How To: Prepare Soil for Annual Beds

Color programs are becoming more important for commercial clients and a nice profit item for the landscapers who install and maintain them. The difference between a healthy, vibrant color show and a ho-hum (“we-won't-ask-you-back-next-year”) show can be soil preparation.

  1. For new beds, first decide whether to keep the native soil or bring in enriched topsoil. Your choice will depend on the type of native soil, irrigation availability and your climate. For a site with poor soil but excellent drainage that is equipped with an irrigation system that can be set to water every day, importing may be your answer. If you are importing topsoil, be sure to account for the volume taken up by the compost when placing your order. You will need to amend imported topsoils with compost.

  2. In areas where the summer heat can wreak havoc on your flowers, a native, well-drained clay soil amended with organic matter will hold more water and possibly reduce mid-day water stress. To amend a native clay soil or improve a fast-draining sandy soil, liberal, add organic matter. Start with a 3- to 4-inch layer of organic matter. For clay soils, the chunkier the organic matter, the better as you will create more air pores and better drainage. Work the compost in at least 12 inches deep. Preparing a soil only 3 to 4 inches will not support a healthy root system. If the soil is still not very workable, add another 2 inches of compost and work it in.

  3. Fertilizer: Annual flowers may be the hardest working plants in the landscape (besides the turf). The soil should be “charged” at the beginning of the season. Choose an inexpensive, low analysis, but balanced fertilizer such as an 8-10-8 or 12-12-12. Apply the equivalent of 1 to 2 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. Apply the fertilizer and dig in with the compost.

  4. For established beds, if spring mulch has already been applied, move it to the side, then add a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost and the fertilizer mentioned above and work into the soil at least 12 inches deep.

  5. There are many composts to choose from and most will work well for flower beds. In the Midwest, pine bark mulch is being promoted as a soil conditioner. Pine bark is a special case when it comes to incorporating into the soil. Its chemical properties are such that it will grab nutrients from the soil and fertilizers and not release them to the plants.

  6. If the mulchers have been to the property prior to planting, an untrained crew may plant annuals directly into the mulch, and the rootball never reaches the soil below. The mulch dries out quickly and new roots have a hard time developing. Prepare the soil well, plant the annuals into the soil, and reapply mulch. Your results will impress!

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