HowStuffWorks Answers Your Gardening Questions

The pH of soil should be around 6.5 for best growing.

In this article, HowStuffWorks answers your gardening questions. You want to plant a garden or cultivate an enviable lawn, but you also want to ensure that the money you invest in it is well spent, right?

To create a beautiful landscape, it's important to know a little about agriculture. You don't have to have a PhD in the subject, but you should be aware of those elements that will guarantee you the best success. From the initial planning stages to maintenance, we've asked the tough questions and given you the simple, straightforward answers.


Q: How should I raise the soil pH from a 5.0 to 6.5?

A: Apply lime in granular form as ground limestone at a rate of 4 to 5 pounds per 1,000 square feet. Repeat in about six months; season is unimportant since lime (calcium) won't burn the plants. It takes a year or so to raise the pH to the desired level, and gradual application works better than one heavy treatment. Have the soil tested again the following year for further recommendations.

Q: What are the most common lawn weeds about which I should be concerned?

A: Naturally, the weeds you'll deal with will be different from those in another region, but general problems will be similar. The best weed control is prevention. A thick, healthy lawn has no bare soil where weeds can become a problem. Broad-leaved weeds -- like dandelion and plantain -- and annual grassy weeds -- like crabgrass -- can be kept under control with herbicides. Annual weeds will die in winter, scattering thousands of seeds for next year's onslaught. Use a preemergenct herbicide in spring to prevent those seeds from sprouting.

Q: How should I eliminate existing moss to rejuvenate the lawn?

A: The presence of moss indicates lack of sunlight and poor soil. Soils where mosses grow tend to be acidic, compacted, poorly aerated, and low in fertility. Remove the moss and freshly prepare the soil. Raise the pH with lime and add a complete fertilizer. Deeply cultivate the soil, adding organic matter and sand if necessary to improve drainage and aeration. Reseed or install sod of a shade-resistant turf species.

Q: When should I cut back my ornamental grasses?

A: Part of the beauty of ornamental grasses is their attractiveness in a winter garden -- the seed stalks and foliage can be enjoyed throughout the winter. Then, just before the grasses begin their new growth, cut the dead part down. Cool-season varieties begin their growth in late winter; warm-season varieties begin when the soil has warmed significantly. To prevent damage to the emerging leaves, cut back the grasses before your plants break dormancy.

Q: How can I sketch my property to scale?

A: First, make a non-scaled sketch of your area, noting the dimensions of existing details. Next, use graph paper to sketch the plan to scale using each square to represent a certain distance (for example, one square equals one foot). Photocopy your sketch so you're able to try several different ideas without having to repeat the process. Remember that plants will grow, so sketch your layout as it would look, say, 10 years from now. By using scale during the planning process, you'll get a better perspective on your garden design.

Q: When shopping for a building lot, what characteristics should be considered to make my landscape planning easier?

A: First, consider your outdoor living areas. Do you need a large, flat area for the children to play? If so, don't buy a steep lot. Perhaps you'll want to plant a vegetable garden, or want another area that requires full sun; a wooded lot might not suit your needs. Use a list of your household's requirements for the property to determine if the lot can fill those needs.

Q: It will be years before our trees grow large enough to shade our deck. Is there anything to do in the meantime?

A: A simple open trellis or arbor overhead will provide support for fast growing vines, annuals such as morning glories, or perennials such as clematis. An overhead structure identifies a comfortable living space while affording protection from the sun. Be sure to build the structure high enough for comfort, while realizing that cascading vines will take space.

Q: I need to make our backyard more private. Should I enclose the yard with a privacy fence?

A: Unless you need to keep people out, or keep children and pets in, you probably don't need the entire yard enclosed. Strategically placed sections or panels of fence in combination with small trees and large shrubs, for example, make for a more aesthetically pleasing atmosphere. An enclosure will make the yard seem small. Take advantage of neighboring trees and gardens to make your yard feel larger.

Q: Is it important to collect the grass clippings when cutting the lawn?

A: Remove excessive amounts of clippings from tall grass, as they will smother and kill the grass underneath. A few species of turfgrass produce a heavy thatch buildup (matted, dead grass) that can prevent water, fertilizer, and air from getting into the soil, thus weakening the health of the lawn. Regular cutting will usually produce only light clippings that will quickly deteriorate -- adding valuable nutrients back into the lawn.

Q: What time of year should I start a new lawn from seed?

A: It depends on the type of grass you plan to grow. Most likely, if you're planting seed, you'll be using a cool-season grass. It's best to prepare the soil at the end of the summer and sow seed about six weeks before the first average frost in your area. The seed will sprout during the remaining warm weeks and continue to develop deep roots through autumn and into winter. By mid-spring the lawn will be well established.

Q: Does it really matter whether I use fresh barnyard wastes and compost as opposed to old, seasoned organic matter?

A: Microorganisms that break down the vegetative matter use much of the available nutrients (especially nitrogen) from the soil. Material will decompose in a compost pile faster than if the matter is directly cultivated into the soils, as the microorganisms also need air. If fresh organic matter is used in or on top of the garden, you will need to apply additional nitrogen to protect plantings from a nutrient deficiency.

On the next page, read more about gardening your questions. From selecting a garden sight to purchasing plants, we've got the answers that will help you grow a lovely garden.

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