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Garden Guru: Add soil test to fall garden to-do list

By John Porter
John Porter
The flowers of the camellia shrub smell wonderful. The plant tends to flower in the cold of late fall, winter or early spring.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One mistake gardeners of all ability levels make is not testing soil. A soil test can reveal how much fertility is needed for optimum plant health and assist the gardener in growing the healthiest vegetables, flowers, lawns, trees and shrubs that they can.Many people simply guess at whether their plants need fertilizer and lime, or ignore it altogether. This is a big mistake. Healthier plants will have better results, better results mean happier gardeners.While there are soil-testing kits available at garden centers, I recommend the free soil testing service offered by WVU Extension Service. You only have to pay the postage to mail it to the lab.The lab tests are more precise and accurate than kits, and the lab tests are specific to the soil types here in West Virginia. Plus, the test results come with specific fertilizer and lime recommendations based on the crop. It takes a few weeks to get the results, but it is definitely worth it.To show you how much I think you should test your soil, if you drop your appropriately prepared soil test at my office by Sept. 30, I'll get it to Morgantown for you postage-free! You can find the forms at or stop by the office at Suite 101, 4700 MacCorkle Ave. S.E.For the most accurate test, take several small samples from the area you are testing. Test each site that receives different treatment separately (front lawn vs. back lawn, vegetable garden vs. perennial bed etc.). Remove all of the foreign material (grass, sticks, rocks) from the samples and mix them all together in a clean container. Put about 1/2 cup of the soil into a clean plastic bag and attach it with a rubber band or staple with your completed form from the website above.Another mistake gardeners make is waiting until spring to test the soil. Adjusting fertility and adding lime is often done best in the fall, giving the supplements time to work through the soil and be ready for gardening in the spring.If you wait to test the soil the day before you garden, you won't have the results back before you begin gardening. Also, the nutrients from fertilizers will not be as available to the plant, or, worse, could burn plant roots if applied too close to planting.Show-and-tell flowers
A few years ago, as I was planning the front landscape bed for my house, I decided to take a risk and plant a shrub that wasn't (at the time) necessarily hardy in our area. I planted a Camellia sinensis, which is hardy to zone 7 (or 6b in a very protected area).Ascribing to my usual philosophy of thrive or die, I didn't do much to baby the plant, not even offering winter protection or even planting it in a protected area. The plant survived, and has had a few blooms on it in late fall when temperatures are pretty cool. Little did I know that just a few years later the USDA would shift the zones and much of Charleston now lies in zone 7.Camellia plants tend to flower in the cold of late fall, winter or early spring. This year, though, thanks to early cool evenings (and despite warm days), the shrub by my front steps is in full, glorious bloom. The flowers smell heavenly and the shrub is beautiful.Now, those who know me might ask me why I have a flowering shrub in my landscape. After all, I practice edible landscaping: If I can't eat it, I don't plant it. Well, it is true that you don't eat C. sinensis. You actually drink it.The leaves of the shrub are harvested, rolled and oxidized to make tea. That's right, I'm growing tea in my front yard. White tea is made of lightly oxidized buds, green tea from slightly more oxidized leaves and black tea from heavily oxidized leaves. I haven't harvested and made tea yet -- but it is on my to-do list.While it may not be possible for you to grow tea in your landscape, the lesson is this: Don't be afraid to experiment. Try new things and maybe even take a risk in the garden. You just don't know when things will work out and you'll find a new garden gem.
Service day with Master GardenersLast week, the Extension Master Gardeners beautified the Kanawha-Charleston Animal Shelter with a team of more than 50 volunteers. Now the garden group is turning its attention to the Living AIDS Memorial Garden, near the Capitol (at Washington and Sidney streets beside McDonald's). The garden memorializes those who have lost the battle with HIV/AIDS and provides a place of reflection and healing for those dealing with the disease. It is also one of the most beautiful gardens in Charleston.Come join the Master Gardeners Sept. 28 to beautify the garden and get it ready for fall and winter. The work party will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., but you don't have to work all day. For details or to RSVP, contact me at 304-720-9887 or You can also RSVP on Facebook by visiting the WVU Kanawha County Extension Master Gardener Program.John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at or at 304-720-9573. Twitter: @WVgardenguru.
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