Know­ing your gar­den’s soil type vi­tal if you want plants to flour­ish

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - GARDENING - BY DIARMUID GAVIN

Avery im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion when choos­ing new plants — in­clud­ing veg­eta­bles and fruit trees — is to know the pH of your soil. It’s an area of gar­den­ing that many find con­fus­ing, as it im­plies you need to know more about chem­istry than plants, but it’s worth un­der­stand­ing the ba­sics so you can make in­formed de­ci­sions and grow plants that will be happy.

Some of our favourite edge of wood­land plant­ing, such as rhodo­den­drons, mag­no­lias and camel­lia will only re­ally flour­ish in acidic con­di­tions, so this week I’d like to take a look at what that means and how to find out if your soil is suit­able.

The pH is a mea­sure of acid­ity and al­ka­line on a scale of 1 to 14. The mid-point 7 is neu­tral — any­thing be­low that num­ber is acidic and above it al­ka­line. Most gar­den plants do best in a slightly acidic soil, which is be­tween 6 and 7. To grow rho­dos and camel­lias, how­ever, you want a level of 5 to 6.

If you’re not sure what your soil pH is, there are a num­ber of ways to find out. If you have hy­drangeas, the flow­ers will be blue on acid soil, pink on neu­tral to al­ka­line soil.

You can test with lit­mus pa­per which you can buy cheaply in art and craft shops. Mix your soil sam­ple with some dis­tilled wa­ter and dip the lit­mus pa­per in for a few sec­onds. The pa­per will turn red for acidic and blue for al­ka­lin­ity. This will just give you an ap­prox­i­mate idea — to get a more ac­cu­rate read­ing, use a soil test­ing kit avail­able from gar­den cen­tres. You can also use a pH me­ter which is like a probe you stick in the soil.

There are com­pa­nies which carry out a full range of test­ing on soil in­clud­ing, pH, phos­pho­rus, potas­sium and lime re­quire­ment.

In ad­di­tion to this, a range of spe­cific analy­ses are avail­able for trace el­e­ments, pri­mar­ily for farm­ers, but also for keen gar­den­ers. If you find you have acid soil, then there are some re­ally choice spec­i­mens to choose from. If your soil is al­ka­line you can still grow them in pots us­ing an er­i­ca­ceous com­post, which is acid.

If you try grow­ing these plants in or­di­nary soil, you will no­tice the leaves go­ing yel­low — this is due to iron in the soil be­ing un­avail­able to plant roots in al­ka­line con­di­tions.

Here are some of my favourite acid-lov­ing plants (also known as lime-haters!): • Kalmia lat­i­fo­lia, the moun­tain lau­rel, is a su­perb ev­er­green shrub that is smoth­ered in de­light­fully pretty pink flow­ers in late spring. ‘Min­uet’ is a dwarf ver­sion, the flow­ers of which are white with deep red band; • Crin­oden­dron hook­e­ri­anum is a most beau­ti­ful sight in bloom — the en­tire tree ap­pears cov­ered in small, deep pink lanterns. Known as the Chilean lantern tree, this ev­er­green tree will ap­pre­ci­ate a shel­tered po­si­tion in colder ar­eas, pro­tected from frost; • Kirengeshoma pal­mata is an un­usual wood­land peren­nial, with sycamore type leaves and won­der­ful waxy yel­low flow­ers in late sum­mer, mak­ing this a valu­able plant for shady ar­eas; • An­dromeda po­lifo­lia, also known as bog rose­mary due to its lin­ear rose­mary-like leaves, is a small ev­er­green shrub with bell­shaped white and pink flow­ers in late spring; • Vac­cinium, aka the blue­berry, needs acid soil to per­form and I’d also rec­om­mend plant­ing a few bushes, which helps with pol­li­na­tion and there­fore bet­ter fruit­ing; • Mag­no­lia ‘Heaven Scent’ is a good choice for the smaller gar­den and won’t dis­ap­point with its glo­ri­ous pink scented gob­let-shaped blooms; • Rhodo­den­dron ‘Dream­land’ — there are so many va­ri­eties to choose from, but this is a win­ning one — has tonnes of trusses of pale pink fun­nel-shaped flow­ers with a deeper pink edge in late spring. Its com­pact na­ture makes it suit­able for pots and small gar­dens.

EARTHLY MAT­TERS: some plants, like rhodo­den­drons, mag­no­lias and camel­lia, only do well in acidic con­di­tions

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