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Michigan Blog: Top tips, info and more from Jim Jr. & Friends

Jim Jr. Says:

Whether you plant shade flowers, roses or colorful, sunny borders, all gardens have one thing in common— they all need quality, nutrient-rich soil to grow! The soil in your garden is so much more than just dirt. It's alive, full of microorganisms that control the flow of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and other soil nutrients needed to produce a medium that is vital to growing healthy, strong plants.

So, how can you make sure that your soil is as healthy as can be? The answer varies greatly based on where you live, but the first step for everyone should be to have an evaluation of your soil done. You can do this by purchasing a home test kit, or through your local county extension office.

Once you know where your soil is lacking, you can start to take action! Here I will outline some steps you can take based on your region, as well as let you know what you can do now that January has arrived.


Despite the natural beauty of the mountains and forests in this area, the soil is often less than perfect for gardening. Unfortunately, fertilizer won't typically help because the soil usually has more physical problems such as poor aeration. Some soil amendments that can help are vermiculite — a type of clay expanded with heat, compost, peat moss and leaf mold. These materials not only improve soil aeration, but also help soils hold moisture.

January reminder for the Northeast: Test leftover seeds for viability by placing a few in a wet paper towel and putting them somewhere warm to germinate. This is also a good way to make delicious sprouts to add to salads or sandwiches, depending on the type of seed you use.

Mid Atlantic

This region is known for having dense orange clay in many spots. Mixing in 3-6" of compost or even sand before planting can help give your roots a fighting chance. If your soil is too rocky or dry, leaf mold or compost can help. If you're in a more coastal area and have too much sand, it may drain too quickly and lack nutrients. Adding 3-6" of organic material should help.

January reminder for Mid Atlantic states: When you knock snow off evergreen branches, brush up to keep them from breaking.


Most Southern gardeners have to deal with hard red clay that is extremely acidic. A good basic formula for great garden soil in the South is one-third peat moss, one-third sand (any kind will do) and one-third hard red clay. Select the site for your garden bed and remove all the grass and other vegetation from the spot. Scatter the sand and peat moss over the area and till it down 8-10". Fertilizer and good drainage are also important to the soil's heath. A fertilizer with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium is the best, and you can add gypsum to your soil to improve drainage. If your soil is too acidic, consider adding some lime to bring the pH up to a more neutral range.

January reminders for the South: Prune winter-damaged trees; plant fruit trees and grapes; in warmer areas, plant any remaining spring-flowering bulbs that are done chilling in the refrigerator.


Potential problems for this region include soil compaction, erosion, unfavorable pH, drainage, nutrient deficiency and high content of specific soil components such as sand, silt or clay. With so much potential for problems, what can you do to make sure your soil is top notch in your garden? For starters, keep in mind that the most common cause of soil compaction is working the soil when it is wet. Wait until the soil is dry to work it, pull weeds or plant, and if it's already compacted, try adding lots of organic matter. Control erosion by planting winter cover crops to anchor the soil and give you a green manure to till under come spring. With so many variables in the soil content of this region, it's especially important to get your soil tested every three to five years. This way you know exactly what to add, since blindly adding nutrients can alter the soil pH, affecting the growth and survival of some plants.

January reminders for the Midwest: Inspect young trees for rodent damage and add protection as necessary.

Inland Northwest

Clay soil is the fly in the soup for this region! Your soil gets adobe hard when dry and slimy when wet. Compost is your best bet in the long-term, but gypsum worked into the soil at a rate of 50 lbs per 1,000 sq ft can also improve soil texture. For flower and fruit production, Epsom salts are a good additive full of magnesium and sulfur. Lime is another good one, to improve grass and remove the appearance of fairy rings.

January reminders for the Inland Northwest: Give houseplants a feeding if they're still growing; clean and sharpen garden tools.

Pacific Northwest

Here again, native clay soil is an issue in this region, just like the Inland Northwest. You can also try amending the soil with fibrous organic materials like wood chips, sawdust or straw to increase soil porosity and improve aeration and drainage. Use caution, though, to avoid tying up the soil nitrogen with the raw woody materials. Aged manure can also improve soil tilth while adding extra nitrogen and nutrients your plants need to thrive. For heavy clay, perlite or oyster shells can be used, and the shells also provide calcium and raise the pH of acidic soil. Much of this region's soil is also low in phosphorus, but again, be sure to have it tested to be sure.

January reminder for the Pacific Northwest: Prune deciduous trees and shrubs; clean the garden thoroughly.

Southwest and California

Desert soils with little organic matter are low on microbes needed by plants. This kind of soil can be boosted by bringing in products containing microbes and applying at the same time you add compost. Farmers also plant and till in legume crops to add natural nitrogen and organic matter to fields. An alternative for the home gardener is to buy big bags of alfalfa cubes or pellets typically used for livestock. They are easy to transport, spread and till into the soil and improve drainage, boost the nitrogen content and provide finely ground organic matter once they decompose and expand in the ground.

January reminders for the Southwest: Plant shrubs; examine mulches; prune established trees. For California: Plant nursery stock and cover against frost; prune fruit trees and summer-flowering shrubs; set out new rosebushes.

In short, wherever you live, keep these tips in mind and you're sure to get your garden off to a great start!

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