The results of the soil tests of the skinny bed next to the house and what I call the main garden just off the patio came were not what I would call earth-shattering, but ironically the one thing I thought I knew is probably what I was most wrong about.

One of the reasons I wanted to test the skinny garden alongside the house is because I feel like plants just aren't flourishing there like they should be. I plan to renovate that whole bed this spring, pulling out almost everything and starting mostly from scratch, but before I invest the time and money in doing that I wanted to make sure there's nothing odd going on there, like something leaching from the foundation into the soil.

Here are the results from that bed.

So what does it all mean? Let's break it down.

The levels of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium are not a big surprise. You can't really accurately measure nitrogen levels outside of the growing season and since nitrogen levels change constantly as it is being used by plants or becomes tied up in organic matter, it can be difficult to really know what's going on with nitrogen. Most gardens can use some supplemental nitrogen at the right time of the year. It's not a good idea to add nitrogen early in the year when you need plants to concentrate energy into root growth or at the end of the season, when a flush of leafy growth may not harden off in time to deal with winter.

Most gardens also have adequate levels of potassium and phosphorus and you can see that the levels are off the charts in this section of mine.

The organic matter level is at 7.6%, which is pretty good (you don't want this number to get above 10% and it's important to remember that the more organic matter, the more it ties up nitrogen in breaking it down).

But the number to look at is the pH; the one number I thought I had a good handle on before doing this test. At 7.5, my soil pH is definitely higher than I thought it was (I was under the impression that it was more in the 7.2 range). A pH of 7 is neutral. Anything below that is considered acidic, anything above it is alkaline. And while a lot of plants can handle a range of pH, 7.5 is definitely at the high end for where plants will thrive.

For instance, I continue to attempt to grow a climbing rose in this bed and although they grow, they don't thrive like they should given that it is nearly perfect conditions for them. The last few years they've also suffered from aphid attacks, which is in my opinion a sign of a less-than-healthy plant. The optimum pH for roses is 6.5.

The other problem with high pH soils is that they can make it difficult for plants to use micronutrients in the soil. One of the recommendations in the report addresses this. "Some ornamentals such as roses may show yellowing (chlorosis) from iron and/or manganese deficiency at high soil pH. Treat problems related to micronutrient deficiency when soil pH is above optimum with foliar spray containing iron and manganese 1 to 2 times during the growing season."

The results of the main garden test showed similar results.

The pH is just a touch lower and the organic matter just a touch higher. I've been having a few issues with cholorosis on my large Limelight hydrangea in this bed and I now think that's due to it needing some micronutrients because of the high pH.

There is a difference in texture between the soil sample from the skinny garden, top, and the main garden, bottom.

There's more to soil than just numbers of course. Another helpful test I could do at home would be to do the soil-in-a-jar test that most of us probably did in school to determine texture and composition. Fine Gardening has information on how to do a more elaborate version of this test. Just from looking at my soil samples it was clear to me that when I rejuvenate the skinny bed I need to work on creating a more moisture retentive soil.

So what's the bottom line here?

  1. There's no need to seek out balanced (i.e. 10-10-10) fertilizers because my soil doesn't need any more phosphorus or potassium than it already has. I can spend my money concentrating on just adding nitrogen.
  2. More than fertilizing, I need to be focused on bringing down the pH of my soil. I'll never grow azaleas, but I think I can make some serious strides to getting the pH closer to neutral. There are two main ways I can achieve this: aluminum sulphate or elemental sulfur. Elemental sulfur will require less but will take longer to work. Aluminum sulphate works faster but requires about six times more to get the same pH change of elemental sulfur. 
  3. I need to consider incorporating an iron or manganese foliar spray for plants showing signs of chlorosis. 
Will I recoup the $30 I spent on the tests? Probably, although even if I didn't, knowing what I need to do to improve my garden would be well worth the $30.


What are the components of a great trip? Great people, a beautiful garden, amazing food and an exciting and completely charming city are good places to start. Throw in some power tools and you've got a fantastic experience and one that I was fortunate to have earlier this month when I ventured to Charleston, South Carolina, to be with the Troy-Bilt Saturday6 blogging team.

To say I am smitten with Charleston, which I was visiting for the first time, would be putting it mildly. But before we get to some of what I discovered in the city, in addition to the amazing food, let's get to the cool part: power tools. 

Prepare to be envious. We went to a rice plantation, Middleton Place, and got to spend the better part of a day playing with dozens of Troy-Bilt products. We mowed, rode, tilled, mowed some more, blew, pressure washed and trimmed on a little corner of a national historic landmark property all in the name of familiarizing ourselves with Troy-Bilt's line of products. 

The FLEX system starts with a Power Base (note the foldable handles to make it even smaller to store) that clicks in to various attachments. You literally scoop up the attachment and it clicks in and you're ready to roll.

Rochelle Greayer of Pith and Vigor wields a mean power washer.

There were some standouts, the first of which is the company's new FLEX system. This is one of those ideas that you can't believe no one thought of before and you're sort of bummed it wasn't you who came up with it. FLEX consists of a power base that clicks in to various attachments, saving money as you add equipment to your collection and maybe even more important, space. Right now there are wide-area mower, snow thrower, pressure washer and leaf blower attachment but more attachments are coming down the pike. The Power Base costs $399 and the attachments range in price from $279 for the pressure washer and blower to $499 for the mower. That means it's probably not economical to go with the FLEX if you only need a mower, but the savings are realized as you add attachments. As I think about our small garage storage area full of a mower, snow thrower and pressure washer, I can't tell you how nice the space savings of the FLEX system would be. There is no doubt in my mind that if I were a new homeowner or someone starting out, FLEX would be the way to go. There's even a shelving unit to organize it all that appeals to my desire to be organized.

Kenny Point of Veggie Garden Tips tries out the FLEX mower. The front wheels spin 360 degrees which makes the mower very easy to handle but if you are mowing on an incline or aiming for super straight lines you just lock them into place.

The other product that really impressed me caught me by surprise. I was not expected to be excited by a tiller. In fact, I'm not really a tiller person. I don't believe in frequent tilling of soil, but they have their place when starting a new bed or when working in a lot of amendments. And I find them rather unpleasant to use. I always feel like I'm trying to control a bucking bronco when I'm using a tiller.
Enter the Bronco Axis tiller. Instead of the blades moving like a paddlewheel, they are actually vertical and rotate in a circle. This means that instead of needs shoulder surgery when you're finished tilling, you can actually walk next to the tiller, using just one hand to steer it, so you don't have to walk in the area you've just tilled. It sells for $899 and I'll be the first to admit that's a lot of money for tiller (other, more traditional Troy-Bilt tillers sell for between $400 and $599), but after trying the Bronco Axis, if I were in the market for a tiller I'd absolutely pony up the extra dough.

You can see the difference between a more traditional tiller, upper left, and the Bronco Axis, which has blades set vertically, upper right. Eric Rochow of GardenFork enjoyed the smooth ride.

But let's be honest, we were all chomping at the bit to to get on the riding mowers. There were three models for us to try: the Neighborhood Rider (a small rider targeted to people who have small yards but want a rider that stores in the same space as a walk behind), the Super Bronco XP and the new Mustang Pivot zero-turn mower. We buzzed all over the place and it was fun to see the differences between the different models. Of course we probably all had the most fun on the zero-turn mower, which has a wheel instead of the bars you see landscapers use. This makes it much easier to operate (apparently the bars take a little practice), but what I really liked the most was being able to see right in front of the mower since the engine was in the back (and the cup holders).

Teresa O'Connor of Seasonal Wisdom puts the Neighborhood Rider through its paces.

With the lawn sufficiently mowed (I sort of wonder if a grounds crew was lurking nearby shuddering), we took a tour of the fabulous Middleton Place. I ask for your forgiveness in advance because you are about to see a lot of picture of camellias. It was the first time I'd ever seen one in person and camellias, which are sort of otherworldly in that they look so perfect they almost look fake, were a sight for sore eyes for a flower-starved northern gardener.

Isn't this just so southern? The Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides, an epiphyte that causes no damage to trees) is so romantic.

This live oak may be more than 500 years old. A few years ago it lost a couple of large branches and arborists from around the country consulted on its care. If you look to the right you can see the low brach is being supported by a crutch and wires help support other parts of the tree.

As you leave the formal French gardens, you come across this perfect framing of a view. When you walk around, you see this charming wood nymph statue. I love how someone has put a camellia blossom in her hand.

I was fascinated by this lovely bark on the crepe myrtles.

Although the original house is gone, it was set here, with a perfect view of the Ashley River.

As we were walking, we happened upon this scene; a hat casually set on an original brick wall. I have no idea who it belonged to, but it feels like a gardener has just set it down before taking a break.

The old stableyards ooze plantation charm.

This guy saw us coming and immediately put on a show. (OK, it was probably for the girls just out of the shot, who were far more interested in eating than admiring him.)

I also had several hours one morning to explore the city. I probably put on six or seven miles, with no real idea of where I was going, just running in to one charming vista after another.

Kim from Sand & Sisal took the same picture but I have no idea when. I think it's funny that we both happened upon the same place. I've never been a big fan of ivy but window boxes like these could change my mind. 

There are some gorgeous private gardens, on view just through the fence.
Check out those fantastic pillars.
Fantastic details abound in Charleston. Not only would I love to live on a street called Ropemakers Lane, but I'd really like this marble street sign to mark my street. This marble-cased window might be the coolest window ever.
I told you I was smitten. Between the gorgeous gardens, charming historic detail and the amazing food (I can't even describe how good it was but I'm pretty sure I had the finest bread pudding ever), I can't wait to go back to Charleston.

My trip was provided by Troy-Bilt, but you know how I roll and they didn't tell us what to think or what to write (I'm just guessing they wouldn't have required as many photos of camellias if they had). For more on my partnership with Troy-Bilt, read this post.

Check out my fellow Saturday6 bloggers for their take on the Charleston trip. Just promise to pretend not to see the unflattering photos of me. Oh my gosh, what was I thinking when I got dressed that morning? I need a stylist or at least someone to give me some fashion advice. I'm not kidding.

Rochelle at Pith and Vigor
Teresa at Seasonal Wisdom
Eric at GardenFork
Kenny at Veggie Gardening Tips
Kim at Sand & Sisal


It's Friday Finds time, but unfortunately it has been a busy week and I've not had much time to spend on the Interwebs. So rather than send you in the direction of some great things to read, I'm going to tease up a few posts I'm working on for next week because there are some goodies.

A glimpse at a private garden in Charleston.

I snuck away to Charleston a few weeks ago and I'm going to tell you all about it. It was a fantastic trip and I completely fell in love with the city, which I happily roamed around for an entire morning. There's a good chance I took more than 100 pictures of camellias, which I'd never seen in person before. I promise I will not run them all.

I must have beat the spring rush at the soil lab because the results of my soil tests are due back later today. I can't wait to see what they show and to share the results (and what they mean) with you.

Last weekend we officially finished construction on the garage pergola. I think it was a year and a half in the making. I'll give you the whole rundown on how we did it, what we did wrong and how we fixed it so you don't do the same thing and show you how it turned out. I will not give you an accounting of how many trips to the hardware store it required because I lost track around 20.

And who knows what else might pop up on the blog as we head into April. Have a great weekend. My weekend plans include giving the dogs baths (this is a rather time-consuming affair so it requires scheduling), potting on some more seedlings, starting a few more seeds and hopefully spending a little time on initial garden cleanup.

What's on your agenda for the weekend?


I'm starting most of my seeds a new way this year and I'm absolutely loving it. Last fall I invested in a soil blocker and I've been using it for all but the largest seeds I've sown this year.

The concept of a soil blocker is that you grow seedlings potless, which restricts root growth by "air pruning" instead of roots running into the side of potting and starting in circles. This makes transplanting much smoother as the seedlings never really realize they've been moved, they just keep on growing. There are other benefits to soil blockers including not having to deal with little seed modules and the ability to rearrange your seedlings easily. For instance, you can start a tray with multiple kinds of seeds and then move them out to a lighted area as they germinate.

Although soil blockers come in a couple of sizes, I bought one that makes four 2-inch blocks and it suits my needs perfectly. It also comes with a little dibbler that creates about a half-inch hole in the top. You can remove this, but I just fill the little hole in with some soil if I need to plant seeds shallower.

The most intimidating part of using a soil blocker is creating the soil mix. I can't tell you how many recipes I read online. In the end, I just kind of came up with my own mix and it seems to be working fine. My advice would be to not sweat it too much.

You can buy bagged soil blocker mixes. I tried this one but found that I had to put it through a sieve and about three-quarters of the mix was too large to be used. I'll save that for other potting mixes, so it won't be wasted but I wouldn't call this mix ready-to-use.

As far as I can figure out, the key to a good seed starting mix for a soil blocker is small particles and moisture. You have to have something that will hold together and big chunks are not conducive to the block holding together over the long term. So almost everything I use goes through a sieve.

A few of the ingredients I use in my homemade soil blocker mix.

For my homemade mix, which I came up with after reading other recipes and just experimenting, I've been using coir bricks that I've reconstituted for at least 24 hours as a binder, a regular organic seed-starting mix, vermiculite, some worm castings and a bit of bone meal. These ingredients (or similar ones) seem to come up in almost every recipe I've seen in varying amounts.

Roughly it breaks down to these amounts, although I admit I eyeball it all and have never measured anything.

Soil Block mixture:

2 parts reconstituted coir fiber
2 parts sifted organic seed starting mix
1.5 parts vermiculite
1 part worm castings
1 part (or less) bone meal

There are a lot of large bits left after putting the ingredients through a sieve. I save these bits and will use them in other potting mixes.

I use a big soil mixing tray to work it all together, mostly with my hands. (You'll notice I'm wearing rubber gloves in the photos. That's only because the mixture gets super messy and it's hard to sow seeds when you can't find them in your hand because of all the mud!)

The next step is to add a good amount of water. Even better than water is compost tea. The amount will depend on how moist your ingredients were to begin with but you'll probably add more than you think. I mix it in with my hands, adding water until when I grab a handful, the mixture holds together a little water squeezes out. Sometimes it's helpful to reserve a little soil mixture in case you overdue it on the water.

You'll know the mixture is wet enough when liquid comes out when you squeeze it and it holds together.

Here's how you make the blocks:

  1. Dip your soil blocker in water (or compost tea). This will help the soil blocks slide out and it's important to do this between every set.
  2. Stick your blocker into a pile of prepared soil mix and rock and twist as you apply a lot of pressure. The point is to really jam the blocks full of the mix.
  3. Flip the blocker over and test with your finger that the blocker is really packed. Especially check the end blocks as those seem to miss out sometimes. If necessary, I pack in more mix with my hands.
  4. When you're satisfied that it is packed tight, take some kind of straight edge—I use a 9-in-1 painter's tool—to scrape the bottom of the blocker so that they have nice flat bottoms to sit on.
  5. Put your blocker in a tray without holes and slowly depress the plunger, rocking gently a little bit to help release the blocks from the mold.
  6. Repeat all steps, setting the blocks tight to one another, until the tray is full.
Wiggle the soil blocker around in the soil to pack in as much mix as you can.

When you're satisfied that the blocker is tightly packed, use a straight edge such as a painter's tool to scrape the excess off the bottom so the blocks sit nicely in the tray. 

Then you just plant the seeds as you normally would. If they are tiny seeds that are meant to be surface sown, I fill the depressions in the blocks with a little mix. Then I always sprinkle some vermiculite over the blocks after sowing to help keep them from developing a crust on top.

When all your blocks are made, it's time to sow seeds.
If you put a dome over the tray while the seeds germinate, you probably won't have to water for several days because there is enough moisture in the blocks. Once the seeds have germinated and you remove the dome, though, they can dry out pretty quickly. I just pour water in the bottom of the trays once or twice a day and keep a spray bottle handy to spritz the top if necessary.

This Redbor kale grew very well in soil blocks.
Each block had a lot of roots and it was time to pot it on in larger individual pots.

It's time to harden them off and plant them out or pot them on when you see a lot of good root growth, which of course is easy to measure since you can examine the entire block unlike when you're growing in seed trays.

Have you ever tried using a soil blocker? 

Sources: I bought my soil blocker from Lee Valley Tool but it doesn't look like they sell them anymore. This appears to be the same one. I use this Tidy Tray to mix my soil and I really love it. These are the coir blocks I got. A little goes a long way because it really expands. I got my soil sieve set from Garden Tool Co. and yes, it's pricey but I love it and I've been much more use out of it than I thought I would.