Creating a Low-maintenance Garden: Soil Prep

Nikki Norton, Merrifield Plant Specialist

I’m passionate about creating low-maintenance gardens because they require less time and energy to manage, leaving us more time to devote to the everyday life. The best place to begin with building a low-maintenance garden is by prepping your soil. And fall is one of my favorite times to start as the cooler weather is less stressful on us gardeners.

To many people, soils can be boring. You may have messy memories of making mud pies made of dirt or digging up bugs as a kid, but your excitement over soils probably ends there. For plants, however, soil is the foundation and the basis of their existence (well, for most of them).

Providing your plants with good, rich soil sets the stage to reduce the amount of work you’ll need to do to maintain a beautiful landscape. Understanding your soil conditions is an essential first step to grow healthy plants and create a low-maintenance garden.

Understanding Soil pH

Testing the soil pH

Soil pH ranges from acidic to alkaline and most plants prefer a particular soil pH to perform their best. In our northern Virginia area, the soil is typically acidic. This means you have two options as a gardener:

  1. Choose plants that have evolved to live in acidic soil conditions (for example, azalea, rhododendron, andromeda, and heather to name a few).
  2. Add lime to your soil to increase your soil’s pH, allowing you to add other types of plants to your landscape.

Having the right soil pH for your plants can be crucial to your success. To find out your soil pH, stop in to any of our plant clinics and pick up a soil pH meter or a soil sample kit. Our plant specialists are happy to help you find plants that will thrive in your natural conditions, or help you with liming recommendations.

Adding Organic Material

The next thing to consider is the amount of organic matter—compost, manures and other decomposed matter—in your garden bed. Organic matter helps to rejuvenate and condition your soil, increasing the soils ability to hold nutrients, water, and sustain microbial activity. The soil truly becomes alive with just the right amount (and you thought soils were boring!). We recommend a ratio of about 1/3rd organic matter to 2/3rd of your native soil for just the right balance.

Soil with too much clay

Soil with the correct mix of clay and organic matter

Soil with too much organic matter

New construction, weather and soil microbes can break down the natural organic matter in the soil. It’s important to add organic matter back into your soil to create the best environment for your plants. You can tell if you have enough organic matter by monitoring the color of your soil. The clay-based soil in our area tends to be red in color when it lacks organic matter. A dark brown soil color in the root zone is ideal. If your soil is red in color, you need to add organic matter. You can also do the pinch test: If you can pinch moist soil together and get a 2 to 3-inch ribbon, you need to add some compost!

Soil preparation is just the first step in creating a low maintenance garden. Design, plant selection and plant care practices also need to be integrated. I look forward to seeing you at my seminar this Saturday at 10 a.m. at our Gainesville location as we explore these and other ideas to make gardening more fun and less work!