Acidifying Garden Soil Naturally

Gardenias, azaleas, rhododendrons, hydrangeas, blueberries, spruce, pine, maple, oak – the list goes on and on of plants that grow best in acidic soil. If you love acid loving plants and the ph of your soil is below 7, you won the acid soil lottery.  Plant away! But what if your soil is alkaline and you have a love for acid loving plants?  There are many synthetic means available to acidify your soil but there are also ways to do it organically.  By adding specific amendments to the soil, you can lower the ph naturally.

Tip:  Creating an acid soil situation where there wasn’t one before may injure alkaline-loving plants nearby.  If you choose to acidify your garden soil, use care  so you don’t  damage nearby plant life.

Amending The Soil

If you have plants that prefer acidic soil or you would like to add plants to your garden that prefer acidic soil, you can amend the soil to lower the ph if necessary.  Plants prefer acidic or alkaline soil because the chemistry of the soil determines which types of nutrients in the soil are amending the soilavailable to your plants. For example, alkaline soil chemically binds up the  iron that is already in the soil.  This makes most of the iron in the soil unavailable for plant use.  Because acid loving plants require a good deal of iron to thrive, this situation results in iron deficiency.  A lack of iron results in a condition, called chlorosis.  It is generally identified by a yellowing of the leaves on the plant.  When the soil is amended to create a more acidic soil condition, the iron that is already present in the soil is chemically released and becomes available for use by the plant.

Tip:  Changing a soil’s ph level is generally a slow process that may take several applications and a lot of time before it takes effect, even with chemical treatments.  Have patience my friends!

Sphagnum Peat and Peat Moss (Best Option)

Sphagnum peat and peat moss, which are highly acidic, are the best means of lowering the ph of your soil naturally. (Hint:  It also adds organic matter to the soil which improves soil structure!)  These materials lower the ph of your soil while they break down.  Adding peat or peat moss along with compost to your acid loving plants every year will make your acid-loving plants very happy and it will  improve you soil structure as well.  Also, in my opinion, this is the safest and easiest way to acidify your soil naturally.

bag of peat moss

The soil in my area is quite alkaline.  I planted an azalea with a soil mixture of  50% soil and 50% sphagnum peat moss.   Then every year after that, I added a hardy layer of sphagnum peat moss around the azalea and it grew quite nicely.

Mulching with Pine Needles

There are current ongoing arguments over the idea of whether or not pine needles will acidify the soil.  Scientists are saying that while pine needles are acidic while they are on the tree, they lose that acidity fairly quickly once they fall to the ground and by the time they are decomposed their ph is at a neutral level.  But, life-long gardeners swear by using pine needles as a natural mulch to acidify the soil.  In this debate, you will have to choose a side but my advice to you is this:  if you have pine needles readily available, use them as a mulch around your acid loving plants.  It won’t hurt.  Even if pine needles don’t acidify the soil, they will improve the soil structure as they break down into compost.

The arguments concerning pine needles are the same with oak leaves. Again, it never hurts to mulch with them or add them to your compost!

Vinegar

While conducting research for this article, I read numerous articles and watched a multitude of videos about watering plants with a water/vinegar solution to acidify soil. Personally, I wouldn’t try this. Vinegar is a natural herbicide (i.e. plant killer).   It would be far too easy to burn or kill your beloved plants. And from what I read, it only acidifies the soil slightly and the results are short-lived which would require the process to be repeated frequently. My suggestion – don’t do it.

For more information on acidifying garden soil,  check out the Iowa State University Extension website.

Globe Blue Spruce
Globe Blue Spruce photo by Wanette Lenling

My best advice to you  is to grow plants that like alkaline soil if you have alkaline soil and acid loving plants if you have acid soil.  If you really love a plant that likes acid soil and you have alkaline soil, grow the plant in a pot with potting mix for acid loving plants and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!

Happy Gardening my friends!

Quote of the Day

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

-Reinhold Niebuhr, American theologian

 

 

 

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INTERVIEWS WITH EXPERTS: Renita Kainz, Master Gardener

Renita Kainz has been a been a serious gardener since her early 20’s.  She has worked in the commercial garden industry for most of her adult life.  In 2008, Renita furthered her experience as a gardener by gaining formal horticultural training in the Master Gardener program.

Tip:  If you would like more information about becoming a master gardener, contact your local extension service for details.

I met with Renita for an enjoyable morning interview, after which she took me on a guided tour to view her large collection of potted plants, landscaped gardens, and amazing backyard greenhouse.  We talked about how she became interested in gardening and how gardening has played a central role in her life.  I asked her a few questions to learn more about her long-term dedication to the hobby she loves so much.

 

How did the interest in gardening begin?

Renita said grew up on a farm in a rural area watching both parents work the ground,  her mother through vegetable gardening and her father through farming.   Then, when Renita was in her teens, her mother brought home a collection of houseplants that tickled Renita’s passion for plants.  Renita said it was in her college days that she dove head-first into gardening herself when she came into ownership of her own large collection of houseplants.

How did that interest become a lifelong activity?

Renita said that in her 30’s, she began work as a seasonal greenhouse worker and once she began working at a greenhouse full-time, she was content and happy.  At that point, her passion for gardening stuck.

“Remember, every gardening year has successes and failures, just like people.”          – Renita Kainz          

Renita’s garden organization participation.

The Garden Plotters

Renita explained that in 2006, she, along with greenhouse co-workers, started a garden club known as the Garden Plotters. The club has evolved into a fun social group that allows members to share their passion for gardening.  The club meets monthly to share ideas, view local gardens, and listen to speakers among other things. The club members also volunteer time, energy, and money to Kuhnert Arboretum.  To date, the Garden Plotters have raised nearly $17,000 for Kuhnert Arboretum with their club’s annual plant sale.

Aberdeen Garden Plotters Photo from Kuhnert Arboretum Facebook Page
Photo courtesy of Kuhnert Arboretum Facebook page.

The 2018 Garden Plotter’s Plant Sale is celebrating its 10th Anniversary.  For more information about the annual plant sale, please check out the club’s Facebook page at Aberdeen Garden Plotters.

Master Gardener Program

Renita started her master gardener training in 2008 and became certified in 2010.  Since then she has been involved with the Prairie Partners Master Gardener Club,  holding office for six years, including serving as president for three.

Hardy Rosarians of South Dakota

Most recently, Renita joined the Hardy Rosarians of South Dakota. This club also volunteers time and resources to Kuhnert Arboretum, having designed and installed the recent rose garden addition which includes 100 roses of 51 varieties that are hardy in South Dakota’s Zone 4 climate zone.

Kuhnert Arboretum rose garden
Kuhnert Arboretum rose gardens. Photo courtesy of Kuhnert Arboretum Facebook page.

Any areas of specialty or favorite type of plants?

Renita said she doesn’t really have a favorite plant or area of gardening which she prefers.  She said that in general she loves landscape plants which include a variety of trees, shrubs, and perennials.  But, Renita said, as a hobby, she has a fondness for airplants, orchids, succulents, and exotic geraniums.

Gardening books Renita recommends:  Silent Spring by Rachel Carson,  The Truth About Garden Remedies by Jeff Gillman, and The Truth About Organic Gardening, also by Jeff Gillman.

Why is gardening organically important?

Renita said she has always loved nature.  She said she prefers organic gardening, as opposed to using synthetic chemicals, because not only do chemicals “smell bad” but as she has learned more and more about synthetic chemicals, she realized just how dangerous they are to people and the environment. Renita pointed out that synthetic chemicals sometimes kill off the beneficial microbes in the soil which help keep plants healthy and strong.

“If you wouldn’t eat it, don’t put it on your plants.” –Renita Kainz

What are three frequently asked gardening questions?

Renita said the most frequently asked question is, “How often should I water?” followed by, “What’s wrong with this plant?” and “What can I plant that I don’t have to do anything with?”  These are all very common garden questions that most gardeners face at some point.  The answers to these questions of course, rely on the details of the garden, the plant, or the gardener involved.

Column evergreen with metal flower

What are three gardening tips or hints every gardener should know?

  1.  “Tough love is better than too much kindness.”  Renita and I laughed about this hint because we agree that more plants are killed from too much attention than not enough.
  2. “Don’t be afraid to try anything.”  Renita said that she has killed far more plants than she has ever successfully grown, which I think most gardeners could agree with!
  3. “Do your own research, either through books, magazines, the internet, or by asking experts.”  Renita recommends educating yourself on your topic of interest prior to planting.  She cautioned that in regard to internet searches, it is best to use sites that end in .edu or .org as these sites can usually be trusted for accuracy. Use caution with information from other sites as the information may not be reliable.

What are the benefits of becoming a master gardener?

Renita said that master gardeners are trained in horticulture by experts in the field.  The “job” of the Master Gardener is to pass along this information to educate the public.  She said the experience allowed her to meet like-minded people and the training  satisfied her deep desire to keep learning about gardening, a subject she is very passionate about.

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It was great fun to interview Renita about her passion and expansive knowledge of gardening.  And, I was very honored to have a tour of her beautifully landscaped yard and awesome backyard greenhouse.  I hope this interview stoked your passion for gardening and all the joys that come with it.

The next interview in the Interviews with Experts series is with expert commercial grower and retail operations manager, Dana Althoff.  Until then,

Happy Gardening!

Quote of the Day

“The love of gardening is a seed once sown that never dies.”

-Gertrude Jekyll, British horticulturalist

 

 

Garden Tips and Helpful Hints

Sometimes as a gardener you have small questions that don’t require an extended answer.  Today I’m going to give you five helpful hints and garden tips for everyday garden questions.

 1. How do I know when to water my potted plants?

For most potted annual plants a good rule of thumb is to stick your finger into the soil up to your first knuckle.  If you feel moisture, hold off watering.  If you don’t feel any moisture, go ahead and water.  This is just a general guideline.  It works well for most potted annuals (that have good drainage) but doesn’t work well for plants like succulents which need much less water and plants like ferns which need more. Be sure to educate yourself on the water requirements of your specific potted plants.

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Annuals in a tree stump flower bed

2. Should I dead-head my garden plants?

Unless you want to save seeds, dead-heading garden plants keep them looking tidy and also encourages plants to produce more blossoms.  If you want to save seeds, don’t dead-head your plants.  Leave the expired blossoms on the plant.  Most plants, especially annuals and biennials (that are in their second year of growth) will produce seed heads or seed pods where the spent blossoms are located.  Simply collect the seeds, allow them to dry fully, and put them in containers until you’re ready to use them. (Don’t forget to label your seeds!)

 

3.  Should I mulch my garden and landscape?

You should use mulch in your landscape and garden to not only keep moisture in the ground but to keep the roots of your plants cool. Summer sun will heat up black dirt very very quickly and can damage sensitive roots.  You can use landscape rock or bark mulch in your landscape for a neat appearance and anything from straw to leaves in your vegetable garden which not only keeps moisture in but breaks down into compost to add nutrients to the soil as well.

 

4. When should I fertilize?

The general rule is to apply fertilizer in spring and fall but it depends on the kind of fertilizer you use.  Compost can be added at any time but adding it in the spring when you plant is best.  Slow release fertilizers are usually applied in spring and early fall.  This helps plants get going in the spring and build up nutrients for a winter’s rest.  Liquid fertilizers are generally applied weekly because they act fast and wash away quickly. Always read the label on manufactured fertilizers and follow the directions for proper application.

 

5. And finally, a question I am asked all the time is should you have a gardening buddy?

Yes.  I highly recommend a gardening buddy to cuddle with, oops I mean to visit with, while you enjoy the fresh air and sunshine.

Happy gardening!

Quote of the Day

“I take care of my flowers and my cats. And enjoy food.  And that’s living.”

-Ursula Andress, Swiss actress

Planning Next Year’s Garden

As I sit at my desk, watching the snow come down during our first blizzard, I am daydreaming of spring planting.  On my desk, gardening books and catalogs lay open to designs I love and plants I would like to have.  Graph paper and color pencils are patiently waiting as ideas begin to form.  If you are like me, when one growing season ends, it’s time to start planning the next.

I love design. I love planning for new flower beds and borders.  I also love to redesign old gardens with new walkways, trellises, or arbors along with flowers.  Fences can also add to the landscape by separating large gardens into smaller spaces.

Gardens separated by fences
Gardens separated by fences: http://www.mooseyscountrygarden.com/botanical-gardens/laking-garden-ontario.html

 

After settling on the new hardscape (walkways, retaining walls, etc.), it’s time to delve into the joy of picking out the new plantings.  It’s fun to pick out new perennials such as roses, delphiniums, peonies, and lilies but don’t forget to include decorative trees, like birch and canadian cherry, and shrubs, like viburnum and lilac.  Mixing flowers in with trees and shrubs gives your new garden the thoughtful balanced look every designer craves. This is where planning is really important.

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Landscape design with trees and shrubs

Adding trees and shrubs to the new landscaping will create a vision of beauty in your garden, however, there are some things to consider when doing so.  Trees and shrubs are more permanent parts of the landscape than annual and perennial flowers. Annual flowers must be replanted ever year and most perennial flowers that come up every year can be easily moved.  This is not the case with trees and shrubs.  It is important to take into consideration how large a tree or shrub will get at maturity, how long it takes to reach maturity, and the plant’s long term needs. For example, a small white pine tree may look elegant in the landscaping next to a red brick home but within a few short years it will outgrow the space and it will need to be removed.  A better option for such a space would be to plant an aborvaete or juniper that grows vertically and slender.  This will still give the homeowner the elegant evergreen appearance and the plant will be able to thrive in that space for many years to come.

Color and bloom time for each plant is also a consideration when planning a new garden or landscape.  Some plants, like hostas and coral bells,  are grown strickly for their foliage texture and color.   However, plants like peonies and lilacs, which are grown for their showy colorful blooms, have a definite bloom time.  It is important to plan around the bloom time of each plant to allow your garden to have consistent bloom coverage for the entire growing season.  To get the most from your garden, plant a mix of flowers and shrubs in the colors you like that start blooming in early spring, like tulips and forsythia, with summer bloomimg plants, like coneflowers and viburnum, and fall blooming plants, like mums and asters.  Then, to make sure there is no time your garden color falls flat, add in some annuals for all season color and a show-stopping look.

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Planning your new garden or redesigning an old one is fun way to stay in the gardening spirit even when the snow is falling outside. And, creating a good plan ahead of time will  give you a beautiful garden or landscape that is colorful and inviting all season long!

Happy gardening!

Quote of the Day

A black cat among roses, phlox, lilac-misted under a quarter moon, the sweet smells of heliotrope and night-scented stock. The garden is very still.  It is dazed with moonlight, contented with perfume…
― Amy Lowell, American poet

Is It An Evergreen Or A Conifer?

“I love evergreens. Or is it a conifer? I don’t know! I’m confused.”  I heard statements like this many times over the years while I was working at the garden nursery. It’s understandable. These terms are easily misunderstood and some plants are both. Let me explain.

What Are Evergreens?

Evergreens are plants that hold their needles or leaves throughout the year. Evergreen simply means the plant does not go dormant at any time during the year.  The plant stays “green”, or rather, it holds its leaves or needles and photosynthesis does not cease, although growth usually slows or stops all together.  Plants that are evergreen may vary depending on which climate zone you live in.  Some plants are evergreen in warmer climates and deciduous in colder climates. Others plants are evergreen no matter which zone you live in. Evergreens can include such plants as pine, spruce, holly, juniper, viburnum, bay leaf, camellia, lavender -the list goes on and on.

Buffalo Juniper
Buffalo Juniper photo by Wanette Lenling

In contrast to evergreens, deciduous plants lose their leaves and go dormant during certain times of the year.  For example, maple and oak trees generally go dormant in Fall and all their leaves drop to the ground.  Anyone who has to clean up leaves in Fall knows this concept well.

Then What Are Conifers?

The word “conifer” literally means “cone bearing”, so conifers are plants that reproduce by growing a cone to hold their seeds rather than producing a flower.  The class Coniferinae includes such plants as spruce, pine, and juniper.  But this class also includes plants that drop their needles or leaves like the tamarisk, larch, bald cypress, and dawn redwood.  Conifers that drop their leaves or needles are called deciduous conifers, meaning they shed all their needles or leaves at certain times of the year but they still produce cones.

Black Hills Spruce
Black Hills Spruce photo by Wanette Lenling

So What Are Evergreen Conifers Then?

Simple. Evergreen conifers are plants that produce cones and hold their needles or leaves all year round.  This would include such plants as spruce, pine, yews, and junipers.

Globe Blue Spruce
Globe Blue Spruce photo by Wanette Lenling

There you have it.  The answer to the conifer/evergreen conundrum. No matter what you call them, they are amazing plants that are absolutely gorgeous and fun to grow. These plants can be giants, like the ancient dawn redwood which can grow up to 60 feet in height or more, or teeny tiny plants like the Mitsch Mini Mugo Pine that grow to only 14 inches tall. If you have never grown evergreens or conifers, I highly recommend trying it. There are so many to choose from, you are bound to find one (or two!) that you love.

Happy Gardening!

Quote of the Day

“The pine stays green in winter…wisdom in hardship.”

 – Norman Douglas