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Surrounded by the Red (Clay) Sea
by Daryl Pulis

Fall is the perfect time to plant most perennial flowers, trees and shrubs in the Forsyth County area. The weather is cooler, so neither the garden nor the gardener is stressed. The soil is still warm, so roots will continue to grow while the plant isn't trying to produce new leaves and flowers.

The soil is also softened by the first fall rains, so we no longer have to take a pickaxe to it to penetrate the crust. That doesn't mean we're off the hook though. In my last column I mentioned two important starter steps, getting a soil test from your Cooperative Extension Service and doing a quick perc test (dig a hole, fill it with water and make sure it drains in an hour or so) to see whether your soil will drain well. The next step is to turn that sticky red mess into soil.

The difference between Georgia Clay and clay soils in cooler climates is organic matter. Where seasons are short and cool, the leaves and grass clippings break down slowly and stay in the soil longer. Here in the South, land of heat and humidity, those leaves and grass clippings break down at an impossibly fast rate. Add bulldozers and pounding rain and the soil doesn't have a chance, so we have to help.

When preparing a planting bed, I like to break up the soil deeply, to a depth of at least 8 inches. This usually gets past any hardpan layer without going to the agonizing extreme of double digging, a practice I'm convinced was designed by sadistic English head gardeners to torture gardeners in the rest of the world.

Then I add 2-3 inches of course organic matter like composted bark, pine mini-nuggets, or something similar. This large stuff breaks down slowly, improving the soil over time while it improves drainage. I also add a 2-3 inches of some fine compost, either homemade or something like mushroom compost. This softens the soil for this season's plants. I add lime if the soil test called for it and till it all together. For fall annuals, I add fertilizer now according to soil test recommendations, or if I haven't been that organized, one pound (two cups) of a complete fertilizer such as 8-8-8 or 10-10-10 per 100 square feet. That is mixed into the soil, too. If I'm fall-planting perennials and shrubs, I use half that amount or use a slow release or low Nitrogen "starter" fertilizer. Be careful not to use too much fertilizer, since it can burn new roots and too much Nitrogen (the first number) can stimulate too much top growth if we have a long warm fall. That new growth is more likely to be frozen during our cold spells. As organic material breaks down, it will use some extra nitrogen, so be careful to follow fertilizer recommendations next spring.

Creating a soft, well-drained planting bed is the difference between spectacular results and disappointment. Breaking up the soil and adding organic material creates a raised bed, which not only improves drainage, but also gives your plants a more dramatic presentation.

Now you're ready to plant your flowers or shrubs. As soon as you've done that, mulch with several inches of Pine straw, hardwood mulch, shredded cypress, or whatever strikes your fancy, remembering to keep the mulch away from the crown of the plants and water well. Mulching shields the soil from the pounding winter rains we get, and keeps the soil soft. It will also keep the soil warmer longer into the fall, so that the roots of your plants will have a longer time to grow and get established before winter. Remember that good deep root systems are all that stands between your plants and next summer's heat and drought. When your neighbor's plants are fainting in the heat, yours will be thriving.

Ah, but what about peat moss? What about sand? What about those little tags on the shrubs at the nursery? More myth-busting in my next column.

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