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Just wanted to remind everyone that the Walker County Forestry Planning Committee tree sale will be held on Friday March 5th beginning at 8:00 a.m. at the farmers’ market location on Airport Road here in Jasper. They will have more than 25 species of tree seedlings available for sale including ornamentals, wildlife trees, and even some larger named variety fruit trees including apples, peaches, pears, and crabapple. This year due to the COVID situation we will even have available curbside delivery if you feel more comfortable not getting out of your car….just please remember that this is new to us as well so please be a little patient with us as we fill orders for those who do not wish to get out of your vehicle. We look forward to seeing you Friday March 5th at the tree sale! The proceeds from the sale will go toward youth and adult educational programs in forestry, wildlife, and natural resources in our local community.

This week has brought us some much appreciated relief (although a little on the wet side for my taste) from the cold and icy conditions of last week. The warmer weather certainly has got me to thinking about the summer garden, and I also had to laugh a little bit when I thought about us home gardeners and how fickle we can be at times. By that I mean that we will gladly spend tons of money on fertilizers of all descriptions because we can usually apply enough of them to see some growth response in our plants; we will even spend several hundred dollars on tools, tillers, etc because they are something we can use and immediately see results.  But how many of us can say that we have spent $7 on a soil test?

Very simply stated, pH is the measure of how much acidity or alkalinity is in your soil. Soil pH is measured on a scale of 1-14 with seven being neutral, less than seven being acidic, and greater than seven being alkaline. It is absolutely impossible (no matter what anybody may tell you) to look at a soil and tell what the pH is or how much if any lime to apply. Soils are not the same and the pH can vary considerably from one spot to the next even in the same field or garden.  

Most garden crops grow best in a pH of 5.8 – 6.5; however there are a few plants such as blueberries, azaleas, camellias, gardenias, and centipede grass that like a lot of acidity in the soil. These crops will require little or no liming and can have problems such as iron deficiency growing in high pH alkaline soils.

In soils with very low pH’s, common metals such as aluminum and manganese go into solution and are taken up in large amounts by plants. Taken up in large amounts, these metals can become quite toxic to plants and it is the toxicity from these two metals that actually kills or stunts many plants growing in low pH soils. We all know that clovers and other legumes do not grow well in acidic soils (this certainly includes alfalfa) mainly because the element molybdenum needed by legumes cannot be taken up. Calcium and magnesium also cannot be taken up by many plants. Finally, soil micro-organisms such as bacteria and fungi do not grow and function properly. On the other hand, soil with an extremely high pH (alkaline soils) often force acid loving plants to suffer from iron deficiency because the iron in the soil does not go into solution so the plant can take it up. Azaleas, blueberries, and centipede grass are notorious for suffering from iron deficiency. For those of you who have consulted me with strange intermarginal yellowing of such plants, you will know that the first thing I recommend is not a chemical spray but rather a soil test. All plants that need a lot of iron to grow will grow better in a low pH soil. It is in this manner that your soil’s pH can partially determine what plants you can and cannot grow. Zinc and manganese deficiencies can also occur at high pH. One of the most interesting things is that nitrogen can become deficient at very high or very low pH’s, so if you’re soil’s pH is way too high or way too low it doesn’t matter how much nitrogen you put on the plants… they can’t use it! At the price nitrogen fertilizers are these days that can be quite costly as well as being detrimental to the environment.

As far as liming materials go, there are many from which to choose. Calcitic lime or agricultural lime is the old standby that we are all familiar and is the standard by which all other liming materials are measured. This is the form of lime that is usually sold and spread in bulk on pastures, hayfields, and crops. 

Dolomitic lime is now very common in both garden centers as well as farm coops. Dolomite lime not only benefits the soil by raising the pH but it also adds magnesium to your soil. Typically dolomite lime can be purchased in smaller quantities and even comes in a very easy to apply pelleted form. Pelleted lime while a little more expensive, in my opinion, is worth it due to its ease in application for home lawns and smaller garden plots.

Basic slag is an age-old liming agent (actually a byproduct of the steel industry) that is making a comeback. Basic slag offers only about ½ the liming power of agricultural or dolomitic lime, but it does offer many micronutrients not found in other lime. Use about one and one-half times the recommended rate if you lime with basic slag. If you use basic slag, you will want to make sure that you wear older clothes that you don’t mind getting messy as well as rubber gloves since the slag material is very finely ground and can be extremely messy to handle. It always used to be my job around our home to “slag the garden” so I can speak from experience about the mess you will get in while slagging your home garden.

There are other liming agents as well. These include hydrated lime, burned lime, or even wood ashes; however, these should be used with caution as they can be very caustic when applied to living plants. Please keep in mind that “burned lime” can be very irritating and caustic to handle not only for the plants you put it around but the applicator as well. I really don’t recommend burned lime for application around established plants for these reasons.

Lime may be applied at any time during the year. For gardeners, winter or early spring just prior to soil preparation is usually most convenient. Do not, however, apply caustic ashes or burned limes to actively growing plants. Ground limestone or dolomitic lime will not harm growing plants. Placement is very important to getting your money’s worth out of liming. Lime is not very soluble in water, so it will need soil contact in order to work very well. When preparing gardens, incorporate the lime into the soil prior to planting by spading, hoeing, disking, or tilling the lime in.

The simple task of soil testing and liming can and will save you a lot of money by reducing the amount of fertilizer you waste, by promoting healthier more nutrient efficient plants, and by reducing the toxicity associated with low pH soils. Never forget whatever you are trying to grow, start by soil testing and correcting the soil’s pH and then worry about the other stuff.

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