6 ways to get your yard ready to plant: start with soil and mulch

July 29, 2015

Preparing your yard, and yourself, for planting season? Two of your initial considerations need to be soil and mulch. If your ground is not ready, there's no use starting those plants. Here are six things to think about first.

6 ways to get your yard ready to plant: start with soil and mulch

1. Prepare soil before planting

  • The biggest mistake home gardeners make is to plant in unprepared soil.
  • Pros know that nothing, absolutely nothing, will do more to promote plant health and longevity than lovely, friable (crumbly) soil that provides plenty of nutrients, lets roots grow freely, and holds water, yet drains adequately.
  • The only problem is that most soils aren't like that naturally!
  • If your soil is like most, you'll be adding generous quantities of compost, rototilling compacted soil, or doing other preparatory work.
  • Plan to do this before planting because the job is nearly impossible to do after plants are in the ground.

2. Get a soil test

  • Professional gardeners almost always begin by getting a soil test for a new client.
  • Why? They know that they can avoid big problems by finding out a soil's pH, major nutrient content, and texture (i.e., how close it comes to the loamy ideal) before planning or planting. For a small charge you can do the same.
  • Your garden will have the greatest chance for success if you choose plants that will do well in your existing soil conditions.
  • If you want plants whose needs won't be met by the existing conditions, the soil test results will prepare you for the work you'll need to do.
  • The results should come back with recommendations for rectifying any problems. Inquire at a nursery or garden centre about a soil-test kit.

3. Choose amendments with care

  • Don't spend money on expensive soil amendments if you don't have to.
  • If your objective is just to lighten the soil, your plants are best served by simple compost or aged manure.
  • Reserve amendments with special properties (such as peat moss, which lowers soil pH for acid-loving rhododendrons and azaleas) for situations that require it.

4. Use the right mulch

  • Pick a mulch based on its application, not its cost, colour, or longevity.
  • Vegetable and perennial gardens, in which you dig and turn the soil regularly, should be mulched with light-textured composts that decompose quickly, such as leaf mould.
  • Shrubs and trees, whose root zones should not be disturbed after they are planted, should be mulched with long-lived shredded bark or bark nuggets.

5. Don’t put new mulch over old

  • When you replace an organic mulch (such as anything made from wood products), be sure to remove all the old mulch first unless it's so decomposed it's hardly distinguishable from the soil.
  • If you put new mulch over old, it just becomes harder for the bottom layer to decompose.
  • Over time, a mat of mulch can build up that literally suffocates plants and prevents water penetration, shortening the life of your garden.
  • In most climates, five centimetres (two inches) of mulch is plenty and applying more may be detrimental.

6. Learn to like the weathered look

  • It's not necessary to replace an organic mulch every year unless it has fully decomposed.
  • Wood chips, for example, should give you several years of service, but in a moist climate they'll weather and turn grey their first season on the ground.
  • Although they may not look fresh and new, if they're still doing their job, leave them in place until you've gotten your money's worth.
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