they can be absorbed by plants and trees. This is why landscapers mix composted material into planting beds and top them with mulch. This is good garden care because when the microbes thrive, we see our gardens thrive.

The right stuff: macro & micro nutrients

The inorganic portion of soil comes from rock that is broken down into minerals, sand and clay. We refer to the minerals as macro and micro nutriets. Nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus are the big three macro-nutrients–the ones that plants need most for food, energy and robust growth. But, in order to work properly, micro-nutrients must also be present in the soil to assist in macro-nutrient absorption. Micro-nutrients include iron, copper, boron, aluminum and about a dozen others. For example, plants need aluminum to be present in soil so they can uptake phosphorus. Think of micro-nutrients as digestive aids.

Where did all the topsoil go?

True topsoil in Northern Virginia and Maryland is hard to find. In housing developments, developers typically scoop away topsoil or push excavated dirt on top of it. They often bring in dirt from elsewhere to fill in and finish out the grading. If there is a budget for landscaping, it tends to be minimal. So the soil left behind after construction is usually of poor quality for planting. It may lack adequate nutrients or may drain poorly due to an over abundance of clay or compacted fill dirt.

Landscaping craft: why soil preparation and planting methods matter

Sod can grow on poorly prepared soil as long as you keep it on permanent life support with irrigation and fertilization. We don’t recommend that, but it does spare the expense of amending the soil and building healthy turf. Trees and shrubs, on the other hand, have a tough time establishing root systems when the soil is poor.

So the best garden care and garden management programs begin with a soil composition analysis. We take core samples from various areas on the property and send them to a lab. Based on the findings, we amend damaged or poorly balanced soils. The amendments support the types of trees and plants we find on the property or those we plan to install. Depending on the species, there will be different requirements for drainage, Ph balance, and macro/micro nutrient balance.

When your landscaping looks great—and when it doesn’t

Good garden care practice is what makes the difference between a good landscaping contractor and a cheap one. That’s why it is important to understand exactly what you are getting for the price when you compare garden care and maintenance estimates from different landscapers.

landscaping vignette japanese maples

The result of poorly prepared soil is easy to spot as you walk or drive through a neighborhood. Look for a hedge row that is uneven–some big shrubs and some runty ones. That is a sure sign of inconsistency in the planting soil. Naturally, the landscaping looked great right after planting. But a year or two later… if you were to see dead plants or plants that weren’t thriving, you wouldn’t know why. Poor soil or “short cut” planting technique: That’s why.

There is a saying known to landscapers: “Plant a nickel plant in a dollar hole.” It means that, if you are going to spend extra money, spend it on soil preparation-not the plant because the plant isn’t worth anything if you don’t plant it in good soil. Don’t short change the preparation.

Consider this: A 4” annual plant is much less expensive than a 6” annual. Yet homeowners will spend extra for the larger plants because they want full looking planting beds.

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They don’t want to see gaps between small starter plants. However, if you plant a 4” annual in good soil and a 6” annual in poor soil, the plant in good soil will have outgrown the one in poor soil in three weeks–with proper watering and fertilization. The same equation holds true for perennials–although, the timeframe is in months rather than weeks.

garden care and soil composition
Creative Commons Photo by Tim Samoff

If this blog post brought up other questions concerning the care and maintenance of your garden and landscaping features, please feel free to contact one of our garden management specialists. We’d be glad to answer your questions as best we can.

Perhaps you are wondering how to bring out the fullest expression in your landscape and gardens. Our eBook: Choosing the Right Kind of Landscape Maintenance Firm, is full of valuable information to help you understand the fundamental differences between landscape maintenance companies.

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