This is the first in a series of articles written
by Larchmont Master Gardeners Jennifer Carpenter Jensen, Ann Mangone
and Toni Porter. Each article will focus on specific topics related
to seasonal gardening and will apply to our unique micro-climate
here in Zone 6 on the Long Island Sound. All of the information
is based on research conducted by Cornell University and endorsed
by the Cooperative Extension of Westchester County.
Have a question or comment for the Master Gardeners?
Reach them via their feedback form.
Don’t Pack Soil, Test It!
(March 12, 2009) This last weekend was beautiful - sixty degree
weather, sun shining and kids playing outdoors. We saw crocuses
popping up through the melting snow and people riding their bikes,
zipping around on their scooters and eating lunch al fresco at our
village eateries. All of this can mean only one thing; it’s
time to start work in the garden. But wait! Before you head outdoors,
there are two things to consider: Mother Nature and soil testing.
Nature: As seen by last week’s snow and this weekend’s
balmy temperatures, March is as fickle a month as they come. The
old saw "March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb"
is more wishful thinking than science. The saying has everything
to do with the relative positions of the constellations Leo, the
Lion, and Aries, the lamb and nothing whatsoever to do with the
So don’t let the calendar or this weekend’s
warm weather fool you. All that snow has left our gardens soggy,
and working in the beds while they’re still too wet will damage
your soil’s structure.
What, you didn’t know your soil has structure?
It does, and it’s a very important part of your plants’
health. Basically, soil structure is the arrangement of soil particles
with the ideal being granular, open and loose. If you work your
garden while your soil is still too wet, the most likely result
will be mud and compaction, and once soil is compacted, it is nearly
impossible to restore its structure. Compaction will prevent your
plant’s ability to root properly and absorb the necessary
nutrients for growth. So stay out of the garden, for now. (To learn
more about soil structure and compaction check Cornell's
Soil testing: So, now that you’ve
been kicked out of the garden - what to do, what to do? Well, now
is the perfect time to test your soil. Knowing what’s in or
not in your soil, will tell you what to add or not add to strengthen
your plants and help them fight off diseases.
Soil testing is simple - that’s what Cornell
Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Westchester is there for. They offer
pH and nutrient tests. A pH test will measure the degree of acidity
or alkalinity of your soil. The pH scale has a 14 point range, with
7 being neutral. Values below 7 are acidic and those above 7 are
alkaline. A near neutral or slightly acidic soil is considered ideal
for most plants. A soil with a pH from 6.0 to 7.0 requires no special
liming or acidifying.
To submit a sample for pH testing to Cornell Cooperative
Extension of Westchester County, take six, evenly spaced, two tablespoon
samples from a given area at a depth of approximately 3 inches.
Then mix all twelve tablespoonfuls together to create one sample
for the test.
• Create a different sample for different beds
if each bed has plants dissimilar from the other beds.
• Do multiple tests in very large areas.
• Do multiple tests if different topographical/light/moisture
conditions exist on the same property.
• The fee for any one test is $10.
Results will be returned in one to three weeks with
instructions for pH adjustments, as needed. Be sure species to be
grow or maintained is included with the sample. Call CCE Westchester
if you need further sampling details.
A nutrient test is done at the Cornell Nutrient Analysis
Laboratory in Ithaca, NY and will tell you the levels in your soil
of 18 nutrients that plants need for normal growth, including nitrogen,
phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium and sulfur. Plants get
these nutrients from soil minerals, organic matter and supplemental
fertilizers. To have a nutrient test done on your soil, first download
the nutrient test mailer order form at Cornell
Soil Kit. Once you receive you test kit, follow the instructions,
mail-off your samples and within three weeks you will have a detailed
report of your soil’s nutrient content and needs. Note: The
Nutrient Analysis Laboratory does not test for lead.
Once you fully understand your soil’s needs,
you can amend your soil with organic materials that will bring your
garden to life. And organic matter will not only provide nutrients,
but will improve your soil’s structure as well.
March To Do List:
Now, on to the fun stuff! When your soil has drained
enough so that it is no longer squishy to walk on, it’s time
to pick-up those fallen limbs, remove last year’s annuals,
and prune back select plants. Here’s a quick list of to-dos:
• Clear the garden of last year’s annuals.
• Prune cold-season ornamental grasses. The
easiest way to do this is to tie it ponytail-like and use your hedge
trimmers to give it a cut. (See pix.) If they are very large, now
is the time to divide them.
• If you have multi-stemmed deciduous shrubs
that are overgrown, regenerate them by taking out a third of the
branches before they begin to grow. Do one third every year for
• Do you have newly-planted trees? Lightly prune
during the first three years to enhance the limb structure. Stick
to pruning crossing or broken branches, water sprout growth and
suckers. Trim overgrown ground covers such as pachysandra and myrtle
before growth begins.
• Prune back perennial vines, like clematis,
that will bear flowers on shoots that develop this year.
• Prune back flowering shrubs that bloom on
current season’s growth. Examples include Japanese beauty
bush, Summersweet, Peegee hydrangea, St. Johnswort, Crape myrtle
and Bush rose.
• Do not prune plants whose flowers grow on
last season’s growth. Examples include Chinese redbud, Fringe
tree, Pearlbush, Forsythia, Honeysuckle, Azaleas and rhododendrons,
Lilac and Viburnum.
To learn more about proper pruning techniques, go
Cornell horticulture site and download the PDF, Pruning:
An Illustrated Guide to Pruning Ornamental Trees and Shrubs.
With any luck, March will come in like a lion and go out like a
lamb, but in the meantime we’ve got work to do. Watch for
our next article on principles of garden planning to learn the basics
of site consideration, garden shape, preparation and design.
Ann Mangone, Jennifer Jensen and Toni Porter have completed
the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Westchester’s Master
Gardener Program, and are active in gardening-related activities
in the community. You may have seen them last summer at the
Master Gardener Booth at the Larchmont Farmers Market, where
they will be offering advice again this year beginning in
Ask a question about your garden: