Arboretum Paths: Here’s the real scoop on dirt

Published 3:08 pm Wednesday, July 20, 2016

in the dirt:  County Extension Agent Dr. Eddie Smith demonstrates how to take a proper soil sample in an Arboretum program about preparing gardens for spring planting  Photo by Patricia Drackett

in the dirt: County Extension Agent Dr. Eddie Smith demonstrates how to take a proper soil sample in an Arboretum program about preparing gardens for spring planting
Photo by Patricia Drackett

What do you really know about your dirt? Is it “good dirt”, easily supporting lush plant growth, or unthrifty and problematic? Knowing the type of soil occurring on your property is the first step to understanding its limitations and attributes.

When providing for new plants, is it even necessary to build beds and incorporate soil amendments? First, decide what you want from your landscape. If you prefer colorful garden beds filled with high-performing blooming annuals or perennials, or ornamental flowering shrubs or trees, you will need to make a substantial investment of labor and materials – adding, for example, fertilizer and soil amendments such as cow manure and peat – to bring the plants to their full potential.

Admirers of Mississippi’s native plant species generally appreciate their low-maintenance qualities, and are also aware that soil amendments and fertilizers are usually unnecessary. By understanding the type of soil and moisture conditions of your planting area, you can choose the native species that will be just fine planted directly into existing soil. And, if they are properly located and given ample room to attain their mature size, they may need even less care.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“Old-fashioned” species such as native honeysuckle azaleas, Grancy greybeard (fringe tree), oakleaf hydrangea, Southern crabapple, mountain laurel, and blue flag iris are some of the native species that are always in high demand at the Arboretum’s quarterly plant sales. The beauty, and low-care qualities of these native plants have contributed to their long history of garden use.

Have you ever had your soil tested? For more information, visit the MSU Extension website at and enter the keywords “soil testing” to read answers to frequently asked questions about soil testing, and the different types of testing available for a small fee.

Information Sheet 1294 provides directions for homeowners on how to collect a soil sample. Call the Pearl River County Extension office at 401 W. Lamar Street in Poplarville at (601) 403-2280 to pick up a soil test kit and receive instructions on submitting your soil sample.

Whether your soil is primarily sand, clay, or loam, compost is one of the best amendments you can add to your garden beds. For a sustainable garden practice, create a compost pile consisting of leaves, lawn clippings, and other organic yard waste. Bagged manures such as composted cow manure are readily available, and these amendments will improve the soil structure and slowly release nutrients, especially nitrogen.

Many years ago when working as an estate gardener, the clients I gardened for would often work alongside me, and taught me how to use “the basics”, methods that they had become accustomed to as gardeners in the 1940s and 50s. Organic fertilizers were commonly used for their slow-release nitrogen. Blood meal, particularly high in nitrogen, was added for the added benefit of (hopefully) deterring squirrels, moles, and deer in the garden.
Doses of bone meal were included when fall bulbs were planted, for feeding developing roots. Fertilizer was scooped from gigantic bags of alfalfa meal and cottonseed meal, stored in garden sheds that smelled deliciously of earth and sun-warmed wood. One delightfully scented shed featured a collection of dried fir wreaths, mounted on the wall following the holidays.

It was a joy to put my hands into these lovingly tended garden beds, with soil conditioned by the compost from enormous leaf piles arranged in long rows and contained by a simple framework of hog wire. At one end was the past year’s leaves, and at the other end lay the rich black earthen gold.

See the Extension website for Publication 1782, “Composting for the Mississippi Gardener”. This document will get you well on your way to healthy garden beds!

Teachers, attend a free K-12 Flying WILD workshop Thursday, July 28 from 9:00 to 3:00 p.m., taught by Mississippi Museum of Natural Science Outreach Educator, Sabrina Cummings. Call 601-799-2311 to register.
Learn about “Coneflowers for the Home Garden” on Saturday, July 30, at 10:00 a.m. with Pearl River County Extension Agent Dr. Eddie Smith. Cost for non-members is $5.
For more information, see The Crosby Arboretum is located at I-59 Exit 4 and open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Patricia R. Drackett, Director and Assistant Extension Professor of Landscape Architecture
The Crosby Arboretum, Mississippi State University Extension Service