The Garden of Eden

When I started gardening in Texas about eight years ago, I was impatient to convert a large, very neglected yard into a “Garden of Eden.” How little I knew! I think I made every possible mistake. I had read magazine and newspaper articles recommending that new gardeners should till six to eight inches of compost into the soil as a first step. In an attempt to save time (and money) I used two to three inches of compost. This was a big mistake as I paid many times over in dead plants and plants that performed poorly. Every week my mailbox was full of beautiful gardening catalogues and magazines illustrating glorious flowers blooming in California, Washington or the East Coast. In the spring when I planted these in my Texas yard, they made a valiant attempt and then about the middle of July gave up the ghost. Some of them lived on for a year or two as anemic, undersized plants, but very few thrived. The following ideas are the result of eight years of trial and many errors. If you’re planning a new garden, start with a soil test. (I didn’t do this’one of my first mistakes.) Soil sample bags and information sheets are available from the McCulloch County Extension Agent’s office. Be sure to follow the instructions carefully. (They’re easy, but important). The fee for a basic test is $10. A common problem in our area is the application of phosphorous far in excess of the needs of the plants. The soil test will tell you what fertilizers, if any, are needed. The soil in our area tends to be somewhat alkaline. Alkalinity and soil pH are subjects frequently discussed but not necessarily understood. The measurement of the acid forming activity of soil is called pH. The scale of measuring acidity or alkalinity contains 14 levels, known as pH units. It is centered on pH7 which is neutral. Values below seven constitute the acid range of the scale, and values above seven make up the alkaline range. Ideal pH is between six and seven. If your soil test indicates a high pH, elemental sulfur, concentrated sulfuric acid or aluminum sulfate can be added to the soil to reduce the alkalinity. Be careful when adding compounds to reduce alkalinity. If too much is added, the pH may drop to two or three, instead of the desired level of about seven. Some plants develop iron chlorosis (iron deficiency) when grown in alkaline soils. Iron chlorosis is often confused with nitrogen deficiency since the symptoms (a definite yellowing of leaves) are similar. Iron deficiency will show two symptoms: ‘ The leaves will be yellowed with dark green veins. This contrast of color gives the leaves a striped or netted appearance. ‘ The symptoms are most visible on new growth. The older leaves will keep their darker green color. This problem can be corrected by applying chelated iron to the soil or spraying plants (just wet the leaves) with a two percent iron solution. Soil structure can be improved by the addition of organic matter such as manure, leaf mold, sawdust and straw. The addition of nitrogen may be necessary if large amounts of dried leaves, straw or sawdust are used. (A high nitrogen lawn fertilizer will work.) Fresh green wastes such as grass clippings are higher in nitrogen than dry materials. Organic matter can also be added to the soil in the form of compost. Composting was discussed in more detail in an earlier column. After spending considerable time and money trying to grow “traditional” plants in my yard, I’ve gradually come to the conclusion that growing “native” and “adapted” plants is the way to an attractive, low maintenance yard. These plants are unique, have interesting histories and are easy to grow. Native plants, once established, require little or no water in addition to rainfall. They are very tolerant of drought and heat. Some of my personal favorites include all salvias, especially Salvia Greggii (“Autumn Sage”); Echinacea (“Purple Coneflower”); Melampodium Leucantheum (“Blackfoot Daisy”). Another good salvia is Cenizo (also known as Texas Sage, Purple Sage, Texas Ranger). It’s a big shrub’up to eight feet ‘so put it in the back of your bed. I planted a Laura Bush petunia last fall and it’s very impressive. Our local library has a good selection of gardening books. One that is especially good is “Native Texas Plants” by Sally Wasowski. Check it out. It’s interesting reading in addition to giving practical advice. I’m still a long way from having the “Garden of Eden” in my back yard, but I’m learning and having a good time doing it. Happy gardening! If you’d like to avoid the kinds of mistakes that I made, sign up for the Master Gardener’s classes being offered again this fall’in early September. There are a limited number of openings, so call the County Extension Service now at 597-1295.

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