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Start the new season with a soil test

By Bob Hearle

Welcome to the inaugural column for first-time and still-looking-for-advice gardeners. This is the first of many to help you simplify the mysteries and practices of gardening.

It will be a mix of practical advice focusing on the when and how-to, and tips to save you time and money. I’ll also include tales about unusual plants, gardens worth visiting when you travel and amazing stories based on the experiences of gardeners just like you that will give you encouragement.

I am a Clemson-certified master gardener who has lived and gardened in Pawleys Island for eight years, and who is still learning. I have made the same mistakes I hope to keep you from making.

I come from Maryland, where I lived and taught chemistry for 28 years. I share the love of gardening with my wife, Marina, who comes to these shores from Belarus in Eastern Europe.

Right now we are already tired of this harsh winter and yearn to be outdoors working in our gardens. Catalogs keep arriving in the mail and we drool over many of their offerings. We wonder if a hollyhock will grow here, or a peony there. Perhaps you’ll try some vegetables this year. Who can resist the new strains of tomatoes?

Many experienced gardeners will tell you there are no unbreakable rules of gardening, but I believe there are three:

  • Before you start, take a soil sample and have it analyzed;
  • Many problems are avoided if you choose the right plant for the right site;
  • The label on a product is The Law.
These will be addressed in more detail in the future, but for now here’s a comment on the first rule.

Most of us at the end of the season count up the money and hours spent on a favorite plant only to watch it wither and die. Taking a soil sample can prevent this.

A proper soil sample requires you to dig small samples from 10 to 12 sites of similar character, thoroughly mix them together in a Ziploc or similar plastic bag, seal and label the sample and take it to the Georgetown County Extension Office for analysis.

The fee is $12, payable to Clemson University, and well worth it.

The report will indicate the amount of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus in your soil and make recommendations on how to improve them. Without the proper nutrients, a plant has almost no chance to survive and certainly will not produce the flowers or fruits or veggies you expected.

The address to take your sample is Georgetown County Extension Service, 734 Prince St., Georgetown, SC 29440. It’s open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Next: Starting plants from seeds

Bob Hearle is a certified master gardener who lives and gardens at Pawleys Island.

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