The Dirt on NC Soil

When I moved to North Carolina from Massachusetts in 1993, I was eager to start planting. I had heard how many more varieties of plants could be grown here than in Zone 4, including warm season grasses, and I could not wait to get my hands in the soil. So you can imagine my surprise when, after great effort, I came up with a shovel full of red clay and rock. I wondered how anything grows here! I sought out the advice of local experts, and began the hard work of amending my soil. After 24 years of soil building, resulting in beautiful, rich, black dirt … we decided to move. We chose to build in Durham and I took a soil sample from the new lot. The test results are the 2nd worst I have seen in 20 years in NC horticulture.

To test your own soil, take core plugs from several spots in the yard and mix them together to get an overall sample. Or you can take several plugs per area (lawn, vegetable garden, etc.). A soil probe is a helpful tool for taking core samples. For each sample you will need about 3/4 of a sandwich baggie. The NC Department of Agriculture  offers free soil testing most of the year, charging a small fee December through March. Bring your sample to the lab in Raleigh and they will give you a form and a box to submit your sample. Results are emailed to you in about 2 weeks. Outside NC, check with your state agriculture department.

The NC report will look like this: Soil Test Report

Over the years I have performed hundreds of soil tests on my clients’ yards. The most telling number on those tests is the HM% – the percentage of Humus Matter (organic matter) in the soil. Ideal is 5%, but in my 20 years in the horticulture industry in NC, I have yet to see one above 1%. The average is 0.46%. Mine is 0.04%. Pitiful.

The pH is another important number. The form you fill out will ask what is being grown in the area sampled. I wrote  TifTuf Bermuda because that is what I intend to use for my lawn. I will (of course) also be planting perennials, trees, shrubs, vegetables, herbs, hops… but I digress. Ideal pH for most lawns (not Centipede) is 5.8-6.5 and, as you can see above, mine is 5.3. The lab recommends I add 80 pounds of lime per 1000 square feet. That is a lot of lime. I have work to do.

The solution to poor soil quality is soil building. In the Triangle, our native soil has the following layers: gray clay, red clay, and if you are lucky, a bit of organic matter on top. Most new construction is missing that important top layer. Nature builds soil in these layers, so for best results we should imitate Nature.

To remedy a lack of organic matter,  work compost into new beds and continue to amend your soil by adding a layer of compost yearly. I highly recommend Super-Sod’s Soil3 compost. One cubic yard comes in the signature BigYellowBag and can be delivered to your home! Soil3 is made from grass clippings, wheat straw and cow manure. It is inoculated with mycorrhizae and other beneficial organisms, and turned regularly to maintain a temperature of 160 degrees. The result is rich, humus compost that is OMRI  listed for use in organic vegetable gardens.

There are other important numbers to note on the soil report. The lab tests available Phosphorous and Potassium in the soil, but not Nitrogen because it is too unstable and the results will not be reliable. Under “N-P-K Fertilizer Recommendations” they will tell you how much fertilizer to add. Be sure to do this at the correct time of year for the plants you are growing. CEC measures the soil’s ability to absorb and release nutrients to the plant roots. Ideal CEC is 15+. High levels  of zinc, copper and manganese can be problematic as well. Be sure to read the Agronomist’s comments to see if further action is needed.

We move in to our new home at the end of December, and I will begin shortly thereafter improving my soil. I will start with a dump truck load of 50/50 topsoil/compost, and then top-dress annually with Soil3.  It will be a long process, but the results are well worth the effort. I will keep my readers updated as the new landscape develops. Happy gardening!

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Nature wins. Every time.

blowing-rockNovice gardeners are often looking for the “rule book”. If only gardening were that simple – you follow the rules and you get the perfect results! But those who want to follow the rules in gardening miss the critical catch: Nature doesn’t follow rules. But please don’t misinterpret this to mean nature is capricious. That would be an inappropriate anthropomorphizing of nature. Nature is a complex force that is ever-changing. It has no human qualities – no sense of vengeance, no motherly tendencies, no good and no evil.

Throughout history, humans have anthropomorphized natural elements (and animals) to make them more comprehensible and more relatable. We put things into human form because we are egotistical and can only see things through our own lens. The ancient Greek gods are the perfect example. Remember Poseidon? The god of the sea, controlling the tides and the sea creatures, using tidal waves to exact vengeance on disobedient humans. And when we contemplate the possibility of life in outer space, we picture humanoid alien life forms. We have difficulty imagining that extra-terrestrials are more likely to look nothing like us. In our attempt to understand nature, we humanize it. Nature is not a mother, not a Green Man, not a god. Nature does not punish or reward us. Nature is a collection of the 4 elements (earth, air, fire and water) and the carbon based life forms that can choose to either fight those elements or work with them. And that is the most fundamental decision – to fight nature, or to work with it. Just remember one thing: Nature wins. Every time.

Novice gardeners want a set of rules, a calendar, a formula. When can I plant tomatoes? April 15? When can I install a warm season lawn? May 1st? Which chemical fertilizer works best? 10-10-10? They come to the experts and expect a set answer. Often we give them one because they are lost without one. But it is never as simple as we would like it to be.

When can I plant tomatoes? When the threat of frost has passed. When will that be in Raleigh? Well, the Farmer’s Almanac predicts April 4th for 2017. But that could change… Every year it is different. So we say April 15th because that is safe…not necessarily accurate, but safe. Because we know that if we say April 4th, we could get a later frost, and that client will come back and be angry with us because their tomatoes died. Nature doesn’t read the Farmer’s Almanac. The Farmer’s Almanac attempts to read nature. They are quite good at it, historically, but their writers understand the most important rule in gardening: Nature wins. Every time.

Click here to read the Farmers’ Almanac for Raleigh, NC.  http://www.almanac.com/gardening/frostdates/NC/Raleigh

When will Emerald Zoysia be available? When it greens up. When will that be in Raleigh? At Super-Sod we say May 1st because, again, it is a safe bet. But we don’t know the exact date because we do not control nature, we work with it.

https://www.supersod.com/raleigh

Which chemical fertilizer is best? That depends on your soil health and the plants you are growing. We strongly recommend that you do a soil test so that you apply the correct amount of fertilizer and, more importantly, so that you don’t over fertilize. Working with the pH you have is another aspect of a soil test.

The NC Department of Agriculture performs these tests for free most months (they do charge a small fee December through March when they are inundated with farmers’ samples).

http://www.ncagr.gov/agronomi/sthome.htm

So how does the novice gardener become a good gardener? By spending lots of time outdoors, paying attention to the air, the soil, the lake levels. By observing the plants – really looking at them. Grass leaves react to water shortages by folding their blades in half to minimize sun exposure. When your grass blades look skinnier and grayer, they are telling you they need water. Certain plants are known as “indicator plants”. When your hydrangea leaves droop, all your plants need water.

Ask lots of questions. Don’t just ask where you should plant a hosta, ask why you should plant it there. Dig a hole and get to know your soil. Smell it, squeeze it in your hand, and look for worms and insects in it. Poor soil will support very few life forms. Good soil should be brown and smell earthy. It should hold together when squeezed in your hand, but should not just be a lump of clay. Amend poor soil with compost.

http://www.soil3.com/

Most importantly, let go of that need for control, and reconnect with nature. You will make mistakes and lots of them, and that’s OK. That’s how we learn. I’ve been a horticulture professional for over 20 years and I am still learning. It’s a process, not a destination. Learn to love the earth, because it is the only one we have. And don’t try to win because you cannot (and should not) defeat nature.  Repeat after me: Nature wins. Every time.