FINDING ANSWERS

LITMUS TEST

Q

The retirement community where I work has lots of helpful residents. They are always trying to give advice, particularly about applying lime and using their litmus paper for testing the pH. How do I know if lime is needed? Does the litmus paper work? — Via the Internet

A

It's nice to have so much interest and help in our jobs and the benefit of years of experience. Unfortunately, determining just what you need for your soil is not always easy. The pH of our soils varies widely across the country east to west and north to south. When the pH of the soil is low, lime is recommended to adjust the pH of the soil upwards. The soil pH governs so many of the processes for soil nutrition that it is helpful to have in the optimum range. Some plants are sensitive to high or low pH, some are not. Check with your plant references regarding pH tolerance. If you have sensitive species, then you do need to measure the pH and make adjustments. Soil laboratories provide the best measurement of pH and recipe for lime additions, along with other fertilizer. There are some handy tools available for analyses. If purchasing a tester, choose a model that is ½ unit or better in accuracy range. Litmus papers are not very accurate.

CONTAINER CONTROL

Q

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I'm evaluating my annual flowers, particularly those in containers. There are a few containers that never produced well, even though they had the same flowers and potting soil as some of my other pots. Why the difference? — Via the Internet

A

There are several possibilities for difference in performance. Compare sun exposure; the poor performers may have had too much or too little sun. If there was too little, you would expect fewer flowers; if too much sun, additional water could have helped compensate for hot locations. Also look at the shape of the containers. Drainage is a key issue and is greatly affected by the depth of the container. With equal volume and type of potting soil, a pot that is deeper will drain better than a shallow container. To prove this to yourself, pretend a sponge is your soil. Fill the sponge with water and hold it so that it is wide and flat. Watch the water drain out. When the water stops dripping, drainage has stopped. Now, turn the sponge so that it is tall and watch the water begin to flow out again. All the extra water that drains out is creating air spaces in the soil and for plant roots. To remedy poor drainage in short containers, choose a potting mix that is lighter/chunkier than you have been using. Or trade-in the short containers for taller containers. Thirdly, evaluate the type of traffic around the containers — passersby sometimes help by pouring drinks, etc. into the containers, disrupting the careful work you have done in growing the flowers.

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