Let's keep that perennial garden spring fresh all season

by Don Trotter

ello fellow Earthlings, and welcome to the perennial border. This time, our discussion will focus on keeping your precious perennial gardens blooming and growing well into the summer.

Perennials are known for their amazing shows of spring and summer color year after year. They are also sometimes known for getting a little finicky and unpredictable when the weather gets really warm. Heat stress is a major cause of plant stress and loss during the summer months. It is the intent of this column to give you a few hints that will keep your perennials actively growing all summer long, even under the hottest sun.

Many perennial plants love the sunshine but don't enjoy the sun beating down on the soil that they are growing in. So you all know what I'm about to say - Yes, MULCH! You got it right. A three to four inch thick layer of an organic mulch or compost is by far the best way to keep your perennials happy and growing. The best time to apply mulch to your perennial garden is in the fall, but anytime you have the itch to apply mulch is a good time. Mulch will keep the soil and your plant's roots cool and comfortable while it suppresses weeds and feeds all of the beneficial microorganisms that inhabit your soil. Earthworms also love the rich, organic environment and quickly assist you in turning your mulch into plant food. Mulch and compost are the best ways to allow your perennials to enjoy the sun while their roots remain cool enough to continue to support growth and not just work to extract moisture from the soil. It is good to remember that a layer of mulch also helps you to save water by heavily reducing the amount of irrigation water lost to runoff and evaporation.

If I could tell you about a plant food that you only had to apply once during the entire growing season, would that be of value to you? Well, I have a perennial recipe that will provide your perennials with balanced, natural nutrition for six months. The ingredients are pretty easy to find at your local farm or garden supply store, and mixing this material is a piece of cake. But before we get to the recipe, we should talk a bit about calcium, sulfur and soil pH. Most garden soils have enough calcium in them, but the mineral is blocked from plant absorption by a number of chemical activities. Soil pH is a measurement of acidity and alkalinity with is tied to the presence of hydrogen ions in the soil. If your soil is acidic, your pH is below 7.0 and if your soil is alkaline, your pH is above 7.0. You've probably guessed that pH 7.0 is neutral. Calcium in different forms is often used to adjust soil pH in acidic soils and sulfur is often used to adjust pH in alkaline soils. Plants cannot grow without these two minerals and pH is a very important indicator of how your plants will behave. Liming and the addition of sulfur can be put down under your mulch layer so that it can be incorporated into the soil by the microorganisms that will be working for you. The plant food recipe is as follows:

1 part soft rock phosphate or 2 parts bone meal

1 part Sul-Po-Mag (Sulfate of Potash Magnesia)

2 parts cottonseed meal

1 part hoof and horn meal or feather meal

1 part fish meal or shrimp/ crab shell meal

Apply this mixture to your perennial bed at a rate of 5 to 7 pounds per 100 square feet of garden space. This plant food will last in your garden for a minimum of six months. For those of you with nematode troubles, try to locate the shrimp/ crab shell meal. The bacteria that digest the material that the shells are made of (chitin) will also suppress harmful nematode populations in your soil.

Remember to never feed a dry garden, and it is always a good idea to water the garden after you apply any fertilizers. After applying this mixture, you can add your compost and be comforted in knowing that your plants will be receiving a balanced diet for the entire growing season.

So pick flowers and enjoy those lovely perennials without bothering to feed them again this year. Next time we will be discussing your fruit trees and how to ensure a great crop next year by giving them a little attention after this year's harvest. See you in the garden!

Got questions? Email the Doc at Curlymill.net. Don Trotter's Natural Gardening columns appear nationally in environmentally sensitive publications. Look for Don's books Natural Gardening A-Z on sale now, and his new release The Complete Natural Gardener, both from Hay House Publishing, www.HayHouse.com.