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A healthy foundation for fall plantings leads to a brighter spring

Set the foundation 

Fall is a great time to start a garden or renovate an existing planting bed. The soil is warm while the air is cool – a perfect combination for establishing new plantings. It is also a great time to prepare gardens for the next planting season. Investing time up front to create a healthy foundation for your plants will pay off with years of beautiful, healthy and productive gardens.

When you read plant tags and seed packets, you’ll find that the majority of plants prefer moist, well-drained soil. Unfortunately, most gardeners aren’t growing in plant-friendly soils. Understanding what you have is the best place to start when creating a healthy soil foundation for new and existing gardens.

Start with a soil test. Soils are made of clay, sand and silt particles. The feel and cohesive nature of your sample will tell you a bit about your soil.

Take a handful of soil and create a ribbon by rubbing it through your thumb and index finger to get a feel for your soil type.

If the soil easily rolls into a round or cylindrical shape, feels slippery when wet and smoother when dry, you have a high percent of clay in your soil, also known as heavy soil. This type of soil stays wet longer and holds onto nutrients. Clay soils are slow to dry out and warm up in the spring. Avoid working with them when wet, as this leads to compaction and clods.

Soils with a higher concentration of sand particles don’t form a ball when moist, and they feel gritty to the touch. The sand particles create bigger pores in the soil for water and nutrients to move through quickly. They tend to be nutrient deficient, fast draining and dry. But, on the contrary, they warm up quickly and dry quickly.

Silt feels smooth like flour when dry and soapy slick when wet. They are the middle-sized particles that hold water and nutrients longer than sand, but not as long as clay particles. Silty soils drain slower and stay colder longer than sandy soils in the spring. Overworking soils with a high percent of silt leads to crusting and compaction, decreasing drainage and water infiltration.

Consider your soil type when preparing your new garden beds. Prior to planting is the easiest time to add organic matter to your soil. It increases the water-holding ability, the infiltration rate so less water runs off the soil surface and builds plant-friendly soil structure. Incorporate several inches of compost, aged manure or other organic matter into the top 8-12 inches of soil.
Further improve your soil by using a slow release fertilizer with a high percent of organic matter, which feeds the plants and improves all soil types by feeding the microorganisms. 

Understanding your soil can help create a strong foundation for the health, longevity and beauty of your gardens and landscapes.

Plan ahead

Fall also is the time to get busy planning and planting in order to have colorful blooms during the spring months.

When you think early spring, crocus may be the first bulb that comes to mind, but there are so many colorful choices. 

Chionodoxa, also known as glory-of-the-snow, will add some cheery periwinkle blue and white and you can watch them grow and multiply for years to come.

Elwesii snowdrops

Brighten wooded areas, rock gardens or any garden bed with the dainty Elwesii snowdrops. These are deer resistant and naturalize readily, so you’ll enjoy more blossoms every spring.

Early-blooming daffodils, Early Double, Emperor, Flair, Kaufmanniana and Greigii tulips all are perfect for any garden or spring bouquet.

Perfume the air with an array of white, red, purple, blue or pink hyacinths. 

By planing ahead – and checking with local gardening experts about plants that grow best in your temperate zone and soil – you can ensure a bounty of beauty right into next fall. 

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Melinda Myers is a nationally recognized gardening specialist and author. 

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