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Miss Floribunda: Clay troubles

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Posted on: May 19, 2015

Dear Miss Floribunda,

I’ve lived and gardened in Hyattsville nearly three years now, and I feel like such a loser. My yard wasn’t landscaped by the previous owners and I think it is because nothing but wire grass survives more than a month or so. I blame the clay soil in this area. Sometimes it feels as if I might as well soak the roots of plants in concrete and throw them into the Anacostia River. Neighbors who do have nice gardens tell me to just dig out the clay and mix compost with it or build raised beds. They lecture me about hard work and patience. I just don’t have the time or energy for that kind of effort at my age, and I can’t afford to hire others to do my gardening for me. My forlorn hope is that you might recommend some decent-looking plants that wouldn’t require herculean effort to grow.

Also, may I ask what brought such a gardener’s curse to this area? I’ve lived in many different states and learned to work around winters and summers just as bad or worse as any in Hyattsville, but this kind of “soil” is a new challenge. I hope you can help me win.

Defeat of Clay on Crittenden Street

Dear Defeat of Clay,

Please don’t see this as a win/lose situation. Our soil can be worked with by planting shrubs and wildflowers that thrive in it because this is their natural habitat. It will encourage you to know that the Hyattsville Elementary School PTA’s 6th Annual Native Plant sale is going to take place on Saturday, May 16 from 8 a.m.to 2 p.m. The address is 5311 43rd Avenue. There, you can choose from a wide variety of beautiful native plants that will tolerate our soil, will need no poisons, and will attract wonderful butterflies and birds to your garden. You in turn will be doing our ecosystem a favor by providing food and shelter for endangered species. Do come early because this is a very popular event and plants sell out quickly. For more detailed information check http://hyattsvillees-pta.org].

Editor’s Note: According to event organizers, as of May 19, there are plants left to be purchased for a few days. Email ba**********@ho*****.com for more information on what is left and how to purchase them.

Now let me explain something about our clay soil. It is not the result of a curse. I spoke with Prof. Harriet Hardpan, a distinguished geologist at the University of Maryland, and learned that it is the result of the erosion of mountains so ancient that they have been ground down to the minute particles that compose clay. Red clay is what is known as an ultisol, resulting from the weathering of stone in a warm, humid climate. This obviously had to have happened quite a while back and indeed, the soil in our area of Prince George’s County dates back to the semi-tropical cretaceous period, which ended 63 million years ago. Those of us who are older than dirt recall that alligator fossils were found when the Capital Beltway was under development! Speaking of being older than dirt, the clay in this area really is. It’s hard to pinpoint a parent stone, but a good guess is granite plus silicate minerals.

Clay is created through a cyclical and multi-generational process that goes on over vast stretches of time: clay will be created from sedimentary rock such as quartz-rich shale but then be part of a process that in turn creates quartz. Our clay gets its red color from iron oxide trapped in this insoluble soil. Also, being an ultisol, it lacks calcareous material, which may be why our soil is rather acidic.

In defense of Hyattsville clay, it is preferable to clays in other parts of the country that are on the other side of the pH scale; their alkalinity is deadly. The pH of our soil is ideal for our native plants as well as other cultivars as azaleas, camellias, and conifers. It deserves credit for conferring a ravishingly lovely shade of blue on our hydrangeas, and its acidity can be easily corrected for plants that can’t tolerate it with a sprinkling of bonemeal and/or chelated lime. It is unfortunate that the previous owners of your home did nothing to improve the tilth of the soil, which is a serious problem with clay. (Tilth refers to the friability, or crumbliness, of the soil.) There are many minerals in our clay important for plant health and it retains water better during summer heat than do most other soils. Once improved, tilth makes them accessible. Do start a compost pile with your vegetable kitchen waste, and when planting try adding some gypsum to the soil. Perhaps you can get your neighbors to help with more than lectures. One would hope they could share some compost and help with the digging. If you acquire some blueberries, elderberries or persimmons from the May 16 plant sale maybe you can share the crop!

There will be no meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society the third Saturday in May because members will be making flower arrangements for the House Tour the next day, Sunday, May 17. You won’t want to miss one of Hyattsville’s favorite annual activities.

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