Questions on plants and landscaping are good indicators of current horticultural issues where we live. Plateau Gardening writers know articles on those topics will be relevant. That’s one reason your inquiries to are welcomed.

However, please go to your county University of Tennessee Extension office for the best advice and an expert diagnosis on plants in need of immediate attention. The Cumberland County UT Extension office located in Crossville is next to the fairgrounds entrance. Telephone 484-6743. Free publications are available at that office and for download by a computer at the university website

Since this is the optimum time to put in or rework existing cool season turf grass, look at the brochures and fact sheets on Lawn Management (planting, fertilizing, insects, weeds and related diseases). Autumn is also right for installing new trees and shrubs. In the online publication listing called Trees for Tennessee, topics covered include choosing the right tree, planting, maintaining and protecting trees, as well as tree insects and diseases. You will also find lots of pointers on landscaping in literature at that source.

Deborah asked about making soil better: My soil is very bad. I have neglected it for years. What do you suggest for improving soil and when should those things be done? I want to do everything using organic methods– no chemical fertilizers.

This is a great question because what happens in the root zone has a profound effect on the drought tolerance, general health, vigor and beauty of almost every living plant.

Soil is made up of (roughly) 50 per cent solid mineral particles from rock along with organic solids. There is typically an equal amount (50 percent) of open space called “pore space” between  soil components. Both water and air follow the interconnecting pathways around solid particles made by pore space, to travel through soil and reach plant roots. Soil texture or structure is related to the size of solids and their proportions Large chunks of material don’t pack together tightly so a high percentage of pebbles, stones, course sand, dead twigs, roots and humus makes a loose soil with more and larger air spaces. Little particles in sand, silt and clay fit together with less space in between (smaller pores) creating a fine textured soil. Sometimes clay particles form clumps that allow almost no air and water penetration.

How well water and air move through soil is referred to as drainage. Ground that is too course in texture drains too fast. Soils with a fine texture or that have been packed down (compacted)  greatly reducing pore space, drain poorly. Since roots need a constant supply of oxygen as well as contact with moist soil particles to function efficiently, good drainage is critical for plant health. The cure for both soils that drain too quickly and soils that drain too slowly is the same- add composted organic material. Once the organics in compost fully decompose they are the equivalent of the humus which naturally occurs in soils. Adding organic material to fine textured soils opens up spaces for better water and air circulation. Organic material added to light, coarse textured soils acts like many tiny sponges to hold moisture long enough to allow plant roots to pull it in.

There is a simple test for soil drainage that homeowners can do at no expense to check water availability to plants growing in a garden (or other landscape area). Details next week.

Plateau Gardening is written by Master Gardeners for those tending home landscapes and gardens in Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland Region. UT Extension Cumberland County at P.O. Box 483, Crossville, TN 38557 (931-484-6743) has answers for horticulture questions, free publications and details on how to become a Master Gardener. Send email comments or yard and garden inquiries to Master Gardener Rae,


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