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Welcome to gardening country

By Matthew Chappell
University of Georgia

You just moved to Georgia and purchased a fantastic home with a not-so-fantastic landscape. You immediately ask two questions: “Where do I start?” and “What about the drought do I need to know?”

Have no fear. With a little bit of time and energy, you will be well on your way to a beautiful landscape that can withstand a lack of water.

Before you plant a peony or lay a finger on a shovel, you should test the soil. A soil test is an easy and inexpensive means of identifying if the soil will require adjustments to the pH or nutrient levels. If you plant in poor soil, plants will grow poorly or slowly die.

The local University of Georgia Cooperative Extension office provides instructions on how to do a test, read the results and on ways to adjust the soil for optimal plant growth.

Most plants require pH between 5.2 and 6.5 to grow well. However, it is not uncommon in northern Georgia for new home sites or unmaintained landscapes to have soil pH in the range of 4-5 with nutrients below levels needed for most landscape plants and turf to grow well.

Once you have adjusted the soil, you are on the road to a healthy landscape. The next step should be amending the soil.

Organic soil amendments will improve the water-holding capacity of native soil, provide plants with a better rooting environment and allow water to infiltrate the soil surface faster, reducing runoff. These three factors will prepare your soil and plants for drought conditions and will virtually eliminate the need to irrigate your landscape.

Typically, you will not need to amend the soil more than 25 percent to observe a significant benefit. To achieve this, for example, you would place 2.5 inches of amendment on the soil surface and then till to a depth of 10 inches.

A variety of soil amendments can be used including household compost, composted yard waste and composted livestock waste. The key is to use a composted material. A non-composted amendment can rob soil of the valuable nitrogen plants need to flourish.

Now that your soil is prepared, it is time to determine what you want to plant. For those who move to Georgia from northern states, this will be a time of great excitement. Georgia gives gardeners a cold enough winter to grow many northern favorites and a not-too-cold winter and lengthy summer that allows some tropical plants to thrive.

Some examples of plants that you often won’t find in northern gardens but grow well in all but extreme northern Georgia include windmill palm, cabbage or palmetto palm, needle palm, agave, lemon bottlebrush, camellia, winter daphne, Japanese fatsia, cape jasmine, Japanese pittosporum and some cultivars of oleander. These are just a few selections.

Beyond plants, the most exciting aspect of horticulture in Georgia is the supporting cast of individuals, activities and public gardens available in this state.

Take advantage of opportunities in local garden clubs and UGA’s Master Gardener program to increase your understanding of horticulture and trade plants. There are an abundance of flower and horticulture trade shows to expand your horizons and find the next fabulous plant.

In Georgia, horticulture seems to be around every corner. Join the party and enjoy transforming your landscape into your small paradise.

(Matthew Chappell is a Cooperative Extension nursery production specialist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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