When I moved from the Midwest to Charleston, adjusting to the local growing conditions took several years. For gardeners who have moved here recently from anywhere to the north, and new homeowners who have a yard for the first time, here are 10 timely tips for yard maintenance:
1. Dirt is not soil.
Soil in the Charleston area ranges from gumbo clay to beach sand. Some neighborhoods along the Ashley River were so heavily strip-mined for phosphate in the 1880s that soil scientists can't identify what the native topsoil was. All soils should be amended with compost or other organic matter before planting anything. Period. Organic matter improves drainage in clay (see No. 2), holds nutrients in sand, and feeds beneficial microorganisms. The best organic amendment is freshly made compost, which is teeming with beneficial bacteria that supply micronutrients to plant roots. A two-inch layer of organic matter dug into the top six inches of soil is ideal.
2. My feet are wet.
Other than sand, most soils in the area drain poorly after a rain. They are not the "moist, well-drained soil" that plants prefer. Making raised beds - gently sloping, 6-inch high planting areas - is the best way to correct drainage problems. Gently sloping sides help prevent puddles around a raised bed.
3. I'm thirsty.
Even if a new yard is equipped with an irrigation system, the automatic settings probably won't water all plants enough. The strips of grass between the sidewalk and the street dry out quicker than the rest of the lawn. Newly planted large trees, such as 15-gallon live oaks or red maples, need more water than an irrigation system adjusted to water the lawn gives them. They need additional soakings once a week, so water reaches the deeper roots.
4. I'm supposed to be apple green.
Centipede, the most common lawn grass, prevents groundwater pollution. How? It needs little fertilizer, only 1 to 1.5 pounds of nitrogen per year. Properly fertilized centipede should be light green, not a deep forest green.
The fertilizer program that works for my centipede is 3 pounds per 1,000 square feet of 15-0-15 (or 16-4-8) fertilizer in April, followed by 15 pounds per 1,000 square feet of slow-release 5-2-0 organic fertilizer in June.
5. There goes the neighborhood.
There are several troublesome weeds that will eventually show up in most yards. Dollarweed has round, dark green leaves about the size of a half-dollar on short, fleshy stalks. It spreads through lawns by white, fleshy stems that grow a half-inch below the ground.
Lespedeza is a type of clover with tiny leaves on reddish stems. It reseeds prolifically and makes dense patches. Attack both of these persistent weeds as soon as you find them.
6. By summer I'm ready for a break.
Fall, winter and spring are all good seasons for planting perennials, shrubs and trees. Avoid planting woody plants after May 31. Summer is too hot to readily establish them.
7. It's a bit crowded in here.
It is tempting to space shrubs to give a "finished" look. This practice can lead to shrubs being planted too close together for air circulation and branch spread or too close to buildings. Removing extra plants when they are young is the easiest solution.
8. Time for a haircut already?
Pruning shrubs too often robs plants of the productive new leaves and drains carbohydrate reserves, as plants continually make new growth. Twice-a-year pruning, in late February and September, is enough for most Lowcountry plants.
9. Something's eating me.
Deer are a serious home garden pest in many neighborhoods, particularly in Dunes West, Wild Dunes and parts of West Ashley. Constant browsing by deer can stunt Indian hawthorn and dwarf pittosporum shrubs and eventually kill them (see No. 8). Shrubs that deer prefer should be replaced with dwarf yaupon or Carissa hollies, variegated false holly, or dwarf southern yew.
10. Just because you found it, doesn't mean it will grow here.
Sometimes perennial flowers that are not suited to the climate are offered for sale. A plant that requires little water probably will not survive the first 6-inch downpour. Also beware of plant tags that recommend full sun for plants that need part sun in southern climates.
Anthony Keinath is professor of plant pathology at the Clemson Coastal Research & Education Center in Charleston. His expertise is in diseases of vegetables. He is also an avid gardener. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.