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Date: July 16, 2003

Improving soil key to productive gardens, landscapes

(RICHMOND, VA) - Healthy soil is the basis for productive plant growth. Getting and keeping soil in the best condition not only means healthy plants, it can also prevent problems like garden chemicals leaching into groundwater from poor water retention.

Improving soil structure is a critical aspect of soil care, and adding organic matter is the most effective way to accomplish this. To build and protect soil structure, organic matter must be consistently returned to soil because that matter continually decomposes and disappears.

Your lawn can have a continual supply of organic matter if you leave grass clippings on it. Mulch wide areas around trees and shrubs three inches deep with materials such as pine straw for a consistent organic matter source. Come fall, or in the spring, incorporate organic matter in annual gardens by cultivating in two inches of compost, shredded leaves or manure.

Any addition to soil that improves its physical or chemical condition is considered a soil amendment. Lime and sulfur balance soil pH, greensand and granite meal are sources of potassium, and manures and compost raise nutrient levels. Regular, long-term efforts to raise soil nutrient and structure levels can mean less reliance on synthetic fertilizers.

Applied correctly, a soil amendment conserves moisture, improves infiltration of rain or irrigation water, and "unlocks" existing nutrients in soil. In addition to amendments, tilling, reducing erosion and runoff, modifying drainage and managing nutrients will keep soil fertile and rich, so you have fewer gardening problems.

It can be challenging to garden fruitfully in soils in urban and suburban areas. During construction activity, soils can become compacted and are then often covered with a topsoil of a very different texture and structure. Results are poor drainage, poor water penetration, high pH and limited rooting space.

If practical, replace compacted fill soil in planting beds with good topsoil. You may want to consider raised beds in very poor areas but not, for instance, on a septic drain field. In some cases, removing rubble and amending soil with organic matter is an option. Always treat an area wider than the planting holes for trees and shrubs, gradually blending new material into the old at the edges to avoid a sharp division between "good" and "bad" soil.

For a month-by-month guide to an environmentally sound lawn and garden or a lawn fertilization brochure, contact the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation at 1-877-42WATER. Or call your local Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners for water-wise landscaping techniques and garden layout tips. Add hardy plants to your landscape - request regional (mountain, Piedmont and coastal) native plant lists from DCR or download them from Also contact the Virginia Native Plant Society at (540) 837-1600.


editors' note: September - fall (cool-season) lawn care

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