Healthy Plants Start With Good Bed Preparation

Daniel Gill, Merrill, Thomas A.  |  4/19/2005 10:28:53 PM

Get It Growing News For 10/22/04

Fall is a prime planting season in Louisiana. Cool-season bedding plants will be planted from now through early December, and November through February is the best time to plant hardy trees, shrubs, ground covers and perennials in the landscape. How well you prepare the soil prior to planting has an enormous effect on the health and growth of your plants.

Gardeners often put too little effort into learning about their soil and what is needed for proper bed preparation. Soil is the primary source of water and nutrients for plants and must also provide sufficient air (oxygen) to the root system. A gardener’s job is to make sure, through proper bed preparation, that the soil provides what plants need to be healthy and strong.

There are many different kinds of soils in Louisiana. Knowing the characteristics of the soil in your garden is necessary to understanding how you may need to modify the soil to benefit the plants you intend to grow.

You can learn about your soil by talking to individuals knowledgeable about the soils in your area. A great place to start is your parish LSU AgCenter Extension office. Your county agent will be able to familiarize you with the characteristics of the soil in your area.

You also can have your soil tested by the LSU AgCenter’s soil testing laboratory in Baton Rouge for $7. Kits to submit soil samples for analysis are available from your local LSU AgCenter Extension office. The test will tell you the texture, fertility level, pH and, for an additional $1, the percentage of organic matter of your soil.

If you do it now, you should get back your test results in two to three weeks – just in time to prepare beds for our prime planting season. And, if needed, you can contact your local LSU AgCenter county agent to help you understand the results and decide what needs to be done.

Bed Preparation

Shrubs, ground covers, vegetables, annuals and perennials should always be planted into well-prepared beds. Trees generally are planted into individual planting holes, and the soil used to fill in around their roots should not be amended.

The soil of beds, however, usually is improved in some way with the addition of amendments. Soil amendments are materials blended with the soil to enhance the growth of plants to be planted in the bed.

Here are the basic steps in preparing a bed.

First, do a thorough job of removing unwanted vegetation in the bed. This might mean taking up existing turf to create a new bed or just cleaning out weeds that have grown up in an existing bed. Weeds or turfgrass may be removed physically or killed with a herbicide. If you are removing weeds by hand, use a shovel or trowel to get out all of the roots, rhizomes and bulbs. As an alternative, you may spray and kill the weeds with a systemic herbicide, such as glyphosate (Roundup, Kleenup), that will not leave a residue in the soil.

When the weeds or turf have been dealt with, turn the soil over to a depth of at least 8 inches to 10 inches – using a shovel, spade or garden fork – and break up the large clods.

Next, spread any desired soil amendments over the turned soil. You will almost always want to add 2 inches to 4 inches of organic matter. I think homemade compost is the best, and every gardener should have a compost pile. But if you can’t make your own, you also can purchase compost from local companies or city departments that produce it or you can find it in bags at your local nursery. Other suitable choices for organic matter include aged manure (available from local stables or bagged at nurseries), peat moss or finely ground composted pine bark.

If a soil test indicates that your soil is alkaline (a pH above 7), sulfur, copperas or aluminum sulfate may be applied to make it more acid. This is especially important if you intend to plant acid-loving plants. If your soil is too acid (a pH below 5.5), lime or dolomitic lime may be applied to raise the pH and provide essential nutrients such as calcium and magnesium.

The fertility level of the soil may be improved with the addition of fertilizer. If your soil is low in phosphorus and potassium, generally choose an all-purpose fertilizer with about a 1:1:1 ratio such as 8-8-8 or 13-13-13. If phosphorus and potassium levels are adequate to high, generally choose an all-purpose fertilizer with about a 3:1:2 ratio, such as 15-5-10. Appropriate organic fertilizers also could be used. Just remember that a soil test can help you decide what amendments need to be added to your soil.

Finally, thoroughly blend all of the amendments you have applied into the soil of the bed. A garden tiller is great for this step, but it can also be done by hand.

Then rake the bed smooth and shape the sides and you’re ready to plant. When you finish, you will find that the bed is several inches higher than it was before preparation. This is desirable, because it will help improve drainage.

I won’t deny that this is hard work. But the results you get in healthy, vigorous plants make it well worth the effort.

Get It Growing is a weekly feature on home lawn and garden topics prepared by experts in the LSU AgCenter. For more information on such topics, contact your parish LSU AgCenter Extension office or visit our Web site at www.lsuagcenter.com.  A wide range of publications and a variety of other resources are available.

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Contact: Dan Gill at (225) 578-2222 or dgill@agcenter.lsu.edu 
Editor: Tom Merrill at (225) 578-2263 or tmerrill@agcenter.lsu.edu 

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