Keep shuffling the pieces when dealing with problem growing areas

Posted: Friday, March 07, 2003

EDITOR'S NOTE Dean Fosdick retired in May 2001 after 23 years with The Associated Press, 15 of those as Alaska bureau chief. He has covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill, volcanoes, galloping glaciers and harvesting Alaska-grown 100-pound-plus cabbages. He can be reached at: deanfosdick(at)

MOUNT JACKSON, Va. (AP) People often suffer growing pains when dealing with difficult planting situations. That's when gardening becomes like a jigsaw puzzle. You keep shuffling the pieces until finding the one that fits.

Say you have poor soil. Your yard is too wet or too dry. It's littered with rocks or shale. It's mostly clay or sand. Your property is flat and doesn't drain. Or it's too steep, susceptible to high winds or searing sun. Too shady.

What's a gardener to do?

Try working with it, says Addie Showalter, a master gardener and former commercial nurserywoman from Harrisonburg, Va.

There's usually a solution, often more than one,'' says Showalter, who frequently lectures on the subject.

What the sensible person might do with a difficult planting site is lay a patio over it,'' she says with a laugh. But you generally get rid of problem garden spots by putting something in, even if making it over with wildflowers or by adding some fieldstone or gravel. They can be lovely.''

Smart Move No. 1 if you're taking on a difficult growing area any garden area, really is to run a soil test. Determine whether it's acidic or alkaline and then apply the appropriate remedy to attain the desired pH.

It doesn't take much to determine if you're working with clay. Wet clay will polish'' or leave a smooth coating on your skin if you rub it in.

Although clay is a heavy soil and slows the spread of oxygen, carbon dioxide and water, it's generally rich in nutrients. Add garden compost or barnyard fertilizer over time to bulk it up and break it up. Then choose some claybusters'' plants like snapdragons, butterfly weeds, purple cornflowers, marigolds and zinnias that can force their roots through compacted soils.

Once your new plants take, and they may grow a bit more slowly in clay, they'll tend to do well without additional help.

Sand or silt, on the other hand, often dries too quickly under the heavy-handed heat of summer. Deal with that by stirring in layers of spongy organic matter and then adding some drought-tolerant landscape plants like bearberry, mock orange, yarrow or blanket flowers.

Once you've dealt with soil, concentrate on light.

If the problem location is a sunny hillside, then make it over with some aster varieties and gangs of black-eyed Susan. If it's generally shady, then try bleeding hearts, lilies of the valley or lavender.

One of the toughest challenges for gardeners is working with dry, shady areas, Showalter says. But there are remedies for that, too.

A lot of things grow in dry shade,'' she says. Daylilies, for example, may get a little taller and a little leggier, but they'll bloom.''

A soggy corner, or an area often in standing water? Certain ornamental grasses like getting their feet wet. So do some fern, primrose and iris varieties.

You always can try putting your plants in raised beds or in pots.

They have pots on wheels now, that you can roll from spring to summer, or from greenhouse to yard,'' Showalter says. I put a hibiscus in a pot and sit it outside in summer, then move it back inside, into the sun, through winter.

It seems to be very happy.''

Faced with a rocky yard, or seams of shale? Build a rock garden or use the shale for landscaping elsewhere. Smaller perennials like phlox do well when spotted around large rocks. Candytuft, crocus, hens-and-chicks and sedum also like creeping around crevices.

Say you live in the city. Your lot is defined by sidewalks, an alley and a busy street. You might choose groundcovers that are tough and fast growing.

Most groundcovers are perennials and belong to the evergreen family. Unlike grassy lawns, however, they don't take kindly to being walked upon.

Some are considered invasive.

Site preparation is doubly important in an urban setting. Provide enough water, drainage and rooting space for plants to survive around all that concrete.

Avoid utility lines if you're planting what eventually will become a tall tree.

Some of that may be mandated by law,'' Showalter says. That makes it even more challenging when an ordinance says a tree can only be so high or so wide.''

And watch your wallet when seeking the right planting solutions. As my old Uncle Buck used to say: Don't buy a $10 plant for a $2 hole.''

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