Good to Grow: What to know before you grow

The spark for my writing often comes from a conversation with friends. Usually, it is an innocent question or statement that turns in my mind and falls onto the page as I process the thoughts. That’s what happened with a simple question, “What grows here?”

It’s complicated, and I have two words: sun and soil.

Knowing your gardening conditions will prevent headaches down the road. When it comes to sunshine, enjoy your research. This is an excuse to spend time in your garden, have a drink on the patio or cook out with friends while observing where the sun is — or isn’t — and for how long. Most sun-loving plants need at least six hours each day to thrive. Fear not if you’re surrounded by trees or tall buildings — there are plenty of choices for shade. The key is knowing the light’s patterns.

Here at the little house on a big hill, I have seen areas change from deep shade to partial sun, and just the opposite. Storms over the last few years have taken out three trees. The light in my garden has changed. What was always my sunny bed is now receiving even more sun, with a bit of partial sun on the far end. My shade garden has become shadier because of maturing trees and their leaf cover.

This change in sunlight affected the plants. While some have survived, others did not adapt to the new conditions. Gardens evolve, that’s part of the fun.

Knowing your soil makeup is equally important to knowing your light. Just put your shovel in the ground and you will quickly have an idea of your soil type, but soil testing will give you more information. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. Take a few samples of soil from different spots in your garden, drop them in the mail; within a few weeks you will receive a report of the soil’s nutrients and what needs to be added.

Testing information is available on the West Virginia University Extension website. They will even help you interpret the results — how great is that? For me, the testing showed I needed to add lime to several spots and to continue adding organic matter into all garden areas.

This is a good time to give a shout out to our county extension agents. They are a wealth of knowledge, and every single one I’ve met throughout the state has been friendly and ready to answer any questions I throw their way.

Now let’s talk about hardiness zones. Why plant a tropical tree in an area that will have freezing temps over the winter? You can find your area’s zone on the United States Department of Agriculture’s website. There, you can enter your ZIP code and find a wealth of knowledge.

The Charleston area is now a 6b zone, meaning the lowest temperature can reach 0 to minus 5. Plant labels often give suitable hardiness zones for growing success. If you are an experienced gardener or blessed with beginner’s luck, you may be able to push the limits of the zones, but I pay attention to these when choosing my plants.

Another factor to consider is maintenance. Are you willing to give the plant the attention it needs? Does it need to be deadheaded once a week? Fed extra fertilizer every month? Staked and tied as it grows? Or are you the gardener who needs an independent plant that will survive regardless of your neglect? (Who, me?)

Maybe you have help with your gardening chores and maintenance is not an issue; but for most of us, it is our stress relief — a chance to get a little fresh air and time outside — and it is limited. Plan your garden accordingly.

Hopefully these steps will provide the basis for successful gardening. Back to the question: “What grows here?” I can’t really give a list of plants that will grow here, but I do have a bit of trivia that might help you win a Final Jeopardy round. West Virginia was the 12th state to have an official soil. The state soil is silt loam and was selected in 1997.