By Paige Patterson
So I finally have taken the first two steps to being a good gardener. Yes, I know, it’s a little late after gardening at my home for over 15 years, but hey, don’t judge me lest you be judged yourself.
Anyway, I finally bit the bullet and added compost or mulch to every single planting bed on the entire property, including all four perimeter hedging beds. And I finally tested my soil.
Of course, I put the compost down after taking the soil tests, so now I have to test the compost to see what that has added, but it’s a good first two steps. I was lucky enough to get the soil samples taken and the compost down before the big snow and the arctic weather we’ve had this past month, so perhaps my plants will have survived this winter.
It’s only 42 days until spring, which seems crazy, but I was totally loving my relaxing time in front of the fire, reading all my gardening magazines that had piled up over the year, and burrowing deeply into the garden books that arrived as presents to myself all year long. It was heaven.
Then I got my soil sample report.
Boron deficiency everywhere but in the bed that was a huge pile of compost where it’s too high? Manganese deficiency across the whole place? Zinc from a very low 2.6 where the black pussy willow lives to a very high 59.8, where the old apples reside. Phosphorus levels from 52 where one dachshund is nosing around to 240 where the other one is rolling in chicken poop. Potassium from a very low 52 in the back yard to a high 294 in the front yard. It’s crazy. In fact, I’m going to have to make a map of the property just to try and figure it all out.
Some of it should be simple to correct, although of course things like the Ph ranging from 5.2 to 6.5 with the lilacs in the most acidic soil on the property and the magnolia in the most alkaline is embarrassing. Embarrassing, and I feel so sad for my plants, but I know what to do, I know how to acidify or alkalinize soil. What I don’t know how to do is to deal with a boron deficiency. Apparently the treatment is to buy 20 Mule Team laundry detergent and fling it about at a rate of 1/3 of a lb per 1,000 feet but to also be super careful, because boron toxicity is something your soil never recovers from. So much fun, especially since we all know I’m not good with being careful.
Luckily I had Fred from Bartlett Tree do my soil testing, and he is going to help me with the boron so I don’t toxify my whole property. It was actually his idea to make the map and as soon as I talk one of the guys from Marders into printing my property from Google Earth out on the big printer I’m going to go crazy marking it. It’s actually sort of exciting to see how utterly different it is from each bed to another. Exciting and confusing.
There are things I’ve puzzled out, like the copper is high because of the apple trees that have lived here longer then I have. Maybe these apple trees were treated with a Bordeaux spray fungicide – it’s an organic fungicide, even though copper is a heavy metal. And most of the high copper numbers are in the front yard where the fruit trees live, but then why so high in the way back east side of the property and not on the way back west side of the property? The two spots are only about 100 feet apart, it makes no sense.
Based on this report, I’m sad to say that obviously it’s not working with me throwing around handfuls of fertilizer each spring based on the hydrangeas and the evergreens getting Holly-tone and everyone else getting Plant-tone. Instead I need to really pay attention to what’s getting what. I need a plan. And I need a map.
I do not need to use a fertilizer with phosphorus in the ex-compost bed, but that bed sure needs manganese chelate and potassium sulfate. Meanwhile the bed with the Chinese elm needs Epson salts for its magnesium deficiency. Plus I’ve got conflicting information. I didn’t know my blackberries and my magnolia wanted the soil to be as acidic as they did, but I do know that the rhododendron is dying in the bed that is the right acidity and the redbud (in that same bed) that wants it much more alkaline is thriving like nothing else in the garden.
I will now confess that I also knew that they shouldn’t be in the same bed together, but when I was placing them, they just looked so nice, the dark leaves of the Forest pansy redbud picking up the purple flower tresses of Edith Bosley, that I did it anyway. Bad gardener!
I’m actually fairly proud of myself for finally doing the right thing this winter. Getting all that compost and mulch spread on every single bed was hideously hard, and cost a lot of money I would have much preferred to spend on more plants, but I knew the soil fertility was terrible, and I knew I was torturing the plants I was stuffing all over the place. Getting the soil tested so I could actually really get the plants I have healthier before buying more, well that’s just a really mature thing to do. It is in fact one of the first things I always tell clients to do. Most of the time clients, like me ignore the advice.
I tell them, “Don’t guess, just get a soil test.” It’s not something I made up, but it’s a sweet little rhyming piece of advice that if I’d followed earlier but have helped save a lot of little plant lives. And now I have the perfect little story to tell them about how I, too, ignored my own advice and am sorry to have done so. A perfect example of why you should do what I say, and not what I do, but then that applies to almost everything I do in life.
Paige Patterson wants to walk down the road and cut branches from her neighbor’s pussy willow, but knows it’s stealing. It’s just so tempting.