Adventures in Gardening: Picking Posies

by David Soper

We have no control over the weather and very limited control over the soil in our gardens. It can take several years to change the quality of the dirt in your beds.

You do have complete control over the plants you choose to grow. When folk's begin gardening, they often select plants based on the bloom. Is it pretty? Do I like the color? They are important qualities but there are other considerations as well.

For instance, Colorado garden author and lecturer, Lauren Springer likes to point out, too few of us give much thought to the place of origin of our plants. What are the implications of their origins for mulching, placement and other cultural considerations?

Many of Lauren's plants grow in a xeriscape, a landscape that requires little water. She's chosen plants that are from rocky Mediterranean environments. Consequently, she's added lots of gravel or rock to her beds. They tend to like alkaline soil.

Providing too much organic material for these plants, plants that evolved for thousands of years without benefit of of constant organic stimulation, would not be welcome. They would not appreciated organic mulches at all. In fact, they might even die from such attention.

It is easy to believe every plant would thrive with lots of fertilizer and organic material but it is just not true.

One of the considerations important to take into account is the pH factor of the soil. (This can be determined with a simple test.)

Back to chemistry basics. . . The term pH refers to the acidity or alkalinity of soil. If you live in an area that gets lots of rainfall (like I do), acid soils predominate. Areas that usually get little rainfall are more likely to have soil toward the alkaline side.

Scientists have assigned a numerical range of 1.0 to 14.0 to describe soil pH. Neutral soil measures at 7.0. The majority of perennials do best in a neutral to slightly acid soil,between 5.5 and 6.5.

The problem with soils with pH levels that are too high or too low is they bind the nutrients thus depriving your plants of needed nutrition.

The traditional approach to altering your soil (to reflect the pH of their native habitat) is to add lime or limestone to acidic soils. An application of lime will last for about three years and should not be applied at the same time as fertilizers since they can neutralize each other. Vegetables, by the way, like soil to be more alkaline than flowers do.

The solution for too alkaline a soil is to add organic material. Sawdust is a frequent choice.

You can get a good idea of your soil condition from the USDA Extension Office near you.

David Soper, The Garden Guy, writes and lectures on gardening topics. Check out his books at

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