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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


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!


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.




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