Lowering Soil pH in your Houston Garden


Posted by Sparki | Posted in Raised Garden Beds | Posted on 26-02-2012

Lowering the soil pH in your Houston garden to the optimum range for the plants you want to grow provides an ideal environment for your plants to absorb the balanced nutrition that organic matter rich soils provide.

Sphagnum Peat Moss

I have found the fastest way to lower your soil pH organically is to add Sphagnum Peat Moss. When I incorporated Peat Moss into the soil with my potted Blueberries, the drop in soil pH was immediate.

If you have plants that like very acid soil, like Blueberries and Azaleas, I recommend that you plant them in a soil mix that has lots of sphagnum peat moss in it to begin with.

As a matter of fact, Azaleas will thrive in nothing but Sphagnum Peat Moss. If your landscape soil is not naturally acidic enough, I recommend growing the smaller varieties of Azaleas in containers rather than in landscape beds so you can control the soil in which their roots live. In landscape beds, Azalea root systems will eventually find less acidic pockets of soil.

Elemental Sulfur

To lower soil pH organically, you can use elemental sulfur (flowers of sulfur). Elemental sulfur is converted to sulfuric acid biologically by soil bacteria. But in order for Elemental sulfur to affect soil pH levels, follow these recommendations:

  • Keep the soil moist. Bacteria need a consistently moist environment to thrive.
  • The soil must be aerated. Bacteria need oxygen.
  • The soil must be warm to promote rapid bacterial growth and activity. Thus, it will do little good to try to lower soil pH with Elemental sulfur during the winter months.
  • Apply Elemental sulfur to the soil surface and use a hand held cultivator to carefully scratch it into the soil. It must make good contact with the soil where microbial bacteria live.

Then, you must be patient and give the bacteria in your garden soil time to do their thing. The finer the particles of Elemental sulfur you use, the faster they will break down by bacterial activity and the faster they will affect your soil’s pH.

In the meantime, if you’re using municipal water to water your garden, you will be working against them and yourself. Municipal water raises soil pH. You will find yourself fighting an uphill battle against rising soil pH levels until you switch to watering your garden exclusively with rainwater.

Aluminum Sulfate

To lower soil pH chemically, use products containing Aluminum Sulfate. Aluminum sulfate will change the soil pH instantly because the aluminum produces soil acidity as soon as it dissolves in the soil. The presence of chemicals, however, will adversely affect soil microbial populations. That’s the trade off.

Raising Soil pH in Your Houston Garden


Posted by Sparki | Posted in Raised Garden Beds, Soil | Posted on 26-02-2012

Raising the soil pH in your Houston garden to the optimum range for the plants you want to grow provides an ideal environment for your plants to absorb the balanced nutrition that organic matter rich soils provide.

Adding Limestone Products

Raising soil pH in your Houston Garden is typically accomplished by adding a limestone product to your soil. Using Dolomitic limestone will also add Magnesium to your soil. Texas soils that are naturally acidic are also typically deficient in Magnesium as well as Calcium.

You’ll find that limestone products come in four basic forms:

  • Pulverized lime is finely ground. The finer the limestone particles, the more rapidly they become effective.
  • Granular and pelletized lime are less likely to clog when spread with a fertilizer spreader over turf areas.
  • Hydrated lime should be used with caution since it has a greater ability to neutralize soil acidity than regular limestone.

Generally, for best results, limestone should be applied two to three months prior to planting to allow time for it to neutralize your soil’s acidity. Test in the fall then follow the application rates provided on product packaging to make corrections for next year’s garden based on your soil’s needs.

Thorough incorporation and consistent soil moisture are essential conditions for effective soil pH changes to occur over time:

  • Most liming materials are only slightly soluble in water, so incorporating lime into your garden soil well is a must for lime reaction.
  • Even when properly mixed with the soil, lime will have little effect on pH if the soil is dry.
  • Moisture is essential for the lime-soil reaction to occur.

Using Wood Ashes

If you have a wood burning stove that you use frequently, you might consider saving and using wood ashes to raise the soil pH. They will not work as quickly as limestone products, but with repeated use, over time, they work just as effectively. And, they contain small amounts of potassium, phosphate, boron and other trace elements.

Be careful if you opt to use wood ashes in your garden. They should not come in contact with germinating seedlings or plant roots as they may cause damage. It would be best to spread a thin layer of wood ashes over your garden soil during the winter and incorporate into the soil in the spring.

Check your soil pH annually if you use wood ashes and avoid using them in large quantities. If your soil pH value skyrockets, your plants will experience nutrient deficiencies the next growing season.

Coal ashes do not have any lime value and may actually be acidic depending on their source.

Next: Lowering Soil pH in Your Houston Garden




Ideal Soil pH for Your Houston Garden


Posted by Sparki | Posted in Raised Garden Beds, Soil | Posted on 26-02-2012

The ideal soil pH for your Houston garden depends on what the plants in your garden like. For example, Blueberries like to live in soil with a pH range of 4.5 to 5.8. But lettuces like to live in soil with a pH range of 6.0 to 7.5. So, how do you accommodate both in the same garden?

One of the advantages of raised bed gardening is that you can custom mix soil amendments for the plants that will be in the individual beds.

For example, my Blackberry bushes (5.5 to 7.0) share a bed with my strawberry plants (5.0 to 6.5) and my goal is to keep the soil pH right around 5.5 to 6.5. That keeps everyone happy.

And guess what? Soil acidity in the 5.5 to 6.5 range is where friendly bacteria and fungi thrive! Woo-hoo! This is one of the reasons why composts are so good for your plants. They feed the microbial community in your soil.

Happy microbes…Happy garden plants.

This Isn’t Rocket Science

If you do a lot of reading about optimum soil pH, you’ll discover that different experts promote different optimum pH ranges for vegetable crops or most garden plants. So, rather than memorizing each garden plant’s soil pH preferences, all you really need to remember are those few plants who like more acidic or more alkaline soil environments and plant them where you can tend to their special needs.

Don’t make rocket science out of this. If you’re in the ball park, your garden plants will do just fine.

Testing Soil pH

So get a pH test kit from your local garden center or invest in a hand held “Rapitest” pH meter, like the one I got in the photo at left, and find out what your soil pH level is.

I bought this “Rapitest” pH meter at my favorite Nursery (Plants For All Seasons) and when I was getting the same reading in all of my garden beds, I thought there was something wrong with the meter. Then I inserted the meter into my peat moss rich Blueberry pots and watched in amazement as the needle moved down into the 4.5 to 5.5 range.

I have found that the soil must be moist to get an accurate reading on the meter. However, if you test right after you water your garden beds, your reading may reflect the pH of your water rather than your soil.

I have also learned that municipal water will gradually raise the pH of your garden soil. Rainwater will not raise the pH of your garden soil, so if you can harvest and store rainwater for use in your garden, you’ll have to amend your soil less often.

The pH test kits that you can pick up at your local garden center are accurate enough for the home gardener, but you must make sure to follow the testing instructions precisely. It would still be wise to have your garden tested by a soil lab at least every three years at the very least; annually or every other year would be better.

Next: Adjusting Soil pH in Your Houston Garden

Replacing Poor Houston Garden Soil


Posted by Sparki | Posted in Raised Garden Beds, Soil | Posted on 25-02-2012

Replacing your existing poor Houston garden soil, or “gumbo,” is the fastest way to achieve good soil structure and texture preparatory to planting flowers or vegetables.

I opted to go this route for my vegetable garden area. The best location on our property for the vegetable garden also happened to be where all of the Telephone and Internet cables were shallowly run. It made more sense to build raised garden beds over the existing sod and soil than to risk damaging the telephone and internet lines with any kind of digging.

I will spare you the saga that led to the conclusion I came to for the best soil mix for raised garden beds and get to the bottom line of a recommendation; actually, a few options to consider.

Nature’s Way Resources

Nature’s Way Resources has several soil and soil blend options. Their “Garden and Flowerbed Mix” is a high quality mixed soil for use in vegetable or flower garden beds. It is a mixture of 3 parts true composted and screened topsoil, three parts washed sand and 3 parts leaf mold compost ($42.50/cubic yard).

I opted for this blend after I tried a few other soil blends – in process of time over a couple of years (won’t go into that saga here) – and mixed it with what I had left in my beds.

I found it to be a bit heavy and dense on its own but like it very much with a higher proportion of leaf mold compost.

Incorporating Perlite or Vermiculite would also help lighten up the blend a bit.

Click here for more information on Nature’s Way Resources.

The Ground Up

The Ground Up also has several soil, compost and soil blend options. Their “Enriched Top Soil” is 65% top soil and 35% handcrafted humus compost made exclusively from local, pure, organic ingredients ($24.00/cubic yard). Their “Premium Bed and Garden Mix” is 85% handcrafted humus compost and 15% washed sand ($30.00/cubic yard).

Ashley Olmsted at The Ground Up came across my blog one day, contacted me and invited me out to the soil yard [photo above] for a grand tour. I was very impressed with the quality of their products as well as their prices. I ditto the testimonials you’ll find on their website and highly recommend you take a look at their products.

If I were replacing my existing soil with a soil blend, I would mix topsoil, washed sand and handcrafted humus compost from The Ground Up based on proportions recommended by their staff that would get me close to the ideal mineral and organic matter recipe.

Click here for more information on The Ground Up.

Create Your Own Soil Blend

The creator of The Square Foot Gardening method recommends a blend of 3 parts compost (a blend of 5 different kinds of compost to provide well balanced nutrition), 3 parts peat moss and 3 parts coarse vermiculite. Many who have used this gardening method love this soil blend.

I have seen it and agree it is a good, light, nutrient rich growing medium for garden plants. If you do not have a way of watering your garden with harvested rainwater, the peat in the soil blend will help counter the alkalinity raising qualities of municipal water.

Click here for more information on Square Foot Gardening.

Whether you improve what you already have or completely replace it, you will need to consider what types of organic matter you ought to use as well as other additional soil conditioners.


Determining Your Houston Soil Composition


Posted by Sparki | Posted in Soil | Posted on 25-02-2012

After the soil layers have settled in your simple soil test jar, you are ready to determine your Houston soil composition. Determining the ratio of sand, silt and clay in your soil will enable you to identify your soil’s composition, or texture, and what you need to change to build a great garden soil foundation for your lawn, flowers or vegetables.

Measure Each Layer of Sediment

Use a ruler to measure the total amount of sediment in the jar once it has finished settling. This number, in inches, represents 100% of the soil sample.

For example, 1-3/4 inches

Measure the sand layer with your ruler. Divide that number by the total sample measurement.

For example,
1 inch (sand layer) divided by 1.75 inches (total sample) =
0.57, or 57%

Measure the silt layer with your ruler. Divide that number by the total sample measurement.

For example,
1/2 inch (silt layer) divided by 1.75 inches (total sample) =
0.29, or 29%

Measure the clay layer with your ruler. Divide that number by the total sample measurement.

For example,
1/4 inch (clay layer) divided by 1.75 inches (total sample) =
0.14, or 14%

The Soil Texture Triangle

Transfer the results of your simple soil test to the Soil Texture Triangle as in the examples below.

First, transfer the percentage of sand in your soil test results as in the diagram above. Locate 57% [example] along the bottom of the triangle and draw a line up and to the left.

Second, transfer the percentage of silt in your soil test results as in the diagram above. Locate 29% [example] along the right hand side of the triangle and draw a line down and to the left.Finally, transfer the percentage of clay in your soil test results as in the diagram above. Locate 14% [example] along the left hand side of the triangle and draw a line straight across the triangle to the right.

The point at which all three lines intersect defines the texture of your soil. In the example, the results indicate “Sandy Loam.”

Generally speaking, any soil that falls into a portion of the triangle labeled as a type of “Loam,” is considered “good.” Loam is the term used to describe the ideal gardening soil mixture.

Comparing what you have to what is considered the “ideal” garden loam is the next step.

Next: Ideal Garden Soil Composition for Houston



Simple Soil Test for Your Houston Soil Composition


Posted by Sparki | Posted in Soil | Posted on 25-02-2012

I found it was both fun and instructive performing this simple soil test to determine my Houston soil composition, or “texture.” Soil texture is defined by the ratio of sand, silt and clay in your soil.

Materials Needed:

Straight sided jar (mason jar or empty peanut butter jar)
Tight fitting lid
1 Tbsp. powdered dish-washing detergent
Soil sample (one cup of dry, sifted soil)
Soil Texture Triangle

Collect Your Soil Sample

Your soil sample should represent the gardening area you want to work on improving. If the soil is fairly uniform throughout the area, take a sample from the middle. If the area is large, like a lawn, make a composite sample by collecting small amounts of soil at evenly spaced intervals across the area. Then mix the small samples together to form a representative sample.

Collect soil from the root zone of your garden area by scraping away the top two inches of soil and digging down about six inches. Place a trowel full of soil from this hole into a plastic bag. Label the bag with the soil’s origin if you are collecting a number of samples.


The soil sample(s) must be sifted before testing. Remove all large rocks and large pieces of organic matter (plant and root materials). Spread the soil out on a large, old cookie sheet and let it dry out for a day or two. Once the sample is dry, sift it into a bowl using a wire mesh sieve or an old colander to remove any small stones or roots and to break down any remaining clumps of soil.

Shake it Up

Place one cup of sifted soil into your straight sided jar and add 1 tablespoon of powdered dish-washing detergent. The detergent acts as a surfactant to keep the soil particles separate as they settle and makes it easier for you to identify the individual layers that will form.

Fill the jar to the top with water, screw the lid on tightly and shake the jar for three minutes to thoroughly combine the soap, soil and water. Make sure no soil sticks to the bottom or sides of the jar.

Set the jar on a flat surface to let the sediments settle. Now wait. After about one minute, the sand layer will form. After about an hour, the silt layer will settle. The clay layer, the lightest particle in the mix, can take one or two days to settle on top.

The Layers

Sand particles are coarse and heavy. They will settle on the bottom of the jar about one minute after you’ve set the jar down.

The silt layer, lighter than sand, but heavier than clay, will settle after about an hour. It will be darker in color than the sand on the bottom.

The clay layer, the lightest particles in the soil, is very finely textured and light in color. It could take a couple of days for all of the clay particles to finally settle. You’ll know when the clay has settled by the clarity of the water above the soil layers in the jar.

Next: Determining Your Houston Soil Composition

Year Round Gardening in Houston


Posted by Sparki | Posted in Raised Garden Beds, Year Round Gardening | Posted on 02-03-2011

Because of our sub-tropical climate, year round gardening is possible in the greater Houston area if you provide your plants with protection mid-November to mid-February for the one or two hard freezes that come our way as well as from the beastly heat and humidity we get between the end of June and the first week of September (about 10 weeks).

Early July Harvest

Because we have a year round growing season in the Houston area that is vastly different from many parts of the country, I have found it difficult to think in terms of a spring garden, summer garden, fall or winter garden. There are seeds to plant or crops to harvest just about every month of the year.

Having a month by month calendar that indicates optimal and marginal planting dates for seeds or transplants makes gardening much easier for me to manage.

This means that if you don’t get inspired to plant a garden until May or June, by the time you’ve got your planting beds ready in July or August, there will be something to plant each month thereafter. So don’t hesitate to get started right now.

Knowing the freeze dates for your location is helpful. But tracking the weather as close to your house as you can is even better.  Click on the link below to access a 7 day forecast for Spring, Texas then enter your own City, State or Zip Code to get a 7 day forecast for your neck of the woods.

NOAA National Weather Service

Bookmark the site to your computer and check it every few days for the latest updates on temperatures, winds and rainfall.

The last Spring frost date for Montgomery County is February 15th if you live west of I-45 and its March 15th if you live east of I-45. The first Fall frost date for all of Montgomery County is November 15th to December 1st.

The actual dates vary because of local conditions and yearly temperature fluctuations. I’ve lived here almost 6 years now and it has been different every year. So I keep the average dates in mind, but I watch the weather forecasts and prepare for what’s coming.

Because of our sub-tropical climate here in the greater Houston area, there are varieties of plants that do better here than others. Planting varieties that have disease resistance is a critical component to gardening successfully here.

Plant the Right Variety at the Right Time


Onion Harvest

I’ll be sharing information about what I’m planting in my garden month by month throughout the year. But I may not plant what you like to plant.

Therefore, I highly recommend that you get Bob Randall’s book “Year Round Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers for Metro Houston.” (Available at Wabash Feed & Antiques or through Urban Harvest)

Please share what you’re planting in your year round Houston garden and what varieties have done well for you.





Applying Epsom Salts in Houston Gardens


Posted by Sparki | Posted in Soil | Posted on 25-02-2011

I discussed the benefits of using Epsom Salts in Houston gardens in a previous post. If you suspect your soil may have a magnesium deficiency, it would be good to take a soil sample to a local lab for testing.

Epsom Salts will not correct for a big deficiency of magnesium in your soil, but it will supplement soils that are slightly deficient as well as provide an extra boost of both magnesium and sulfur for roses, tomatoes and peppers that do well with a little more of these nutrients.


First of all, Epsom Salts are readily available in most grocery and drug stores. I picked up a 5-pound bag at Walgreen’s for about $5. You could probably find it cheaper at Walmart. The point is, Epsom Salts are an inexpensive soil additive that can make a big difference in your garden.

You can apply Epsom Salts directly on the soil, but it works better when combined with water. You can pour it over the soil, around existing plants or spray it on foliage.

Garden Startup

Use 1 cup of Epsom Salts per 100 square feet of garden space and sprinkle it over the soil. Mix it into the soil before planting.

Foliar Spray

Combine 1 Tablespoon of Epsom Salts with 1 gallon of water in a garden sprayer. Apply directly to the leaves where it can be absorbed quickly by the plants. The foliar spray may also help discourage pests.


Apply 1 Tablespoon of Epsom Salt granules around each plant as you transplant it into your garden; scratch it into the soil. Apply 1 Tablespoon per foot of plant height per plant every two weeks. Spray at first flowering and fruit set.


Combine 1 Tablespoon Epsom Salts with 1 gallon of water as a foliar spray at bloom time and again ten days later.


To apply to existing rose bushes, either mix 1/2 cup of Epsom Salts into the soil around each rose bush and water well, or dissolve 1/2 cup of Epsom Salts in water and use it to water the rose bush. Do this in the spring just as the buds are beginning to open.

For ongoing care, mix 1 Tablespoon of Epsom Salts per gallon of water and apply as a foliar spray. You may need to use several gallons if your bushes are big or are a climbing variety.

For new, unplanted rose buses, combine 1/2 cup Epsom Salts per gallon of water and soak the roots in this solution for a while to help the roots recover.

Shrubs in the Landscape

Use 1 Tablespoon per 9 square feet. Sprinkle over the root zone every 2 to 4 weeks.


Apply 3 pounds for every 1,250 square feet of lawn with a spreader. Or dilute in water and apply with a sprayer.


Apply 2 Tablespoons per 9 square feet. Apply over the root zone 3 times per year.

Caution: Do not feed Epsom Salts to Sage. This herb is one of the few plants that does not like Epsom Salts.

Please share your tips for using Epsom Salts in Houston gardens.

Next: Ideal Soil pH for Your Houston Garden

The Benefits of Epsom Salts in Houston Soils


Posted by Sparki | Posted in Soil | Posted on 25-02-2011

Some gardeners say that adding Epsom Salts to Houston soils works magic. In a post on soil pH I suggested that if you are going to adjust your soil’s acidity for one nutrient (calcium), you should adjust for shortages or imbalances of Magnesium, Sodium and Potassium as well. One of the benefits of Epsom Salts in Houston soils is the boost in minerals it provides from Magnesium and Sulfur.

Epsom Salts is a natural mineral that was discovered in the well water of the town of Epsom in England. The chemical composition of Epsom Salts is hydrated magnesium sulfate (10% magnesium and 13% sulfur).

The Benefits of Magnesium

The good news is, most vegetables can find the Magnesium they need in the soil, but roses, tomatoes and peppers will benefit from a boost of the minerals that Epsom Salts provide. Magnesium is:

  • A critical mineral necessary for good seed germination.
  • Vital to the production of chlorophyll (which plants use to turn sunlight into food).
  • An aid in the absorption of other essential macro-nutrients.

Calcium, Magnesium and Potassium are macro-nutrients that compete with one another for absorption into plant roots. In most cases, however, Magnesium loses the race against Calcium and Potassium.

Magnesium deficiency, which shows up late in the growing season, manifests itself as yellowing of leaves between the veins, leaf curling, stunted plant growth and lack of flavor in mature plants or fruits.

[In the photo at left, the brown leaf margins are an indication of under-watering and the brown leaf spots are an indication of either a fungal or bacterial disease.]

Unfortunately, by the time plants are showing signs of stress from Magnesium deficiency, it is too late to do anything about it.

The Benefits of Sulfur (Sulfate)

Sulfur as a macro-nutrient (not to be confused with Elemental Sulfur as a soil conditioner) is also an important plant nutrient. It has been known to:

  1. Contribute to chlorophyll production.
  2. Enhance the effectiveness of the other macro-nutrients.
  3. Help plants produce vitamins, amino acids and enzymes (that which makes them so beneficial for us to eat).

The “Magic” of Epsom Salts

Tests by the National Gardening Association have recently confirmed what some gardeners have said for years about the benefits of adding Epsom Salts to their soil: your roses, tomato plants and pepper plants will be bigger, bushier, greener and will produce more flowers as well as healthier fruit.

Epsom Salts may also help to prevent blossom-end rot on tomatoes. Whether you will get more and/or larger fruits depends on several factors in addition to using Epsom Salts, but using them does seem to have some benefit. So why not?

Please share your experience with adding Epsom Salt to your Houston soil.

Next: Applying Epsom Salts in Houston Gardens

Ideal Garden Soil Composition for Houston


Posted by Sparki | Posted in Soil | Posted on 23-02-2011

Tags: , , ,

The “recipe” for the ideal garden soil composition for Houston, or anywhere else, looks like this:

  • 25% air
  • 25% water
  • 40% mineral matter (40% sand, 40% silt, 20% clay)
  • 10% organic matter.

But, in reality, that “recipe” isn’t going to help much. After all, its pretty hard to measure and add a “cup of air” into your soil. Rich, black, earthy garden loam describes what most of us are trying to achieve in our planting beds.

Focusing on the ideal mineral matter component in the recipe above, continue with your results from the simple soil test by comparing what you have to the ideal. This comparison will help you determine what you need to do to build great garden soil texture in your Houston garden.

Sandy Soils

In the soil test example used previously, 57% sand is moderately higher than the ideal of 40%. Water and nutrients are easily leeched away through sandy soils. Adding organic matter will act like a sponge in the soil to help sandy soils absorb and retain moisture as well as provide rich, organic nutrients.

Silty Soils

Silt is soil matter that is finer than sand, but still feels gritty. It is commonly found in floodplains and is the soil component that makes mud. Soils with a lot of silt make fertile farm land, but erode easily. This is the soil blown away in dust storms and carried down stream in floods.

In the soil test example used previously, 29% silt is slightly lower than the ideal of 40%. Here again, adding organic matter will help “glue” silt particles into the soil structure and boost its fertility.

Clay Soils

Clay particles are flat, even finer than silt, very heavy and very dense when wet. When dry, clay is almost as hard as concrete. Plant roots can’t push through it; air cannot penetrate it. Most soil organisms that need oxygen can’t breathe in it. Thus, clay often gets a bad rap in gardening circles.

But clay is not all bad. Clay particles absorb, retain and release essential minerals. You need some clay for healthy plant growth. In the soil test example used previously, 14% clay is only slightly low compared to the ideal of 20%.
Adding humus, or fully composted organic matter, will boost the fertility of the soil as well as help loosen up very fine clay particles. Adding additional mineral amendments will also help compensate for a lower clay element in your soil structure.

Adding Organic Matter

Organic matter is a critical component in the ideal garden soil composition for Houston or anywhere else. In addition to its amending qualities listed above, the presence of organic matter in the soil gives it the rich, black color, characteristic “earthy” smell and crumbly texture most gardeners love.

The next question you need to answer is, do you want to work with what you have over time, or do you want to replace it?

Next: Improving Soil Structure in Houston