By: Mary Lu Wells, Master Gardener, Cornell Cooperative Extension
Most plants thrive in soil and a climate similar to their point of origin. They evolved together – each suited to the other. For some of these exotics we love to grow, this point may be half a world away. Some places, like the Himalayas or Japan, find a happy similarity to our climate. Here as there, our soils are slightly acid, winters are cold, summers warm and yearly precipitation evenly scattered throughout the year.
However, some plants we wish to grow need a less acid more neutral soil, near pH 7. They also love the summer sun and dry feet. If you live where the bedrock is limestone, your soil will be naturally sweet – neutral. Most of us in Western, New York do not have neutral soil, but this is not hard to fix.
First, test your soil for pH and adjust as necessary. The addition of lime or wood ash will do the trick. The “trick” takes six months, so do this in the fall.
Next, think community. Why mix acid-loving plants with neutral or alkaline-loving plants? They will not like it. Make a bed, preferably raised (remember dry feet) where you will set out your plants that need neutral soil. With good sunlight, dry feet, and a neutral pH they will think they are right at home wherever they are geographically. Mulch with 2-3 inches of gravel to keep the crowns dry and you should fool them completely!
So, what are some plants in need of a neutral soil?
The asparagus is one which may easily outlive its owner. Peas and broccoli appreciate a dusting of wood ash too.
The clematis vine and venerable lilac all thrive in a neutral soil. The lilac likes a breeze to keep the mildew at bay and the clematis enjoys a sunny head but shady feet.
How about a bed of those old perennial standbys? A row of alternating peonies and summer phlox down the middle of the bed with daffodils tucked between. Daffodils are first to bloom with their leaves gone by late June. Around this you can plant a skirt of lower growing coral bells and dianthus.
Most of the herbs we grow love a well-drained, sandy, sunny, neutral soil. Near the kitchen door, plant thyme, sage, lavender, rosemary, and other culinary herbs. A lean soil (no fertilizer) will bring out the flavor and aroma.
Finally, if you grow a shady garden, try a sprinkle of ash on your Lenten roses, Virginia Bluebells, and Tirellas. They will all thank you for it.