En EspaŅol

Q. Who is Mr. Smarty Plants?

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.

Help us grow by giving to the Plant Database Fund or by becoming a member

Did you know you can access the Native Plant Information Network with your web-enabled smartphone?

Share

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants

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

Search Smarty Plants
    
 
See a list of all Smarty Plants questions
Can't find the answer in our existing FAQs, submit a question to Mr. Smarty Plants.
Need help with plant identification, visit the plant identification page.
 
rate this answer
Not Yet Rated

Saturday - July 23, 2011

From: Centerville, VA
Region: Mid-Atlantic
Topic: Compost and Mulch, Planting, Transplants, Turf, Shrubs
Title: Garden problems from Centreville VA
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

Plants die, trees won't grow. I've replaced the soil (6") twice. Replaced grass twice and planted new plants and tree. After two yrs, the tree is still the same size and the flowering bushes near dead. What to do? I want a beautiful lawn!

ANSWER:

We are truly sorry to hear about your difficulties establishing a garden and lawn. We think the first thing you should do is relax a little bit. You are going to give yourself ulcers and it's too hot in most of the country to do any major digging or removing right now. You didn't give us any specifics of what plants you had tried to grow, how much sun they received, or what soils you had.

So, let's begin with Basic Gardening 101. You can't make anything grow, much as we would like to. You need the right plant, in the right place and planted at the right time. When we talk about the right plant, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is always talking about plants native to North America as well as to the area in which those plants grow natively. In other words, you will have much better luck if you plant only plants native to the northeast tip of Virginia. Fairfax County is only about 20 miles from Washington, DC so we assume you are living in a fairly urban area, and one in which the soils have been used since Colonial times for agriculture and gardening. We will help you later to find these native plants in our Native Plant Database. Please read our How-To Articles on Native Plant Gardening and Using Native Plants.

In the beginning, there is dirt. As we said above, we suspect your dirt has been all used up many times. When your house was first built, the developer undoubtedly brought in some "fill dirt" which could be rubble, sand, clay-all with little or no plant nutrition. You said you had replaced your dirt twice, 6" down. What did you replace it with? Topsoil?

"Topsoil" can mean just about anything. Just because it was the top layer of the dirt in your yard doesn't mean it started with any nutrients or a texture that will permit plants to flourish. While this article, What Is Topsoil?, from wisegeek.com has an inordinate number of ads, it also has some good information on what constitutes real topsoil. Topsoil is not necessarily the dirt scraped off the top of your ground. It may have been fill dirt delivered long ago by contractors for levelling the ground. It may once have had nutrients in it that have been consumed without replacement by grass and weeds. It may be clay that is such fine particles that it compacts, swells when it is watered, and permits little oxygen for tiny new rootlets.

We would recommend rethinking the dirt. We would prefer to think in terms of raised planting beds, using a perked-up dirt consisting of what you already have, with addition of organic materials, such as compost, to make it plant friendly.  Begin by clearing the area of weeds, rocks and clods of clay. Apply several inches of compost to that area and start tilling it into the original dirt. Yes, this is work, unfortunately that crops up (pun intended) in gardening.

Whatever you plant, make sure it gets deep watering for the first season, and mulch the surface of the ground with a good shredded bark mulch. This will help keep weeds under control and, as it decomposes, will add organic content to the earth.

It's time to talk about Time-when to plant? Since even your area is suffering from intense heat, now is not the time. You are in USDA Hardiness Zone 7a, so you could probably plant either Spring or Fall, but nothing will do well planted in summer heat. It would be better to spend your time getting your dirt enriched, pulling weeds, and making plans. Particularly planting woody plants, like shrubs and trees, needs to be done in cool weather when the plants are semi-dormant. Your tree and flowering bushes may well be suffering from transplant shock, meaning they were not planted in the right way, in good soil and at the right time. Transplant shock kills more woody plants than just about any other reason. Read our Step by Step article on How to Plant a Tree.

To find the right plants for your purposes, go to our Native Plant Database and, using the Combination Search, select Virginia, and then choose the type of plant (tree, shrub, grass) under Habit, make other choices such as Light Requirements, Soil Moisture, desired height, even color bloom and time if that applies. Click on "Combination Search" and you will get a list of plants native to Virginia that fill those requirements. You can follow the italicized links to our webpage on each plant and discover growing conditions, the soils it can grow in and so forth.

 

 

 

More Compost and Mulch Questions

Pecan tree transplant in Elgin, TX
August 26, 2008 - Hello, Mr. Smarty Plants, I have a question about how to encourage a very young pecan sapling to grow, and whether I should use mulch to do so. I live in Elgin (Bastrop County) and the soil is extr...
view the full question and answer

Holding an Acer rubrum in a container for two years
October 10, 2008 - Dear Mr. Smarty Plants, I am thinking about ordering a Red Maple tree that is cultivated from Mount Vernon. I appreciate the historic nature of such a tree. The tree will be shipped to me and is ...
view the full question and answer

Transplanting honeysuckle bush in Illinois
April 18, 2009 - Want to transplant 3 honeysuckle shrubs 10 to 12' tall this month, although not the best time. Please advise.
view the full question and answer

Watering needs for a new landscape
October 11, 2008 - How much and how frequently are you supposed to water after implementing a new landscape? For example, perennials and succulents that are drought tolerant.
view the full question and answer

Non-native, invasive bermudagrass from Memphis TN
August 17, 2012 - I live in central Memphis and have well-drained clay soil. I have converted much of the front yard from turf grass to beds of native plants, which survive our hot humid without supplemental watering e...
view the full question and answer

Smarty Plants's Facebook profile Support the Wildflower Center by Donating Online or Becoming a Member today.

Mr. Smarty Plants wants you to be his Facebook friend. Click the Facebook icon to add yourself to Mr. Smarty Plants list of friends.
E-NEWSLETTER | BECOME A MEMBER | DONATE NOW | MEDIA | SITEMAP
© 2014 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center