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.

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Add winter interest to your gardens

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As you look out your windows onto a wintery scene are you missing the colors, shapes, and forms of your summer garden? 

No need. If you want to be delighted rather than depressed with your views, plan now to add some winter interest to your garden with color, texture, and form.

Crape myrtle’s exfoliating bark adds textural interest. 

Let’s start with texture. Adding plants with interesting bark textures ratchets up the “wow” factor in a landscape. Personal favorites are the shaggy bark of river birch and the mosaic bark of crape myrtles. Both have striking multiple trunks and crape myrtles range from 3 to 30 feet to fit any landscape. Other trees have smooth bark, furrowed bark or bark like an elephant’s trunk. Mix it up. The excellent book, “Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs,” includes bark photos in each plant profile.

With needles short or long, spiky, clustered or drooping, evergreen trees boast appealing texture. Seeing Norway spruce’s kimono sleeves dusted with snow makes you really, really want one. 

But trees aren’t the only plants that tout texture. Think shrubs, ornamental grasses, and perennials. I can’t walk by a leatherleaf viburnum without stroking its coarse, deeply veined leaves. Ditto for holly’s glossy leaves. 

The seed heads of ornamental grasses and perennials also can add striking texture. The snow-capped seed heads of coneflowers and Brazilian verbena look especially fine. 

Now, let’s pop some color into your winter garden. You’ll find it in the crimson branches of red twig dogwood and the berries of hawthorns, hollies, and winterberries. But red isn’t the only color you can cultivate. 

Winterberry adds bright color to the winter landscape

Some junipers tinge purple in the winter or hold onto their summer blues. Tan ornamental grasses contrast well with snow and add movement when stirred by the wind.

Crabapples dangle yellow, orange, and red fruits while viburnums show off berries of red, purple, black, or blue. And most evergreens are, well, green.

Mother Nature stocks her palette with softer colors. Grey rocks sport green lichen. Wood ages from brown to grey. Use natural materials to add color and beauty to walkways, benches, fences, and accents. 

Suffuse your garden with your favorite colors. In the European garden Kiftsgate, the owners carefully placed splashes of bright blue. It adorns a bench, garden gate, and more to perfect effect. So grab your paintbrush. 

Now, let’s talk form. Mixing shapes creates a well-designed landscape, but those shapes are most noticeable in winter when deciduous trees have dropped their leaf dresses. What do the bare bones of your landscape tell you? Look for shapes – round, square, triangle, oval, pillar, vase, and teardrop – and add what’s missing. 

If your landscape is filled with lollipops – round balls on sticks like maples – then add something layered and wider like a dogwood, triangular like a spruce, or columnar like an arborvitae. Weeping forms improve every garden.

When garden designers tell us to plan for the view, they mean the views from both the inside and outside.  So look out your windows and imagine what you want to see. Then make it happen.

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.


Save the date! On March 9, join together with fellow University of Maryland alumni, faculty and staff, students, and volunteers for an extraordinary day of giving back. Make a contribution to Home and Garden Information Center Fund for #GivingDayUMD!

Q&A: Can you recommend plants that provide food for birds?

Cedar Waxwing dining on a Green Hawthorn berry. Photo: Miri Talabac

Q: This summer’s mysterious bird illness has me thinking…I’ve become more interested in birds during the past two years and would like to attract them to my yard with plants. Are there favored recommendations?

A: Bird-attracting landscaping definitely beats out bird feeders as the preferable way to bring these beauties into yards for easier viewing as a safer environment than a communal feeder. (While you’re at it, look into ways to discourage window strikes since plants, like feeders, could increase encounters with glass.)

Plant recommendations are going to be incredibly varied because the diet of birds is so varied, both across species and throughout the year. Site conditions in your garden will narrow down what may be an overwhelming list of choices. Here are some general tips:

  • Plant as much variety for which you have room.
  • Plant to provide food for insects and the birds will follow.
  • When looking at berry or seed production, consider productivity for each season.
  • Try to focus on native plants only, since birds will deposit their seeds beyond your landscape.

To pick a timely category – late-ripening berries – there are some notably popular species. Highly-ranked contenders for both resident and southbound migrant birds include Viburnums, Dogwoods (trees and shrubs), Spicebush, Virginia Creeper, Eastern Redcedar, Magnolia, Black Tupelo, Hackberry, Sassafras, Bayberry, Sumac, Hollies, and Hawthorn.

Cornell’s All About Birds web library plus local Audubon Societies are good resources for more thorough information on individual species diet, habitat preferences, and plant suggestions for both foraging and nesting.

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

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

Rain Gardens – The Garden Thyme Podcast

In this month’s episode, we are chatting all about the benefits of rain gardens (~12:45).  Every time it
rains, water runs off impervious surfaces such as roofs, driveways, roads, and parking lots, collecting
pollutants along the way. Maryland’s average rainfall is about 44”. That is a lot of storm water, isn’t it?
Think about how much water can go back into our groundwater table instead of directly into a storm drain by
using a rain garden. We also answer a listener’s question about how to prepare an area for planting a
new garden next year by removing turf grass (~00:45).

To listen to the podcast visit: https://gardenthymepodcast.buzzsprout.com or search for us on Itunes
or the Stitcher App.

Helpful resource: Rain Gardens Across Maryland 

We also have our: 
 Native Plant of the Month (Woolgrass) at  29:50
 Bug of the Month (splitter bug aka frog hopper) at ~ 33:40
 Garden Tips of the Month at ~ 38:45

We hope you enjoy this month’s episode and will tune in next month for more garden tips.  If you
have any garden related questions please email UMEGardenPodcast@gmail.com or look us up on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/GardenThymePodcast

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

Theme Song:  By Jason Inc

Great Grasses for Maryland Landscapes

What are some beautiful plants that are relatively easy to maintain and unappealing to deer? Take a look at the ornamental and native grasses!

Little bluestem grass
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) ‘Standing Ovation.’ Photo: Mikaela Boley

Ornamental grasses are plants that provide year-round beauty, texture, persistent ground cover, erosion control, and a variety of additional benefits. They are:

  • Available in many heights and forms suitable for different landscape situations
  • Helpful in trouble spots like slopes or places where a living screen is desired
  • Relatively easy to maintain by pruning back once each year
  • Generally distasteful to deer.

If you are planning to add native plants to your landscape, add a few grasses to the mix. Grasses provide winter shelter for beneficial insects and seeds for birds. Some even have interesting associations with small butterflies called skippers. For example, the Leonard’s Skipper uses little bluestem, switchgrass, poverty oatgrass, and bentgrass as host plants. That means that when these insects are in their juvenile stage (caterpillars), they can only feed on these types of grasses to survive. As adult skippers, they fly off to feed on the nectar of other flowering plants. They are delightful to watch “skipping” around a butterfly garden!

ornamental grasses in winter
Ornamental grasses provide textural interest in a garden in the winter. Here they are beautiful in combination with remnant seedpods and the red berries of winterberry holly in the background. Photo: C. Carignan

There are about 350 species of grasses in Maryland. They are the primary plants found in native meadows and there are even grasses, such as Eastern bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix), that thrive in our state’s shaded woodland areas.

Eastern bottlebrush grass
Eastern bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix) Photo: Chris Evans, University of Illinois, Bugwood.org

The Maryland Native Plant Society has named 2020 “The Year of the Grasses”. All year long, through their monthly events and plant walks, you can learn about Maryland’s grasses and their native habitats.

Ornamental and native grasses are readily available at garden centers and native plant sales. Be sure to avoid invasive ones like Chinese silvergrass (Miscanthus sinensis).

switchgrass
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) ‘Shenandoah’. Photo: Mikaela Boley

For some great choices, check out my colleague Mikaela Boley’s excellent guide to Ornamental and Native Grasses for the Landscape on the Home & Garden Information Center website.

If you already have ornamental grasses in your landscape, now is a good time to prune them. Grasses that turn brown in the winter should be cut down to about 2″ above the ground in early spring before new growth begins.

By Christa K. Carignan, Coordinator, Digital Horticulture Education, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Read additional posts by Christa.

Q&A: How Can I Remove Lawn and Create a Native Habitat for Birds and Butterflies?

lawn removal
Turfgrass removal using newspaper and mulch. Photo: Beth Blum Spiker, University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener

Q: Our place is almost entirely lawn and we want to convert the yard into a biodiverse, native habitat for birds and butterflies. Since it is almost fall, do we cover the grass areas with newspaper and then mulch on top or leave it until spring? How do we prepare the ground for planting in spring? Can we plant things now?

Answer: If you already have decided on the beds or habitat areas, then killing the grass now is an excellent idea. Mow as low as you can. Newspaper and mulch (especially leaf mulch available in fall) should work well. Use several layers of newspaper under the mulch. Do a soil test now.  Fall is a great time to plant woody plants and herbaceous perennials. However, unless you must plant now (gift plants, donated plants), you may want to wait until you have a planting plan designed for each bed. Winter is an excellent time to plan.

The Woods in Your Backyard is a comprehensive program that helps homeowners figure out how to do just what you have in mind. When selecting native plants, a great reference is Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping. This online publication features photos and growing requirements for each plant in an easy-to-use chart format. Also, refer to the Home & Garden Information Center’s website for more information about native plants.

By Ellen Nibali, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Information Center. Ellen writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun.

Have a plant or insect question? University of Maryland Extension’s experts have answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask an Expert.

My Pachysandra is Dying, What Can I Plant in Its Place?

landscape in partial shadeResident seeks groundcover options to replace Pachysandra. Photo: University of Maryland Extension / Ask an Expert

Q: My Pachysandra is Dying, What Can I Plant in Its Place?

A patch of Japanese Pachysandra in my yard was formerly healthy but in the past three years, it has died back. I would like to plant deer-resistant plants or groundcover in its place. Can you recommend some perennials I can try? This area gets filtered sun most of the day.

Answer: Volutella is a common fungal disease of Japanese Pachysandra that attacks both the leaves and stems and causes dieback symptoms. It is most severe in overgrown plantings and is often associated with scale (insect) infestations. This may have contributed to the decline of your plants.

It is a good idea to consider different options for this space. In addition to its susceptibility to Volutella dieback, Japanese Pachysandra has escaped garden cultivation and is now invasive in some natural areas of Maryland. We no longer recommend planting it. In the forest understory, it outcompetes native plants such as our spring ephemeral wildflowers and the wildlife (insects, birds) they support.

japanese pachysandra in a forested area
Invasive Pachysandra terminalis covers a large area of forested ground in Howard, County, Maryland. Photo: C. Carignan

There are other groundcover choices that are unique, beautiful, non-invasive, and adapted to Maryland’s growing conditions. For a partially shaded, moist area, try a combination of ferns – Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) and marginal woodfern (Dryopteris marginalis), sedges – blue wood sedges (Carex glaucodea or Carex laxiculmus) and Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica), Canadian ginger (Asarum canadense), golden groundsel (Packera aurea), foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia), and creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera). Some of these plants also support pollinators.

native plants garden
Groundcover plants were in bloom in April in the native plants garden at Camden Yards, Baltimore. From front to back: Phlox, Foamflower, Golden Groundsel. Photo: C. Carignan

Additional Resources

Planting Groundcovers | Home & Garden Information Center

Twelve Easy Native Plants for Shade | Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection

Groundcovers | Plant NOVA Natives

By Christa K. Carignan, Maryland Certified Professional Horticulturist, Coordinator, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center

Have a plant or insect question? University of Maryland Extension’s experts have answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask an Expert.