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Gardening & More: Attention gardeners: Never put a $50 plant into a $5 hole

SPRINGVILLE — Sharon Webber, CNLP was once called to a home to address a gardening problem. The fairly new landscape had been installed two years before, but the plants weren’t thriving. Normally tough and sturdy forsythia, spirea, day lilies and black-eyed Susans were declining.

“When you want to know why there’s a problem, always go to the soil,” she said.

The initial installation had used soil that had been pulled from a construction project at the airport. Since there were already so many bushes, bulbs and plants installed, Webber couldn’t start over. She had to work around what was already planted. Her solution was to top dress the landscape with high-quality compost, twice a year, for two years.

It took work, time and patience, but by the time she was done, the soil was so soft, you could use your hand to dig a hole in it.

This drove home an appreciation for the importance of good soil. Never put a $50 plant in a $5 hole.

I heard Webber speak about soil last year, at a Western New York Land Conservancy event. The freelance horticultural consultant has worked in horticulture for more than 25 years. She is the board president for Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo; cofounder of Plantasia, Western New York’s premier garden show and a past president of the Western New York Nursery & Landscape Association and a former trustee of its foundation.

“I’ve always worked in and around soil,” Webber said. “Soil is something we have to protect. It’s something we have to take care of, in our own backyards and in the Western New York area.”

Soil is dynamic and incredibly diverse. It is made up of not only mineral matter, but organic matter, water and air, as well.

Soil is affected by the plant roots that grow into it. It is affected by the organisms that live in it, including bacteria, fungi, insects and earthworms. Soil is affected by the mammals that burrow and dig in it, like a skunk that visited Webber’s yard.

“You get unbelievable chemical, physical and biological reactions and interactions,” Webber said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on there. In a nutshell, soils support plant and animal life, both above and below the ground.”

One way you can help care for the soil in your yard is to avoid compaction. Compacted soil inhibits root development.

When looking at the causes of compaction, “Foot traffic and machine traffic is huge,” Webber said. Construction work around your home, such as foundation installation, fence building or roofing work, can compact the soil.

Even everyday activities, such as walking and mowing, can cause compaction. Try to minimize random foot traffic in your garden beds, by laying stepping stones or other pathways. When you mow your lawn, change the direction, every now and then.

If your soil becomes compacted, fluffing up the soil by digging into it may not always work. The best thing to do is to incorporate organic matter. Compost is one way to add organic matter; adding well-rotted manure is another way.

If you want a healthy garden, you can’t think of your soil as just dirt. Invest time and effort into your garden soil.

Connie Oswald Stofko is publisher of, the online gardening magazine for Western New York. Email

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