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Help! What is All This Red Stuff Surrounding My House?
by Daryl Pulis

This frantic wail is heard all over Forsyth County when fall comes. A new homeowner closes on the house of his dreams and comes home after closing to a yard of hard packed red clay, a.k.a. brick, that underlies the struggling new sod. Or the hopeful gardener chooses just the right spot for that perennial border, purchases just the right plants and then tries to take shovel to soil and the shovel bounces back. "What *is this stuff and what do I do with it?" they cry.

Georgia has a thin layer of topsoil at best, and building operations often bury or remove that little bit, so new homeowners are faced with hideous red subsoil. It may be rocky or not but it has little or no organic matter and forms a cracked, impenetrable mass when dry, or a heavy, sticky mass when wet. Oxygen necessary for plant growth can't get though it.

Even water acts weird in clay. We think that the water is running down our sloped lawn. After all, it just took half of our new lawn with it during that last downpour. And the ten bags of mulch that we just carried home and lovingly put around those shrubs is now in the neighbor's yard. It's obvious that we have great drainage, right? Alas, no… Very often after a rain, that water is still lurking a few inches below that newly planted Azalea, trapped by a compacted layer of clay. It's only when we hear the slurping sound as we pull that dead Azalea out of its planting hole that we see that something strange has been going on where we couldn't see it, underground.

So just what do we do with this Georgia Clay? Can we learn to love it as Scarlett O'Hara did? Maybe we can't go that far, but take a look at the size of the trees around the county, and the Kudzu. Both grow to great heights without our help. No one has seen Mother Nature sneaking around at night with a bag of 10-10- 10, so there has to be something good about that red stuff. There is. It's great at holding moisture and nutrients, so once you get the soil ready, you'll have less work to do.

So where do you start? As with any soil, it's best to start with a soil sample. Soil testing is done through the Cooperative Extension Service for a nominal fee. The soil sample will tell you whether you'll need to add lime and how much of what type of fertilizer you'll need to add. It's best to test. Adding too much fertilizer or lime can be harmful and not adding enough will leave you frustrated with poorly growing plants.

While you're waiting for the results of your soil test, plan where you want to plant. Then do a quick perc test. Dig a hole and fill it with water. Let the water drain and fill it again. If the water takes more than an hour or so to drain the second time, your drainage is poor, and most plants will drown. Sometimes the problem is just a matter of a hardpan layer under the soil surface and it can be broken up with a garden fork or shovel or a power auger. Sometimes your soil will be so slow to drain that a french drain is needed to carry off the water, or you may need to plan for a raised bed.

In future articles, I'll show you how to prepare the soil for planting lawns, flowers and trees and when to plant them in our part of the country. As you might guess, the answers will surprise you.

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