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A: There are those who suspect Wildflower Center volunteers are the culpable and capable culprits. Yet, others think staff members play some, albeit small, role. You can torture us with your plant questions, but we will never reveal the Green Guru's secret identity.

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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Tuesday - June 24, 2008

From: Fairfax, VA
Region: Mid-Atlantic
Topic: Compost and Mulch, Planting, Soils
Title: Improperly prepared building site in Virginia
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

Hi, I have a question about planting on newly-built homesite. We just moved into a new home in DC suburbs (Northern VA) and the landscape is the worst of the builder grade. There are prickly junipers and holly shrubs everywhere. When I started to plan and see what type of soil we have all I found is yellow and red clay mixed with LOTS of construction debris and rocks, a lot of rocks.. A drainage is a huge issue too, after rain water fills up the borders and all the mulch is floating around the sidewalks. Please help!!!

ANSWER:

Much as we hate to say this, your problem is way out of the range of Mr. Smarty Plant's specialty and expertise, even with our magic wand. We don't know anything about site preparation codes or zoning in Fairfax, VA. (We don't know much about it in Austin, either.) We're not sure whether to recommend a lawyer or a bulldozer, but we are going to do neither. Some questions you need to ask yourself are: is it only your yard that is not draining or are others in your neighborhood having the same problem? Were all or most of the new houses in your neighborhood built by the same builder, or landscaped by the same contractor? Was there a site inspection before, during and after construction? Some local authority, city, county, etc. should have employees trained to inspect a site for usability before it is too late to fix it. When you have just bought and moved into a new home with all the financial responsibilities involved is not a good time to find out that a basic procedure in the preparation of your site has been left undone.

We don't know how severe your problem is, we're gardeners, not construction or landscaping specialists. Clay soil can be amended with organic material, such as compost, and some rocks can be accommodated. In fact, that's about all the plants have to grow in around here. But lots of rocks and certainly construction waste should have been removed, before any fill dirt went in. And the fill dirt should have been graded and checked for drainage requirements. You could build some raised beds, with low walls, to hold amended soil and plant some things. The biggest problem with clay is that it holds water, which only adds to your drainage problems. There are plants that will tolerate wet feet for a while, but then when dry weather hits, they are probably going to die. Frankly, suggesting alternative plants for your garden is not practical until you have resolved some of the more basic problems. When you get a better feel for the situation, please get back to us and let us suggest some native plants recommended for your area.

 

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