To improve a heavy clay soil, use nature's favorite: leaf compost

BACKYARD Q&A

March 10, 2002|By Dennis Bishop | Dennis Bishop,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Q. I would like to prepare several new flowerbeds in an area that has heavy clay soil. Would you recommend tilling in peat moss to help break up the clay?

A. Heavy clay soils always benefit from the addition of organic matter; however, I do not think peat moss is the best product to use for this purpose. I recommend leaf mulch or leaf compost to break up clay. There are several reasons for this. First, I trust that nature knows what is best, and leaves are the primary way that our soils are replenished with organic matter. Second, leaves have grit to them, which is lacking in peat moss. I think this grit helps to break up clay better than peat moss. Third, composted leaves are less expensive than peat moss. They can be composted at home or they can be purchased bulk through local businesses.

Q. We are concerned about the recent drought and are considering replacing some of our plants with more drought-tolerant species. Do you have any recommendations?

A. I hesitate to recommend the planting of drought-tolerant species but rather recommend the planting of adaptable species. Most drought-tolerant plants are native to dry regions of the world, and therefore they do not hold up well in wet conditions. A wet period next year could kill the drought-tolerant plants you planted this year. On the other hand, adaptable species will take some of both extremes without being severely damaged. A good example is the daylily, which grows best in good garden soil with even moisture, but always survives the extremes of Maryland weather.

Q. I love the early flowers of saucer magnolia, but it is an exotic plant and I am trying to use native plants in my landscape. Is there a native species of magnolia that compares with the saucer magnolia?

A. There are several nice native magnolias, but none of them is really comparable to the saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana). The sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is native to Maryland, but it does not look like the saucer magnolia. Sweetbay magnolia is a loose, upright-growing, small- to medium-size tree that produces small creamy-white flowers in early summer. The two other native species, Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) and cucumber magnolia (Magnolia acuminata), are very large trees. In the scale of your landscape plan, they would not be suitable replacements for the saucer magnolia.

THIS WEEK'S CHECKLIST

1. This is the best time to prune back summer-flowering varieties of clematis. If cut back to about 12 inches now, they will produce fresh new stems this spring and will develop new flowers this summer.

2. If you are doing a spring cleanup, keep your eye out for emerging bulbs. The foliage of daffodils, tulips and other bulbs can be damaged with rakes and shovels.

3. Early spring vegetables such as spinach and peas can be planted in the garden this week.

Dennis Bishop is an urban horticulture educator for the Baltimore office of the Maryland Cooperative Extension Services. If you have a gardening or pest problem, you can call the Home and Garden Information Center hot line (Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 1-p.m.) at 800-342-2507. You can also e-mail questions, order publications and diagnose plant problems by visiting the Web site, www.agnr.umd.edu / users / hgic.

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