Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A 2007 article from my St. Pete Times gardening column

                                  BEACHY KEEN

   The soothing sound of waves is the soul of seaside living in our lovely state. But look into the eyes of any beach side gardener and see a perfect storm of frustration and rage. That “romantic” sea spray and overly alkaline (opposite of acid) beach sand can and does thwart the very best efforts of even seasoned gardeners who just want a presentable lawn, colorful landscape beds, and a productive veggie garden. In past articles I’ve addressed one approach: growing salt tolerant plants. But lots of folks want to grow plenty of other things...what about them?

  Transform the soil! Work with natural materials that add acids, leach away salt, and add water-holding organic matter and soon you’ll enjoy a tantalizing taste of successful seaside gardening. And central to this approach is applying a deep mulch once or twice a year, at least 6 inches thick each time. Excellent choices include bagged oak leaves as they are already acidic, a big load of chipped limbs and leaves delivered by a tree trimming company, and the manure and sawdust bedding free for the taking at neighborhood stables. All organic matter generates natural acids as it decays, and those summer rains will leach those acids deep into the sand and heal it of the excess alkalinity that makes plants struggle. Soon, that loose sand will darken and enrich and begin to hold water and support our gardening allies, earthworms, who till the soil and enrich it for us. Mulch, mulch, mulch those landscape beds and veggie gardens!

   Powdered gymsum can be tricky to find in bags larger than five pounds, but this natural mineral (calcium sulphate) is unsurpassed for helping to leach salt out of soil if sprinkled on one or two times a year, ESPECIALLY after a hurricane has splashed saltwater all over your landscape. Chunks of broken up gypsum wallboard can be scavenged from a construction site with the permission of the foreman, or buy whole sheets at the hardware store and break them up...why?  Place a few hand-sized pieces at the bottom of the hole when planting new perennials and shrubs, and their roots will mingle with this built-in defense against salt build up.

  Bermuda grass is the best choice for beach side lawns, and municipalities and hotels sod it into playgrounds and parks where even with no care it looks surprisingly good. But if we feed it each March, July, September and December with the same cottonseed meal we use on those mulched gardens, Bermuda grass will become lusher and greener than you thought possible for a lawn by the beach yet remain amazingly drought tolerant. Sold in 50 pound bags by feed stores, cottonseed meal is a potent natural acidifier that also supplies nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in abundance if sprinkled on lawns and beds as heavily as you’d put parmesan cheese on spaghetti. Fed to livestock, it is a non-burning natural soil food perfect for healing sea side soils. And contrary to belief, your Bermuda lawn CAN be mowed with a conventional rotary mower; only golf courses require reel mowers as they create a hard low turf surface for balls to roll on. Each November, apply winter rye grass seed to your dormant Bermuda lawn for a quick green up that will add organic matter to the soil when it dies and decays each spring. Mowing with the bag OFF your mower all year long will allow the clippings to decay and nourish the sandy soil too as a form of “mulch”. Once again, as it decays, natural acids released will steadily combat excess alkalinity.

  If you can’t find cottonseed meal at feed stores and are comfortable with chemical fertilizers (they too tend to acidify alkaline soils) feed the Bermuda four times a year with either Sunniland Palm 8-6-6 (if you rarely water) or something along the lines of Lesco 16-4-8 (if you irrigate frequently) to provide ample nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium plus trace elements like manganese, iron, magnesium, boron, molybdenum, zinc, copper and sulphur.

   The natural mineral sulfur is sold in five pound bags at garden centers, and if sprinkled lightly atop your thick mulch layer each spring will quickly acidify the soil when the summer rains come so that at last your pale, sickly ixoras, gardenias, hollies and azaleas can perk up. Again, that parmesan cheese analogy will help you decide how much to use. Iron sulfate works even faster...apply it more like salt on food as it is potent. Keep it away from concrete surfaces as it will stain them a rusty red brown color. But boy does it work on yellowing plants!

   Hey, nothing’s perfect....but successful seaside gardening can be a part of your parcel of paradise if we change the salty sand into soil.


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