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Soil Prep for a Low-maintenance Garden

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 probably ends there. For plants, however, it 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

Soil Maintenance

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

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

Having the right 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 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 its ability to hold nutrients and water, and sustain microbial activity. 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

Too little organic matter.


Correct amount of organic matter.


Too much organic matter.

New construction, weather and microbes can break down the natural organic matter in soils. It’s important to add organic matter back to create the best environment for your plants. You can tell if you have enough organic matter by monitoring color. The clay-based soil in our area tends to be red in color when it lacks organic matter. A dark brown color in the root zone is ideal. If it 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!