By Mary Kay Woodworth, executive director, Georgia Urban Ag Council, www.georgialandscapepro.com
Just as in a woodland forest, the best soil for shade-loving plants is a humus-rich, good-draining soil. In the woods, this is achieved naturally over years by decomposing plants, leaves and microorganisms helping the process along.
A shady, uncultivated corner of your yard may miraculously have great soil, but for most homeowners, regular old Georgia dirt needs a little help. No matter how poor the condition of your soil to begin with, your goal is to transform what’s already there into good, nutrient rich soil. More precisely, fertile soil that will maintain a good moisture level, but permit excess water to drain away quickly.
Take a soil sample to your local extension service and have it tested, specifying the types of plants that you intend to grow in the area. The test will reveal the pH of the soil, as well as amendments needed for good plant nutrition. While most plants will be happy in soil with a neutral pH level (7.0), acid-loving plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias will perform much better with soil amended to a lower pH level. This can be achieved by adding soil conditioners such as sphagnum peat moss and composted oak leaves to the existing soil.
If you’ve got exposed tree roots in the planting area, be very careful when amending the soil. Unlike a generous planting bed where the topsoil, compost and granite sand can easily be mixed in with a rototiller, you’ll need to gently incorporate these additions into the soil. Adding a two- or three-inch layer (called topdressing) of compost to the garden a couple of times a year will also help condition the soil. Layer no more than three or four inches of soil over exposed tree roots, so that you won’t damage the trees. Watch out for roots and dig carefully when planting in these areas.