By Ellen Barcel
Mild weather will be here — soon, we hope — and, with it, gardening season. You’ve read up on various plants, made your plans, observed what worked and what didn’t in your and other gardens. You’re ready to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.
But, wait. Before you plant that first seed, give some consideration to the soil itself. Unless you’re planting only native plants or plants that are not heavy feeders, such as periwinkle or pachysandra or for trees, oak or pine, you need to add some things to the soil if your plans include a bountiful crop of say, tomatoes or roses.
Here’s a rundown of some possible additions to your soil and why you might need them.
• Compost is decomposed organic matter. It is the ideal soil addition for almost any plant. It’s rich in all kinds of nutrients that plants need. Compost also aerates the soil (particularly useful in clay soil) and holds moisture (particularly useful in very sandy soil). Besides, it keeps a lot of organic material out of the landfills. You take all those green clippings, shredded leaves, kitchen peels, etc., put them in your compost pile, and a number of months later, take out rich, organic matter to use on your plants. You can dig it into the soil or use as a top dressing.
• Peat moss is also organic matter that can be added to the soil. It does many of the same things that compost does, such as loosen compacted soil, aerate the soil, hold moisture and add nutrients. Pete moss is in the pH range of 3.4 to 4.8, that is, it’s very acidic. If you already have very acidic soil, then this is probably not what you need. If, on the other hand, you need to lower the pH, say you have lots of rhodies or other plants that really need acidic soil and you don’t have it, then definitely consider adding peat moss. Another way of lowering the pH of the soil is by adding fertilizers such as Miracid or Holly-tone.
• Since Long Island soil is extremely acidic (with minor exceptions), plants that do well in acidic soil will grow well here naturally. These include oak and pine, rhododendron, azaleas, blueberries, etc. But many plants that are a gardener’s favorite need a sweeter, that is more alkaline, soil. Most veggies, showy flowers and lawn grass are in this category. Check out each one you plan to grow for specifics and then test your soil, but chances are you’ll need to add lime to your soil to raise the pH. Follow the manufacturer’s directions and remember, some varieties of lime can take more than one growing season to decompose enough to be able to be taken up by the plants, so read each package carefully. An added note — lime also works if you are trying to turn your hydrangeas pink.
• Since so much of Long Island’s soil is basically sand, you definitely need to put nutrients into the soil. One benefit of using compost is that you are adding these much needed nutrients with the compost. However, for heavy feeders, you might want to add additional fertilizer. This could be in the form of compost tea, some organic commercial fertilizer or some chemical fertilizer — your choice.
• Mulch helps virtually all plants. I personally prefer an organic mulch such as pine bark because as it decomposes it amends the soil. But there are any number of acceptable mulches. Mulch keeps down weeds and helps to hold moisture in the soil. Remember to keep mulch away from the trunk of trees.
• For lawns, pre-emergent weed killer may be needed. It should be applied before the weeds have actually started growing. Remember that combination products, those that contain both weed killer and fertilizer, can’t legally be used in Suffolk County until April 1 since fertilizer can’t be applied before that date. Of course with all the snow we’ve had, that may not be a problem if we still have snow on our lawns.
A final note: many new homes have property that has virtually no topsoil at all. If this is your situation, you may want to have some delivered to help start your garden. If you are growing plants in containers, get a good quality potting soil rather than just digging up garden soil.
So, as you begin the gardening season, make your list and stock up on what you need.
Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.