How to soil test and actually utilize the results – a challenging task

As a newer gardener, I have not previously gotten around to using soil test information. I’ve been planning an ornamental overhaul in a small area of my yard and wanted to soil test to make sure the plants added to the area had the best chance of success. The HGIC website has a lot of soil test information, but I’ve never looked at it closely myself until now. Even though our content is well-written and organized, the subject is intimidating with many choices to make, multiple steps, math homework to figure out how much fertilizer to use in your space, and as I learned, many caveats or roadblocks. I can see plenty of people just giving up and not adding any soil amendments, or just going to the hardware store and buying a bag of fertilizer and applying without thinking too much about it.

Even after reading our material thoroughly, I still needed several questions answered from our experts. I’ve got a handle on it now, for the most part. With this post, I hope to detail how I figured out what fertilizers I needed, how to apply it, and then the most important things I learned that I didn’t feel are made clear.

The goal

I’ve got this space in my backyard that wasn’t being used for much. In the summer of 2020, mid-pandemic, pre-offspring, I decided to revisit a teenage hobby of mine – remote control cars. I took a shovel and cleared out an area and built ramps and hills out of dirt, for my very-own mini-dirt track. 2 years later, my wife asks me “are you going to keep the track? It’s ugly.” So, my task is to beautify it with improved landscaping and added vegetation. We also have a bunch of hostas in our front yard garden that keep getting eaten by deer. Our backyard is smaller and enclosed, so we hope the hostas will avoid attack in their new backyard, trackside location. We are also adding other plants good for shade conditions.

The location is on a bit of an incline, with the higher elevation area being more sandy and rocky, and the bottom softer and wetter. There is an “infield” of the track that is often stood on that is grass, but has been overtaken with weeds. I am planting nice plants and shrubs around the outside, and re-seeding the infield with grass. Since I know from a lot of digging to make the track that the soil is quite different in different areas, I wanted to soil test so that I could find out what exactly I might need to do to make sure the plants have the soil they need in their different locations.

Soil test basics

If you aren’t familiar, soil testing is when you take samples of soil from an area in your yard or garden and send that off to a lab that will reply with data and recommendations for what you need to add the the soil for the crop or plants you have or will have growing in that area. You can send multiple samples (labeled) from different areas and get specific data for specific areas of your property.

Amending the soil based on these results can help your ornamental plants, lawn, and food gardens.

We have a list of 6 recommended labs that will give you soil test results. You’ll have to choose which type of tests you want. You’ll want to choose the ones labeled for homeowners. Beyond that, the test facility may ask what type of “crop” you are growing; lawn, ornamentals, trees, etc. This is nice to have because they will then send you recommendations tailored to that specific crop. My coworkers at the HGIC told me that lawn and ornamentals will have similar recommendations, so I decided to just mark all locations as “lawn” for crops.

I took samples from the high up sandy area, the infield grass area, and the wetter, lower area, and prepared to send to a lab. I labeled them A, B, and C, and took a picture of each bag in the test location so I could remember where each one was.

A location
B location
C location

I then spent $10 shipping dirt through the mail!

I got my test results

….and whewee! – it was time to dive in and figure out what to do with this information.

Results for my area “b”

There is a LOT of information presented on these results. HGIC has a great infographic explaining all parts of soil test results at this link. In your results, you’ll be presented with lists of data of how much of certain nutrients or pH levels you have, graphs of your levels, and a lot of what I think is pretty extraneous for what myself and most homeowners need. I found the boiled-down information in the “recommendations” section of my test to be what I needed to use to take action. The lab has interpreted all my levels they measured and produced a list of recommended amounts of nutrients to add that would help the basic “crops” I selected grow.

Below are my recommendations for my three locations.

A location
B location
C location

What to do with this data?

Comparing my results, it looks like all three locations can use similar levels of N, P2O5, and K20, – around 3-4 lbs per 1000 square feet of land. My A location requires 5.3 lbs of S (sulfur), additionally. All three locations suggest some low amount of Mg, but it is so low, that I am not going to take action on that. So, what are these?

Through my research on our fertilizer page, a basic thing I have learned is that :

The three numbers on fertilizer products (e.g., 3-4-3) represent the percentage, by weight, of N (nitrogen), P (phosphorus) expressed as P2O5 (phosphate), and K (potassium) expressed as K20(potash). For example, a 5 lb. bag of 10-5-5 fertilizer contains 0.5 lbs. of N, 0.25 lb. of P2O5, and 0.25 lb. of K20.

The N, P, and K numbers on the packaging refer to the percentage of each nutrient found in the bag. I’m assuming that if that does not add up to 100%, the rest is filler.

Hey – look at that: N, P, and K are right next to each other and in the same order on the results I received. So, it looks like I need to find a fertilizer product or products that will let me add roughly 3.5 lbs per 1000 square feet of each N, P, and K to all my locations.

Location A up on the hill additionally needs 5.3 lbs/1000sqft of sulfur, which I learned is an acidifier that raises soil pH.

They suggest “5D” of CaCO3, in my location B results, which confused me for a minute until I saw the note below the chart saying “lime expressed in pure CaCO3. D= Dolomitic.” However, since I know lime is used to adjust pH, and that area was listed as inside the optimal pH range, I’m not even going to bother with lime.

pH results for location B.

Shopping for fertilizer

Instead of going to the hardware store and browsing immediately since I’ve never really shopped for fertilizer, I decide to shop around online to see what types of products are generally available, what their nutrient numbers are, and do math to see what I would need.

After some confusing math and shopping, I decided to run a question by the expert consultants at the HGIC to check my work and offer advice. I had asked if a 10-10-10 product I found was right for me.

They came back with a bit of a surprise:

The N rec of 4 lbs. should be disregarded. People should always follow the UME N fertilizer guidelines for turf which comply with state law (max. 2.7 lbs. of N/1,000 sq. ft. per year and maximum 0.9 lbs. of N/1,000 sq. ft. per single application).

If P is low in the soil, it is added separately and not as part of the N fertilization that occurs mostly in fall for lawns. Using 10-10-10 could deliver the total correct amount of P & K but would add more N than is allowed by law. So, you would apply N with a separate turf fertilizer. You could reduce the N fert amount by half if the turf is well-established and you leave your clippings in place.

There are regulations in the state of Maryland about the amount of N fertilizer you can add at a time. See: MD Fertilizer law in a nutshell. Over-fertilizing is bad for the environment – excess can wash into waterways and affect wildlife. I just need to find P and K to add and I’ll leave the N alone I need a product with “0” as the first of the three numbers.

I head to the store

I find a bag that says it’s got sulfur – it’s soil acidifier. Check that one.

Soil acidifier

I find a liquid bottle of “Morbloom Concentrate” with numbers 0-10-10. Great! No nitrogen, and equal numbers P and K!

Morbloom with application instructions

But wait – I get home and start doing the math about how much of this morbloom I need, and it becomes confusing because this is a concentrate, it’s measured in ounces, not pounds, and this is a liquid.

I run this by our experts, and apparently liquids are not great for increasing P and K levels in the soil amendment like this. They are ideal for quick nutrient boosts for potted plants. The liquids absorb quickly and wash away in regular soil, so this is not a longer-term solution. I’ll be returning this to the store.

HGIC recommends to me to get specific products. It sounds like there isn’t a fertilizer product that will have the equal P and K levels I am looking for. I’ll have to buy, measure, and apply P and K separately. I am recommended to get Muriate of Potash (K) which I found at 0-0-60 levels, and after scrounging a bit, I found bone meal (N and P) at 4-12-0 levels in my garage. The bone meal has nitrogen in it, which I was somewhat avoiding, but it is at a relatively low level compared to the P, so I believe this will be fine.

Bone meal bag
Muriate of potash bag

Time for math

I’ve got my fertilizers – time to do the math to figure out how much of each to apply in my specific spaces. I know how many lbs per 1000 square feet are recommended to add from the soil test results, but I need to figure out:

  1. How many lbs of each nutrient I need for each of my specific spaces based on their area.
  2. What actual amount of the product I bought (volume or weight) do I actually need to scoop out and sprinkle around my locations, calculated based off the percentage of the nutrients listed on the bag.

First, I needed the areas in square feet of my locations. For this article, I’ll just stick with my location B to which I will be adding grass. Refer to your middle school geometry text books on calculating area. I am not going very accurate on this, so with tape measure and some rough math, I came to 50 square feet (not a large space).

My “B” space. The “infield” to my race track!

Since my recommendations are for 3.5 lbs of phosphate and 3.8 lbs of potash per 1000 square feet, I need to figure out the relative amounts of each for a my smaller 50 sqft area.

So: 50 sq. ft./1000 sq. ft. = .05 or 5%. I need 5% of 3.5 and 3.8. That is 0.175 lbs. of phosphate and 0.19 lbs. of potash.

Second, I need to figure out how much of the  bone meal (10% phosphate) and muriate of potash (60% of potash. )I need to get 0.175 lbs. and 0.19 lbs., respectively.

The N-P-K numbers represent what percentage of each nutrient the product is comprised of. So, this means that the 4-10-0 bone meal is 4% nitrogen and 10% phosphate (P2O5) and the 0-0-60 muriate of potash is 60% potash (K20) and.

So, I need to divide the amount of each nutrient I want to add to my garden by the percentage of those nutrients in the two fertilizers:

0.175 lbs. of phosphate needed divided  by the percentage of phosphate in the bone meal: 0.175 lbs. /0.10 = 1.75 lbs. of bone meal for the 50 sq. ft. area..

0.19 lbs. of potash needed divided by the percentage of potash in the muriate of potash: 0.19 lbs./0.60 = 0.31 lbs. of muriate of potash for the 50 sq. ft. area

After calculations, unfortunately the required amount of bone meal fertilizer would deliver more N (1.4 lbs./1,000 sq. ft.) than is allowable in a single application under Maryland Law,but I’ve decided to apply it anyways. This is a small area that is pretty closed off and isolated from roadways and ways for things to wash into the water supply, so I think any environmental affects will be minimized.

Mass or volume

I’ve got my amounts calculated by weight, but I wasn’t planning on taking a scale out to the garden and weighing out the correct portions. Luckily, our page has links to documents with charts showing mass and volume conversions for common fertilizers. According to this document:

  • Bone meal: 1/3 lb. = 1 cup
  • Muriate of potash: 1/2 lb. = 1 cup

So, I need

  • 5.7 cups bone meal
  • 0.58 cups muriate of potash

WHEW!

Applying the fertilizer

I’ll scoop the amount needed of each and sprinkle it as evenly as I can around the areas. Certain spots have been mulched already which isn’t ideal, but I’ll try to sweep some mulch areas away temporarily to sprinkle the fertilizers directly onto the soil, then sweep the mulch back.

If it is not forecasted to rain soon, I’ll give the areas a bit of a water to start the fertilizer dissolving and dissipating into the soil.

I needed something to scoop and measure with, though, so I grabbed a plastic solo cup. I got out a measuring cup and poured two cups of water into the solo cup which filled it to one of the rings at the top. With that in mind, I scooped 1/4 of a solo cup of murate of potash, and a bit less than 3 cups of bone meal.

Solo cup with muriate of potash.

Key takeaways from a first time fertilizing job

Certain things stuck out in my mind during this process as things I should remember moving forward:

Liquid vs solid/powder/granular fertilizers.

The liquid stuff is not the best choice for maintaining adequate nutrient levels in  your landscape!

Fudging the numbers

There’s so much room for small errors and variations throughout the process, that I don’t think absolute accuracy in deciding how much to apply is very important. I have a feeling that the fertilizer conversion to cups is more of a rule of thumb than a precise conversion. Measuring the area of your landscape is hard to do extremely accurately.

There’s got to be a lot of variability in how much product actually absorbs and stays in the soil due to the make up that soil, weather that may wash away some part of it, and more. You absolutely don’t want to throw double what is needed on your soil (in fact, there are laws about how much nitrogen you can apply to turfgrass in Maryland), but for me, I think getting in the ballpark and sometimes eyeballing it may work well enough. I’m a casual gardener trying to improve my soil, not optimize it.

Focus on recommendations from the soil test

A ton of data is presented to you in your soil test results, but all you need to take action with is what they recommend you add.

Disregard the Nitrogen (N) recommendations from the soil test

I’ve got my compost pile, and my mower mulches grass clippings and leaves that I can scoop up and apply to an area that needs it. Unless the soil test says I am very deficient, the normal, natural ways of adding compostable materials should be enough. And I can always fertilize with some nitrogen fertilizer if plant leaves are small with a  pale color.

Manage bagworms now so they don’t harm trees

“Why are the pinecones on my tree moving?” a client asks.
“Because those aren’t pinecones, they’re bagworms,” I reply.  

Dangling from evergreens like teardrop-shaped Christmas tree ornaments, bagworms cause many a homeowner to scratch their head in wonder. Pinecones that dance?

Bagworms dangle from a juniper branch.
Credit: Erik Rebek, Bugwood

But the tell-tale thinning of trees that can follow is no laughing matter. Covered with bits of needles and leaves, the bags that give bagworms their name serve as protection for the caterpillars inside. Bagworm caterpillars are the juvenile form of a moth.  

That sounds innocent enough, but like all caterpillar-like insects, they are born hungry. Walking stomachs, they prowl among your trees, munching away to cause sometimes serious defoliation. They particularly enjoy evergreens such as arborvitae, cedars, junipers, and pines. But they will also dine on maples, locusts, lindens, and other deciduous trees.  

Eggs hatch out from bagworms’ bags in May. Tiny larvae spin an eighth-inch bag with bits of needles or leaves glued together with webbing. Like tiny backpackers, bagworms tote those bags around as they feed. As they grow, the bags get bigger and bigger and your tree foliage gets thinner and thinner.  

I don’t know if bagworms have an adventuresome streak, but they do a bit of hang-gliding. They spin a fine web and use the wind to glide to other trees in a stunt called “ballooning.” 

By August or September, the bags – and bagworms – are 1- to 2-inches long.  They stop wandering and feeding and tie up to a twig using tough silky threads. In late summer, they transform into moths. But get this, ladies, only the males have wings.  So the gals just hang out in their bags and wait for the boys to, um, visit. Post rendezvous, each female bagworm lays 200 to 1,000 eggs in its bag. Next spring, the eggs hatch to start the cycle over again.

Stopping that cycle is important and now is a crucial time. Mid-June to mid-July is the best time to treat trees with bagworms with a very effective organic control called Bt. A naturally occurring soil bacteria, Bt or Bacillus thuringiensis kills only small caterpillars. And guess what? Bagworms are just the right size right now.  Bt doesn’t harm humans or animals and is easy to find. It’s sold in hardware stores and garden centers under names like Dipel and Thuricide. Applying Bt is a do-it-yourself job if you can reach your trees with a sprayer. If not, call in a pro.

Even easier is picking off the bags if you have only a few bagworms. Snip them off with scissors or pruners, bag and trash them. Don’t leave them on the ground where the eggs can hatch. Since there can be as many as 1,000 eggs in each bag, removal is important. Get those bags gone. And gone before the eggs hatch in May.  

Tiny bagworms are hard to spot when they first appear in May on plants such as this Colorado blue spruce.
Credit:  Dave Lantz

Learn more about bagworms and see some great photos on the HGIC website.

You can beat bagworms and keep your trees safe. Fortunately, this is one insect for which there is an easy – and organic – fix.  So get out there and bag some bagworms.

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

Abiotic Disorder – The Garden Thyme Podcast

Listen to podcast

It has been a weird spring weather wise, and that weird weather may have stressed some of your plants out.  In this months episode we are talking all about abiotic disorder in the garden.  Abiotic disorder in plants are caused by non-living factors such as weather,  and the enviroment .   We will give some examples of what we have seen so far this year,  and what you should be looking for in your garden . 

We also have our: 

  •  Native Plant of the Month  (Bottlebrush grass)at 26:45
  • Bug of the Month (Green Lacewing) at 30:15
  • Garden Tips of the Month at 36:45

 If you have any garden-related questions, please email us at UMEGardenPodcast@gmail.com or look us up on Facebook.

The Garden Thyme Podcast is brought to you by the University of Maryland Extension. Hosts are Mikaela Boley- Senior Agent Associate (Talbot County) for Horticulture, Rachel Rhodes- Senior Agent Associate for Horticulture (Queen Anne’s County), and Emily Zobel-Senior Agent Associate for Agriculture (Dorchester County).

Theme Song: By Jason Inc

The more the merrier: community actions for pollinators

bumble bee on a purple coneflower

Besides it being the month when summer starts, June is a great month because it is when Pollinator Week happens! 😊

Tagging along with that week, in today’s post I want to talk about some actions you can take with(in) your community to help pollinators! Because, if we want to help pollinators, a very valid and effective way to amplify your actions is to get others on board! Here, a non-extensive list of ideas.

1. Become a Bee City

Ask your City or Campus to become a certified Bee City or Bee Campus USA. Bee Cities and Campuses are certifications that cities and campuses across the USA can obtain if they implement a series of actions (“commitments”) established by the Xerces Society. Once these actions are done, the City or Campus in question becomes certified as a pollinator-friendly space. The types of actions outlined are really activities that lead to increasing education on pollinators and pollination, to improving pollinator habitat on the institution’s land, to promoting actions in the way that the institution functions that may allow for increasing pollinator support (see here for city commitments and here for campus commitments). Becoming a Bee City or Campus is not hard, and most institutions say yes if their members ask. If you think this is something you would like your City and/or Campus to do, reach out to your representatives or leadership and get them on board! And to have an idea of what cities and campuses are already involved, take a look at the Bee City USA affiliates.

2. Organize a Pollinator Week Event

Pollinator Week is a National event organized by the Pollinator Partnership and includes many possible actions that lead to increasing pollinator survival and/or awareness. This year, Pollinator Week will be happening June 20-26. One can participate in activities already organized by others, or one can propose and host an activity! If you would like to get together with your community and organize an event, do it, and then submit it to the Pollinator Week event list! That way, others will know about it and will participate as well! To submit (or participate in) an event, go to the bottom of the Pollinator Partnership page.

Here are some activities happening in Maryland: bee hotel building workshop in College Park, MD, webinar in Greenbelt, MD, pollinator catch-and-release in Saint Leonard, MD, and several activities in Howard Co., MD.

Pollinator Week, June 20-26, 2022 logo

3. Ask your city to host a No-Mow Month in early-spring

Early-spring pollinators emerge usually when very few plants are flowering, meaning that the early spring is a critical time for these pollinators. In human-occupied landscapes like cities or suburban areas, a lot of the landscape is occupied by lawns, which can provide some flowers early in the spring. No-Mow Month (usually April or May, depending on the city’s conditions) is an action that seeks to allow the availability of the early flowers in lawns so that local pollinators can survive during the early spring. Once other plants in the landscape start flowering (usually at the end of April in most of Maryland), the lawn can be mowed with this not negatively affecting pollinators.

It is important to note that this action is based on voluntary participation, meaning that participants opt-in (instead of being mandated to do it). This action has been shown to be effective in increasing pollinator diversity and abundance in regions where it is implemented, and is not associated with excessive lawn growth because it occurs so early in the season. Further, it can be strengthened with native plantings, which can boost its effects and also support local landscapers during the reduced-mow month. Localities where the action has been implemented tend to have high adoption rates, increased nature awareness, and willingness to further support biodiversity around homesteads, with no- to very-reduced vermin occurrence.

This action usually requires some temporal amendments to City Code (e.g., to ensure that participants will not be penalized if their lawns surpass the maximum allowed height during the no-mow month) so it needs approval by City Councils. Although this may sound really complicated, it is not, and several Cities in Maryland have implemented this program very successfully during the month of April (see here for College Park, MD, and here for Greenbelt, MD), following Appleton, WI’s trailblazing action. If you think this is something you would like to implement in your community, get in touch with these cities’ Bee City USA committees so they can share their expertise, and then contact your representatives to ask them to adopt this action where you live!

No Mow April Collage Park sign

4. Ask your community to establish pollinator-friendly plants and nesting resources

Communities can also support pollinators through the way they decide to landscape their land. Requesting your community leadership to implement pollinator-friendly gardens and offer nesting resources for pollinators (e.g., bee hotels, create small wild spaces) is a really good way to help pollinators at a larger scale. To do this, you can get in touch with you City/Town Horticulturist and/or Public Works people, and request this. If you would like to implement this in your neighborhood and on private land, you can coordinate with your neighbors and create plots of native plants or small nesting areas in everybody’s green spaces. A very effective way to do this in Maryland is by establishing a neighborhood Green Team. If you would like to know about how to do this, take a look at this page of recommended native plants and this list of native plants that do well in our area.

Chart listing easy-to-grow native plants that support pollinators

5. Ask you city/town/neighborhood to adopt an IPM plan

Although we tend to think about helping pollinators only by planting flowers and maybe creating nesting spaces, pollinators also can be helped by the way we manage our landscapes. For example, herbicides and pesticides can be sometimes very harmful to pollinators, or cutting plants at certain times of the year can really negatively affect them. Reducing the use of pesticides and herbicides, or changing the way we manage our own private land is one possibility. However, cities, towns, neighborhoods, schools, and campuses also manage their public lands! For that reason, they can also implement actions to manage spaces in ways that support pollinators.

chart explaining Integrated Pest Management in 5 steps

A very good way to institutionalize this is by requesting these institution to implement Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plans. IPM is a way of controlling pests and increasing “beneficial” organisms in a given space by means that reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides. These plans establish a framework that allows institutions to still control pests and diseases, while reducing the negative impacts on biodiversity that some conventional practices have. These plans can be very general or very specific, and if your institution does not have one, it may be time to ask them to implement one! To do this, get in touch with your institutional horticulturist or your government representative. Here are some examples: city, campus and school district plans.

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.

Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!

Q&A: Some insects have a lot of gall

Maple Eyespot Gall, caused by a native midge (tiny fly) that occurs throughout the state. Photo: M. Talabac

Q: What on Earth is going on with this maple leaf? I saw it on a wild tree while taking a walk down a neighborhood path, but wonder if it’s something that can spread to nearby gardens.

A:  This is a great example of a gall, which is a tissue deformity on a plant caused by either insects, mites, fungi, bacteria, or nematodes. Usually galls cause swelling or weird projections on leaves or plant stems, but sometimes the more obvious feature is a color change like this.

The activities of the organism responsible creates chemical changes in the leaf tissue, redirecting tissue formation to suit its needs. For instance, insect-made galls give the larvae their own little house to feed in while being protected from most predators or harsh weather. (Impressively, tiny parasitoid wasps, little bigger than a dash on this page, still find their prey inside these structures and interrupt their life cycle. Isn’t that amazing?)

Despite how drastic galls may look to us, they don’t cause much harm to their host plants, which can be trees, shrubs, or perennials. Oak trees are renowned for harboring many kinds of eye-catching galls, some of which become most noticeable when they fall out of the canopy onto our lawns or gardens. See if you can find anything living inside those swollen red or brown lumps or balloon-like pockets on leaves. A wise bird or other insect may have beaten you to it, though, or the culprit is long gone and already flew away as an adult before the plant jettisoned the injured leaf.

If an eyesore, you can clip off heaviest infestations of leaf galls on witchhazel (caused by insects), azaleas (fungus), oak saplings (usually insects), and any other easy-to-reach plant. Keep in mind that the unaffected portions of those leaves are still functioning to feed the plant, so don’t remove too much growth. Otherwise, I suggest you leave them alone and just marvel at the intricacies of the natural world. Gall-forming insects can feed songbirds and don’t risk the health of the plant. As with any organism, populations wax and wane over time and galls might be prevalent one year and nearly absent the next.

At the Home and Garden Information Center, we have several web pages with more information about galls, including Shade Tree Galls and Eyespot Galls on Trees.

By Miri Talabac, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Miri writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun. Read more posts by Miri.

Have a plant or insect question? University of Maryland Extension has answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask Extension.

Understanding plant tags: light, zones, natives and more

Gardening beginners and pros alike can get flummoxed by plant tag terminology.  What do words such as full-sun, zone, native and determinate mean? Allow me to elucidate, um, explain.  See, even I can make things complicated.

Light is oh-so-important.  Matching the right plant to the right lighting is crucial.  So tags tell you how much light each plant needs to not just survive, but thrive. If a tag says “full sun” that means the plant needs at least 6 hours of sun a day.  If it says “full shade”, that means it wants deep shade.  Part sun or part shade means it can handle a bit of both. 

In trying to find the perfect lighting, remember that buildings, trees, sheds, and other structures cast shade.  So what might be full sun now may be shaded later in the day.  It pays to note where sun and shade fall across the days and seasons.  Visit your gardens at different times to see where you have true full sun, deep shade, and those grey areas in-between.  

Not all plants do well everywhere.  Some prefer heat.  Others prefer cold. So the USDA, the United States Department of Agriculture, came up with a map divided into numbered strips or zones, where particular plants survive an average low temperature.    It’s called the hardiness map.   

Here in Washington County, we are in zone 6B which means that any plant with a hardiness range that includes the number 6 should survive our winters.   For example, a river birch is labeled with a tag that says “zone 4 to 9,” so it will do well here.  A gardenia labeled for zones 8 to 11 will not.   So you enjoy it until the weather gets cold.   

Plant tags help you know which plants will survive and thrive in your gardens.  
Photo credit:  Annette Cormany

You may see the word “native” on a plant tag.  Native plants naturally occur in an area and have been here since European settlers arrived.  They’ve survived hot, dry, cold, and wet years and are tough, naturally resisting drought and disease.  Native plants also co-evolved with native insects and wildlife and support them with better nutrition and habitat. So if you want to help pollinators and other wildlife, native plants are a good choice.  

Look for them.  Ask for them.  That’s how we get more in the marketplace. Learn more about native plants and get some plant suggestions on the HGIC website.

If you’re buying tomatoes, you may have noticed the words “determinate” and “indeterminate” on the tags.  These are tomato types.  Determinate or bush tomatoes max out at 4 feet. They produce their fruit all at once – at a determined time – which makes them great for canning.  They also need less staking.

Indeterminate or vining tomatoes keep growing all season and produce fruit over a longer time so you can enjoy them for slicing, cooking, side dishes, and more.  They need to be staked.  

I hope I’ve simplified some plant tag terms.  No get thee to a garden center and check out some plants! 

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

What is soil pH and does it really matter to plants? 

Well, the short answer from a soil nerd (please note soil nerd is not the same as a soil scientist or soil chemist) is that yes it really does matter! Have you ever done the experiment with boiling red cabbage leaves and used that as a pH indicator? It’s a fun science experiment but probably wouldn’t work for determining an accurate soil pH. 

People do not always see the benefit of getting their soil tested; however, if you take a good comprehensive soil sample, the information that you get from the analysis is invaluable. Not only will the results keep you from over-applying nutrients, which has economic and environmental benefits, but also it will ensure that your plants have all that they need right at their root tips.

In my opinion, the most helpful piece of information gained from conducting a soil analysis is the soil pH. PH is a measure of hydrogen ion concentration and tells you how acidic or basic/alkaline the soil is. Most vegetable garden plants prefer a pH between 6-7; therefore, acidic soils need to be amended with calcium carbonate (limestone). Acidic soils are indicated with numbers below 6 on the pH scale which ranges from 0 to 14. Soils in the Eastern US are often acidic, but the natural pH will depend on parent material and other soil factors, such as how the soil has been managed, what plants are growing there, etc. 

It should be noted that some plants actually prefer acidic soils, such as rhododendron, azaleas, and blueberries. Also, some plant diseases, such as scab in potatoes, are worse at a higher pH. Lowering soil pH (often done by adding sulfur) can take several months and may need to be a multi-step process. It is a great idea to test garden soils in the fall, so pH-altering amendments have time to do their job. Here is a great cheat sheet to help you understand what your soil analysis results mean

Another reason that pH is important is that it helps determine the availability of soil nutrients. Soil pH is linked to Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC), which is influenced by soil particle size and the type of parent material (rock). Clay soils will have a higher CEC (sites to hold onto nutrient ions) than sandy soils. CEC will be reported on most soil analyses. If the pH is not in the correct range, then many nutrients are not available to plants, even if you have applied ample nutrients. Thus, in order for the nutrients to support plant growth, it’s important to get that pH correct! This will provide both economic and environmental savings. Check out this link for a neat chart showing nutrients available and pH

The third reason that it is important to check pH is because it can affect soil microorganisms, which are going to thrive at a near neutral level. If the pH is too high or too low you will see a decrease in the number and activity of good soil bacteria, fungus, and more that help to break down organic matter and do amazing other things in the soil profile. (For more details on this topic, download PDF – Soil Acidity Impacts Beneficial Soil Microorganisms, from Washington State University Extension.)

Common questions about soil pH

Can pH change from year to year?

Some forms of nutrients —commercial fertilizers, compost, composted animal waste (cow, horse, pig, chicken manure), organic matter, the weathering of rocks, and even rainfall can alter pH. Fertilizers, depending on the type used, will alter soil pH at different rates. Refer to this PDF – Fertilizers and Soil pH from the University of California.  

Can I use a home soil Testing kit?

I normally steer people away from these types of kits, just because there are so many inaccuracies, especially,  if the kits were not stored at the proper temperature and the directions are not followed correctly, then the results may not be 100% accurate.  

What about electronic soil testing probes?

I don’t have first-hand experience with these probes. I am sure that they do have a level of accuracy; however, I cannot justify the upfront cost. For most gardeners, soil testing every 3 years is sufficient, so in my opinion, it is easier to just collect the sample and send it to a laboratory. 

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland, edited by Christa Carignan, Coordinator, Home & Garden Information Center, University of Maryland Extension. See more posts by Ashley and Christa


This year, the University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener Grow It Eat It Program celebrates the resource that supports all life on earth – soil! Look for soil education programs offered by your local Master Gardener program, and visit the Home & Garden Information Center website for more information about soil health.