GARDEN & SOUL
Bring Life and Joy Back to Your Landscape With a Happy Dose of TLC
Article and Photography by Linda B. Gay
Heavy soils and prolonged rains lead to flooding and slow root growth — or stop growth completely. Some plants go into a dormant state until the wet cycle passes.
Plants like annuals, perennials and our beloved tropical paradise varieties are herbaceous (no woody bark for protection). They take a harder hit when the whole plant is under water for several days. Sadly, many just drown.
But once the sun returns and the soils drain off excess water, keep an eye out for those plants trying to come out of dormancy. Heavy soils take another week or so for the air channels deep down to be free and clear of any moisture, allowing the plants’ roots to breathe deeply once again.
How do you know if your plants have a chance to recover? If you start to pull out damaged plants and their roots hold tightly in the soil, their roots are still healthy and functioning. If the plants have root rot, they will pull out very easily because the roots cannot hold onto the soil. If the plants are lying down, prune the weight off the top of the plants so they can stand upright.
As you go through your garden, you’ll find it important to remove dead and decaying plant tissue because bacteria is present and will attack remaining healthy tissue in the immediate environment. Rake the beds clean, as this will reveal clues in identifying the soil structure. Is it compacted? Is it silty or sticky? Has the soil washed away, exposing roots?
If your soil is compacted, sticky or silty, you will need to break this up and turn the existing soil. While turning the soil, work in with a tiller or shovel as much expanded shale and organic fertilizer as your back — and pocketbook — can handle!
Shale and organic fertilizer activate soil microbes. The bacteria and fungi are the wizards of the rhizosphere and whether eating or being eaten, they hold nutrients in their cells until they die. The nutrients then are released in plant-available form. This is why it takes longer to see results using organic fertilizers because they have to be processed by the microbes first. Earthworms are attracted to the organic areas when searching for food, creating pathways that allow air and water to enter and leave the soil. So now you see why it is so important to use organic fertilizers: “You Feed the Soil, and the Soil Feeds the Plants.”
Our native, stately trees with feeder roots extending out past the drip line need some special care. Roots that have been underwater for many days or even weeks can be resuscitated by using an auger that is one inch wide and 24 inches deep. This cool little implement fits on the end of a common hand drill and removes soil as you drill down and pull up. You can work a grid from inside the drip line and extend out the same distance past the drip line.
Once you have created a grid of soilless tubes, fill them with expanded shale and organic fertilizer using a 50:50 ratio. The (porous) expanded shale will be a permanent soil aerator that holds water and nutrients and releases them back to the plants as the soil dries out.
Whether your garden has suffered from the storm or you are going “back to your roots” in the garden, these tips will help you produce the results you are envisioning.
• Stop using the colored mulches, as they have no nutritional value. And stop using hardwood mulch, too, because it forms a hard crust that stops the penetration of water to plant roots.
• Instead of mulch, top dress your plantings at least once a year with an organic fertilizer and cover with a good compost one to two inches deep to create a “soil zone” for new plant roots to grow. (Previously, this was the space occupied by mulch, and we have observed plant roots do not grow in mulch.) You have created an “above-grade” space for new root growth. In turn, new root growth promotes top growth, making the plants stronger than before.
• Trees growing in the lawn need to have a “no-grass zone” (a tree well to prevent weed-eater blight and reduce competition for water) to a size that is in scale with the caliper and spread of the tree. Remember, tree roots extend out past the drip zone of the tree. After removing more lawn from around the tree, add organic fertilizer and top dress with compost.
• Once the lawn starts declining in the shade of the large tree, do not thin out the center of the tree. Instead, remove the grass out to the area where it still grows well. The tree is more valuable than the grass! In fact, those little branches in the center of the tree photosynthesize when summer sunlight is intense and air temperatures are in the high 90s, as the outside leaves and branches shut down to preserve moisture.
• Again, as you work your soils, whether planting or renovating, always add expanded shale as this PER
MANENT SOIL AMENDMENT keeps the air channels open for plants’ roots to breathe in the soil. You need to work this down into the heavy native soil, not just in your loose soil on top. This effort gets water and roots deeper into the soil, making plants stronger and needing to rely less on you.
Gardening is an activity that promotes creativity and is fun and nurturing. Plants respond to the love and care we give them. Plants make us feel good; they make us smile with their happy flowers and beg us to spend more time in the garden. Gardening keeps our bodies moving, slows the aging process and begets our brains to be creative in a design process.
We need to look at our garden spaces as a whole environment, not just the individual plants, because together we are the collective — and we thrive together.
Linda B. Gay is a horticulturist and staff member at The Arbor Gate Nursery in Tomball.