What Are Good Shade Plants for Poor Soils?

Start by improving your soil!

“I have a shade area with poor soil…I need suggestions for plants, when to plant and how to improve the soil.” Question from Patricia of Knoxville, Iowa

Answer: Thank you for your questions.  I encourage you to read a couple of our garden articles that are sure to help you improve your soil and then fill your gardens with the right plants. Any of the plants suggested in the articles can be planted in spring or early summer. Shrubs and perennials can also be planted in fall.

Recommended Articles

How to Amend Clay Soils (The tips in the article work well for other poor-soil types.)

What Shade Plants Will Grow Beneath White Pines? (This is a list of generally tough shade plants.)

I Need Colorful Flowers for Deep Shade

If you are interested in resilient flowering shrubs, I recommend that you plant smooth hydrangea varieties (click here for some great options). They are tough, beautiful, very hardy, and grow well in partial shade. Kodiak® Orange Diervilla is another tough, top-notch option for deep, dry shade.

Happy gardening,

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

Should Potting Mix Be Added to Ground Soil?

“When planting, is it good to mix potting soil with earth soil?” Question from Pamela of Richmond, Indiana.

Answer: Don’t waste potting mix on in-ground plantings. Add products created to be garden amendments instead. These contain the ingredients that gardens need, while leaving out unecessary components, like perlite, vermiculite, and other additives, that don’t benefit garden soils. Potting mixes are also typically more expensive when purchased in quantity.

The best ground soil additives for long-term fertility include compost, earthworm castings, fortified garden soil, and Canadian sphagnum peat moss, among others. All of these additives lighten the soil, increase organic matter, water-holding ability, increase drainage, and up plant performance. Some, like earthworm castings, also add natural nutrients and beneficial microbes.

Beneficial fungi, called mycorrhizae, are another good soil additive. They work beneficially with plant roots to help them take up more water and nutrients for better performance.

I hope that these gardening tips help!

Happy gardening,

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

I Need Help Amending My Clay Soils!

“We have added compost, mulch, and additional black dirt, but the soil continues to be very hard and difficult to grow vegetables in. What should we do?” Question from Linda of Schererville, Indiana

Answer: I looked at the soil map for your area, and your soils are indeed very clay-rich and silty. The trouble with clayey soils is that they lack aeration, good drainage, and become very hard when dry. This disables water percolation and the fine roots of vegetables from gathering necessary air and moisture for top performance. There are several things that you can do to improve poor soils like yours for better vegetable growing.

  1. Improve and uplift your amending strategy. For amendments to be effective in clay soils, they need to be evenly incorporated in quantity. They also need to be lifted above the soil level to maximize drainage. Add amendments, like compost and rich topsoil, into your soil at a ratio of two parts rich amendments to one part ground soil, and till them in until well incorporated. Then berm your soils to lift them above the soil level. (Click here to learn more about berming.) Do not amend your soil with bark mulch. Bark binds nitrogen, keeping this essential nutrient from growing plants. Finally, add a quality fertilizer for vegetable growing to ensure your plants are getting the nutrients they need.
  2. Double dig. You can maximize the rooting potential of your vegetables by double digging. This means digging a 1- to 2-foot deep trench below your vegetable plots and amending the backfill with the same two to one ratio of amendment to soil. Fill the trenches in with the enriched backfill, and then berm with more amended soil up top to ensure excellent drainage and deep root growth for your edibles. (Click here to learn more about double digging.)
  3. Try raised bed gardening. If you continue to have trouble with vegetable garden productivity, turn to raised bed gardening. This will allow you to give your plants the best soil possible for excellent vegetable production. We recommend adding Black Gold Garden Compost Blend and Black Gold Garden Soil to raised bed plantings.

I hope that you have better luck with your vegetable garden this year!

Happy gardening,

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

How Do I Amend My Garden Soil for Top Performance?

“Hi! I just moved into a new home, and my back yard is a blank slate, with sod throughout. I want to build some flower beds for roses, as well as raised beds – one for pollinator attraction and others for veggies. What would be my go-to soil and amendments, please? Thank you!!!” Question from Nancy of Denton Texas

Answer: For amending in-ground soil, my first amendment of choice is always compost, and Black Gold Garden Compost Blend is a great option that’s OMRI Listed for organic gardening. Our earthworm castings and peat moss are also great additives for enriching soil with needed organic matter.

Start by removing sod from your planned garden areas. Next, work the soil up deeply, add a 2- to 3-inch layer of your amendments, and either till them in or work them down with a garden fork. Organic matter will lighten your soil and help it hold water and nutrients better for improved vegetable and flower growth.

For raised beds, add bulk top soil and amend it similarly with compost, peat, and castings. Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix is also recommended for raised bed growing and is OMRI Listed for organic gardening. I also suggest adding a quality OMRI Listed fertilizer before planting. Just make sure your fertilizer of choice is formulated for the plants you intend to grow.

To make the most of your rose growing, I suggest you watch the video below.

Happy gardening at your new home!

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

How to Amend Around Mulched Flower Beds

“On an annual rotation, what do I do with my mulch? Do I strip and reapply every year? How do I amend my soil in a flower bed that already has perennials? Do I  just topdress? Or dig around the perennials and mix with native soils?” Question from Tim of Springfield, Pennsylvania

Answer: Good questions! I am assuming that you apply bark mulch, which is generally slow to break down, especially if less processed when applied or comprised of cedar or other evergreen barks. I will also assume that you apply it at the standard depth of at least 2 to 3 inches.

You have several options for improving the soil of your mulched annual and perennial beds.

Annual Beds

  1. Switch to a mulch that feeds the soil. Bark mulch is notorious for binding essential nutrients, namely nitrogen, and breaks down too slowly to rapidly feed your soil. Mulching with composted bark, compost, or leaf mulch (all of which quickly integrate into the soil) will do the duel job of protecting against weeds and feeding your soil. (OMRI Listed Black Gold Garden Compost Blend is an excellent choice for the soil surface and as an amendment.)
  2. If you want to stick with bark mulch for your annual beds, do a soil re-haul in the spring, once your soil is warm enough to work. Neatly rake your mulch onto a tarp and generously and deeply work compost and peat moss into your beds. Work it down with a garden fork or tiller to a depth of at least 8 inches. This is also a great time to add slow-release flower fertilizer for the season. Then plant your annuals first and re-mulch afterward to avoid getting mulch into the planting holes.

Perennial Beds

  1. Once again, consider switching to a mulch type that better feeds your soil and garden plants, and be sure to fertilize your perennials yearly.
  2. If you want to stick with bark mulch, you could leave 6-inch a ring around each perennial and apply either compost or earthworm castings on the surface annually in the spring. Even when applied to the soil surface, the quick-to-decompose organic matter will feed your plants and soil microorganisms.
  3. If you are really concerned about the soil quality of your perennial beds, do a soil re-haul in the spring. Start by digging your perennials (this is also a great time to divide them and/or redesign your beds), then follow the same steps listed above. Perennials tend to set deeper roots than annuals, so it pays to amend the soil a bit deeper.

I hope that these tips are helpful!


Happy Gardening!


Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist


Garden Soil Amendments and Mixes for Water Retention

stand alone pot
Arm your garden! Amend beds for maximum water retention in preparation for dry summer weather.

With our early spring weather here in the Pacific Northwest, many plants seem to be about two weeks ahead of what we would consider their normal blooming schedule. We have had a season that has been one of the most magnificent for flowering magnolias that I can remember. Roger Gossler from Gossler Farms Nursery in Springfield, Oregon told me that he thought this spring blooming season has been one of the best ever, and Gossler Farms Nursery probably has one of the largest selections of magnolias growing in a private garden in North America.

I mention Magnolias, but they are not the only plants that are either blooming early or have emerged early, like our many herbaceous perennials. Many hostas are in full leaf and looking as they do in May! What does all this mean for gardeners? It means that if we are going to amend our existing soil, the time is now. It is much easier to add garden soil amendment now before our garden beds become covered with foliage that makes it more difficult to actually ‘work’ the soil.

BG Just Coir front
Coir (coconut pith) is one of the best natural amendments for water retention.

Several days ago as I strolled through my garden, I noticed that my Gunnera tinctoria was sending out new stalks. It reminded me that my Gunnera struggled for moisture last year when these plants grow best in moist damp soil. So, I added Black Gold® Just Coir around the base and worked it into the top several inches of soil. Coir is processed coconut pith (coir), which has proven to be an excellent soil amendment for water retention.

Spring is also an excellent time to address hanging baskets and other container plants. Plants in containers tend to dry out much more quickly on a summer day than plants that are in the ground, and the more you are able to amend the soil in spring, the better.

In the many containers that I have in my garden, I always like to add some new potting soil every year. Before planting new flowers, I remove about half of the old soil and add new. My preference for new soil is Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil with RESiLIENCE®. It helps retain moisture and gets plants off to a good start.

For hanging baskets, I have found that they are prone to drying out quickly and sometimes need watering twice a day when the weather is hot and/or there are winds. Black Gold Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Soil or Black Gold Moisture Supreme Container Mix with Resilience are ideal for hanging baskets, especially baskets with fuchsias, which require plenty of moisture.

Gunnera early spring
My Gunnera struggled for moisture last year, so I added Black Gold® Just Coir around the base this spring.

For the garden areas where I have shrubs and trees, the soil around established plants benefit from the addition of a garden compost or mulch. One of my favorite mulch amendments is Black Gold Garden Compost Blend. I work this product into the top several inches of soil each spring. It benefits the soil and plants by adding organic matter, loosening clay, and facilitating better drainage.

The use and availability of water has become a critical concern in many parts of the United States, and the Pacific Northwest is not immune to these concerns. While our rainfall has been about normal, the snowpack in the mountains has been far below what is typically expected. The lack of snowpack means that our reservoirs will not have the reserves they need for the summer months when water use is at its highest. By taking some steps now, we can help reduce our summer garden water requirements and still have a lush garden.

Spring Garden Soil Amendment

wagon with sedums
Amendments help garden and container plants perform better all season.

In a perfect world, we might be able to dig into the soil at any place in our garden and have it be like reaching into a bag of rich potting mix. This is, of course, wishful thinking. Unfortunately, for many of the plants we grow, whether ornamental or edible, some amending of the soil is probably required for optimum results.

Know Your Soil pH

When discussing soil amendments, it is a good idea to begin at a basic level, and the first thing a homeowner needs to know is the pH of the soil and what nutrients are missing. Most longtime gardeners will know of a soil testing laboratory where they can send small bags of their soil for a complete analysis. If you are unsure of how to find a reputable lab, check with your local garden center or state extension service as they will probably have several to recommend. Usually about one cup of soil collected from

Tulips with grape hyacinths make wonderful spring color containers.
Tulips with grape hyacinths make wonderful spring color containers.

various parts of your garden is needed for a good analysis. Check with the lab to see how many different soil samples they recommend you send. Once you have the results from the soil test, you can begin to amend the soil with what it is lacking. Also, be sure to take into consideration the plants you will be using as different plants may require different soil types and different nutrients.

Amend Before Planting

I like to remind readers that you have one chance to amend the soil around the root system of a plant when you are planting it. That is why I consider the proper preparation of the planting hole a crucial element necessary for your plant to thrive. This is not quite as important when planting annuals, but for permanent shrubs and trees, it is your opportunity to get it right.

In my own garden, the one item most lacking is compost or some type of organic matter in the soil. Whenever I am planting, my first choice for amending the soil is Black Gold Garden Compost Blend, and I always try to have some on hand. If I am planting a 1-5 gallon size plant, I try to dig a hole twice the size of the container. Then I mix the conditioner with some of the existing soil and use this mix both under and around the new plant. In areas where my soil tends to dry out quickly in the summer, if I have plants that like to have their roots moist, I add Black Gold Just Coir in the top several inches of soil as I have found this has excellent water holding retention qualities.

Amending Clay Soils

When I have sections of my garden that have heavy or clay soil, I not only add the compost but also pumice. I also use pumice in areas of my garden where the drainage is poor and I use it in some of my containers as a safety net to help insure excellent drainage and

The brilliant red new emerging leaves of the Japanese maple ‘Hana Matoi’ are helped along by a little spring amendment.
The brilliant red new emerging leaves of the Japanese maple ‘Hana Matoi’ are helped along by a little spring amendment.

increase aeration. For some of my containers, especially those where soil will be visible for most of the season, I add Black Gold Earthworm Castings. Visually this enhances the soil when used as a top dressing and it helps enrich it as well.

Spring fertilization is something I do every year. Recently I have been fertilizing some of my established plantings with a quality all-purpose fertilizer. I like to lightly cultivate it into the soil and then either water or let the rain carry it down to the plant roots.

We have been having some glorious weather here in the Pacific Northwest, and it has provided us with some great ‘windows’ for gardening. Take some time to relax and enjoy the beauty we are surrounded with. When I walk in my neighborhood, I see the flowers of tulips, daffodils, magnolias, flowering cherry and the many colors of Japanese Maples as their new spring leaves appear. The list could go on. Enjoy the peace and serenity of your own surroundings and beauty nature provides.

Cool Weather Gardening in the Pacific Northwest

This gravel garden is creative and bright!

For those of you that have followed my monthly web articles, you are aware that I live and garden in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. While we are probably famous for our rainy weather, this year seems to be an exceptionally wet year. Not only wet, but some very cold days this past winter and the spring has continually been cool. We made a record (perhaps not something to brag about) these past few months by having the longest period without the temperature reaching 60 degrees since weather record keeping began in 1940 at the airport. When talking with various garden center personnel, the consensus seems to be that we are about two weeks behind what would be a “normal” spring season.

On April 6, at about 4:00 in the afternoon, we had one of the most torrential hail storms that I can remember. The sky just seemed to open; down came the hail, completely covering the ground, deck and roof. After the hail stopped, I looked out the window and it was as though we had just had a snow storm! And this is April! Earlier in the week, I was digging a hole to plant a shrub and after the shovel was into the ground about 12 inches, water started filling the hole from the bottom. I can never remember by soil being so saturated. Obviously this can be frustrating for gardeners but all the more reason to make plans for the day when sun does arrive. And it WILL arrive, we just do not know when.

BG-Seedling-1.5cuAll of these conditions make for a good reason to have a good supply of Black Gold Seedling Mix on hand. This is the ideal time to get seeds started so that once the weather warms; you will have plants to set outside. Whether you are starting vegetable or flower seeds, get them started now. Then when your seedlings are ready to transplant outdoors or you have bought transplants from a garden center, work into your outdoor flower and vegetable beds Black Gold Garden Compost Blend and along with it mix in a starter fertilizer. The starter fertilizer will supply a readily available source of nutrients as well as Mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizae has been added to the fertilizer as it has the attribute of helping plants draw in nutrients from the soil.

If your roses were pruned in February, there should be signs of buds swelling and breaking opening and perhaps new growth is emerging. Once new growth is 4-6 inches long, it is time to fertilize. A fertilizer formulated for flowers is ideal because it will have some fast- and slow-acting nitrogen as well as other nutrients all helpful in making roses look their best. Early in the season, like now, I also like to add Black Gold Alfalfa Meal. It provides needed nutrients naturally, including nitrogen, and breaks down quickly. While not all plants require a nitrogen boost, roses do. Since roses are primarily grown for their flowers and since rose flowers appear on new growth, adequate nitrogen will encourage new growth and hence more flowers.

Another great Pacific Northwest plant for gardeners is the rhododendron. For early blooming rhododendrons, once the flowering is over, it is time to fertilize. If your rhododendron needs pruning, just after blooming is an ideal time. If you wait too long, then you will cut off flower buds forming next year’s bloom. After bloom, it is also good to remove the old flowers and you will see there is a natural place to break them off at the base of the flower where it attaches with the stem. Fertilize with fertilizer for acid-loving plants. Make one application after bloom and then another in mid-summer. At the same time you are adding the fertilizer, consider amending your soil around the base of the plant. My favorite product for this is Black Gold Garden Compost Blend. I like to lightly work it into the soil (rhododendrons have shallow roots so do not cultivate deeply), add fertilizer and then water. It gives the soil a very polished and “finished” appearance.

While we hopefully will have some sunny days soon, do not rush the season by planting summer vegetable plants. Last year I heard so many gardeners lament their early rush to plant summer vegetables and then experiencing the failure with plants performing poorly or dying. Warm season vegetables like tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, beans, and squash are called warm season for a reason. These plants all need warm days and nights and planting too early will result in failure.

Summer will arrive, just don’t rush it!