Plant Pampering and Soil Quality


Columbine ‘Songbird Cardinal’

You might not realize how much pampering goes into gardening…

especially when installing new plants. Some gardeners think using native plants is the cure all for plant pampering, but that is never the case when getting plants fresh from the nursery established to new conditions. And new conditions are not always the best either.

Matching your plant selection to existing conditions is rarely the case in a garden that incurred a built environment, which is almost every homeowner garden. Commonly, people just consider light and shade conditions, not necessarily soil nutrient, texture and pH, among some very important other considerations.


Compaction, construction debris and a host of environmental changes to a property is never going to be the same as native soils before building occurred. In my profession, we do soil testing, and for far more than soil pH tests which homeowners can perform on their own.

We do soil survey testing for whether soils will support building (soil stability) and whether water exists below grade (soil that has a seasonal high water table can flood out deep rooting plantings, especially trees or home basements). Also soils are tested for soil depth and available quality topsoil storing or replacement.


Crabapple ‘Royal Gem’ and Lilac ‘Miss Kim’

Soils are tested for soil texture (particle size).

To understand particle size in soils, “if a particle of clay were the size of a BB, then a particle of silt would be the size of a golf ball and a grain of sand would be the size of a chair.” Penn State Cooperative Extension

Soils are tested for grade slope and ways to mitigate erosion. Your garden has similar conditions to all as mentioned.


It is complicated, but a property is made for the building, not necessarily the plants installed later.

Generally building and site management does not change the structure of deeper soil layers. You might have your deeper soil layers checked to see if they may affect drainage and root penetration.


Iberis with Pansies

Each soil will interact with each other. By studying more than 25 soil properties it is determined how suitable the soil will respond to land use and management. This is way more than a home gardener needs to know, but when growing crops, it is very needed information. If a garden is lacking in needed chemicals or nutrients, then plants will show the deficiency.


Pulmonaria ‘Mrs. Moon’ – Lungwort and Penstemon ‘Husker Red’

Soil is very complex in its ability to sustain living organisms too. Many living organisms keep soils healthy from, bacteria, nematodes, arthropods, fungi, algae, to protozoa. In fact, more living organisms occur in soil than in all other ecosystems combined. Earthworms, grubs, slugs, crickets, ants and mites munch and tunnel the soil during feeding, which aids in aggregation, water movement, aeration and thatch degradation. Keeping soil “alive” is important.



Righting bad soils is work, time and money. Some soils, as heavy clay and limestone, are always going to remain somewhat difficult, even with added amendments. It really is a chore to amend yearly. My area is this type of soil.

In spring after the ground movement from winter, the clay soil is friable and soft, easy to till. Amendments work nicely then, even by hand to 12 inches deep. By summer’s end, the clay rises, swells and hardens where the ground is almost impenetrable in my area. Native or not, all plants face the same unyielding conditions.


Lupine ‘Tutti Fruiti’

My home is almost 100 years old, and I am still unearthing construction debris this many years later. An architect today specs removing debris from the site, but how often is the case when a pit is dug after hours and debris is dropped in? I have caught contractors doing this. It costs them many dollars per ton for disposal, so they save where they can. Violating the contract costs them dearly.

Drainage is another issue too when a site has been altered. Drainage problems are plant killers.


Time for some plant pampering… on Wednesday with dropping temperatures the tender plants needed covering and containers made their way to the garage. The news said winter is back, but that was quite the exaggeration. Thursday, all plants were perky as I uncovered them to a bright sunny morning. Pampering averted…


Lupine ‘Tutti Fruiti’

Hard to believe, but our area is suffering already from lack of rain and unseasonable temperatures. Photos from the garden, May 11th and 13th.

Next post, Are Annuals More Expensive Than Perennials? then a followup on soil, Taking Care of the Soil with more of my garden photos. Plus coming up, Allium in the Garden, a few new varieties and some talk about what might not be in bloom for the Garden Bloggers’ Fling. Make sure to see the post Gardening With Allium with a list of great plant partners. What’s a plant post without the companion plants that make a great presentation?

With the Fling right around the corner, see what my garden has in bloom each day leading up to the Fling. When you Flingers get to Niagara Falls on Monday, give me a wave, I am only 5 minutes walk away.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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29 Responses to Plant Pampering and Soil Quality

  1. Soil is not sexy so many gardeners just want to stick the plant in and move on. I constantly talk to my customers about soil conditions and improving their soil.

    • Roger Brook says:

      I find soil very sexy Carolyn!

      • Always worthy information to pass along. I have run into clients that have bought maybe $80,000 worth of plants (their estimate) that died for one reason or another. Buying plants “just because you like them” gets gardeners in trouble often if they don’t have suitable conditions for planting.

  2. johnvic8 says:

    Thanks for the review. I’ve had good results in creating raised beds using a soil “recipe” I have developed over the years. Our clay soil is really difficult to plant in otherwise.
    Can I ask: what are you using to create the photo collages? Quite nice.

    • Hi John, I am off to our annual Plant Sale in 10 minutes, but thought to answer your question. In WP I click add media> I then load and select my images on the Insert Media page> once images are selected, I click Create Gallery in the left side menu> at the bottom of that next page, click, Create a new gallery> on the new page, arrange your images in the order you prefer, select how many columns (three is selected) in the drop down under Gallery Settings on right, – next,the Size to show, I select medium, – then lastly the Type (I use most of these choices, but Tiled Mosaic is in this post). I do better galleries in Photoshop, but then each image does not display in a slideshow. I can do that too, but it is coding to insert, so too much blog time. More on soils coming up. I have very heavy clay soil and I give tips on dealing with it. It may be similar to your bed mix.

      • Roger Brook says:

        Your explanation about soil texture was very good Donna. I know you are a professional but it is surprising how many garden writers don’t get it!
        And just a small self promotion, my current post is about clay and the one going on tomorrow is too!

      • johnvic8 says:

        Thanks so much. I will try to follow your instructions. I tried a bit with galleries in WP but I was obviously doing something wrong because they always seemed to come out the same no matter which options I chose. I have used PicMonkey which gives nice collages, but you can’t click on an individual photo to see it enlarged or have a slideshow. I will keep at it. You might check my pinterest board for my soil recipe at I’ve since added ironite and epsom salts to it…must update.
        Thanks again.

        • I did look at your raised bed recipe. I always make a mix too when dressing the beds in Spring. It takes work to stay on top of heavy clay soil. The epsom salts is a good additive.

  3. Nurse Kelly says:

    Beautiful and so informative – thank you!

  4. The Belmont Rooster says:


  5. alesiablogs says:

    Sexy soil….Now that is a new one on me…..I am looking at my dirt and I am just not getting that same jive….I think I need to go get to work out there though!!!

  6. A lot of great info here. Thanks.

  7. This takes me back and reminds me of all the different gardens I have owned over the last decade. I have had clay soil, sandy soil (today), loam soil (oh, how I dream, of those days!); acid, neutral and alkaline soil: and a range of sites from brand newly constructed (rubble buried everywhere) to seventeenth century (where you wonder if you will dig up treasure!) homes. It’s been a steep learning curve at times as the theory I have studied never quite plays out in reality, but my husband’s numerous work relocations have certainly added interest to my love of gardening!

    • I too have had different conditions at homes I owned or rented in different states, but working with many clients through the years has exposed me to the full gamut of soil types. It is especially a concern when building structures. We hire consultants for the soil testing. We just read the results and make determinations from there.

  8. Great information. Your photos are beautiful, as always.

  9. As usual all of the garden looks beautiful though I particularly like the flowers that are a little wilder 🙂 I’m sorry to have missed much of your garden news this spring due to a break away, but looking forward to catching up more in summer. I’ll need great tips from your gardens to make our own look just as wonderful! Thank you for sharing your love of all that grows 🙂

    • 😀 My neighbors think my flowers are “wild”. No home in our neighborhood has much more than lots of emerald green turf grass, a few shrubs and a smattering of annuals. I am the only garden getting bees and other insects too since most all spray. Most neighbors really dislike my garden since it is so different from all the rest, plus, they can’t stand the little grass that I have is filled with creeping Charlie, dandelion, violets, and a host of other weeds. I just like the insects and have no plans on changing.

  10. Good post. That bit about contractors dumping materials hit home with me. We have had contractors try to dump construction debris into our city trash containers. Another time, a contractor dumped a couple of dead junipers in the alley along my fence. Grrr!

    • Contractors can be very shifty. When doing new builds, they are required to strip the land for building (of course leaving trees that are speced to remain). They leave trees unless they ram into them, then they must pay for replacement. But when stripping the topsoil, they are to store it either on site or at a specified offsite location. Guess what happens often without a prior test of the property soil? They keep good topsoil to sell. They bring back pulverized moistened clay and other undesirable earthen components – all run through a shredder, which looks kinda like OK soil. When it dries, it cracks and is hard to work. Of course a good project manager will catch this, but sometimes it slips through. When caught, the contractor has to strip the property again and install only the ‘finest’ soil specified. You bet they take a bath on that. You can see how it is always a chess game what they want to get away with. I have so many stories being an architect for building, then doing the landscape at the very end.

  11. Lula says:

    I read with interest your suggestions, but as I have no garden now I will have to archive them for the future. But I must say what a joy for the eyes so many colors!!

  12. One stunning image after another, as always!

  13. We have made up the rain here now and we are cold again expecting another frost…..I learned the hard way about soil and am still learning…fascinating topic and you have given me much food for thought Donna!

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