What is soil pH?

You might remember learning about the pH scale in high school chemistry class.

Acidic vinegar has a pH of 3, while basic (or alkaline) milk of magnesia rates an 11 on the scale. Clean water has a value of 7, or neutral.

Soils from different areas have different pH values. Some of the soil in Madison is acidic, while some is alkaline. The only way to know your soil’s pH value is to have it tested.

Different types of plants prefer different pH levels. For example, blueberries are happier in acidic soil.

It’s possible to change the pH of your soil by adding acidic or alkaline materials, but it can take a surprising amount of material to change the pH even a little. It’s generally better to choose plants that will thrive in the natural pH of your soil.

What is soil pH?

What are hardiness zones?

Natural yards are designed to suit their location. This post begins a series on site conditions that are important to consider when planning a natural yard.

Hardiness zones correspond to the lowest temperature a given area is likely to experience in an average winter. Lower zone numbers correspond to colder regions.

Seeds and plants are typically marked with the range of hardiness zones where that species is likely to survive. For example, a plant marked 6-9 would be happy anywhere in Texas, but would not be a good choice for Wisconsin.

Madison is located in zone 5. Choosing plants native to this region is a sure bet, but using non-natives marked for this hardiness zone is also likely to be a successful strategy.

What are hardiness zones?

What are soil types?

Soils are divided into three types: sand, clay, and loam. These types describe the characteristics of the inorganic material in the soil, that is, the stuff that is ground-up rock. All soil types should include lots of organic material in order to support healthy plant growth.

As you might have guessed from the preceding posts, your gardening efforts will be more successful if you choose plants that are adapted to the type of soil you have in your yard. Examining a handful of soil can give you a good guess at its type.

  • Sandy soil is made up of large, coarse particles. It tends to drain quickly.
  • Clay soil consists of smaller particles. It can be difficult for plant roots to penetrate. A handful of wet soil that feels slippery is likely to be clay.
  • Loam is soil that contains a good mix of sand and clay. When dug up, it has the texture of chocolate cake.

Check several handfuls, as different parts of your yard may have different soil types! This can create opportunities for establishing diverse plant communities.

One further soil type is worth mentioning. Suburban development is often accomplished by stripping off the topsoil, building a house, and leaving behind construction materials shallowly buried under sod. The resulting soil is known as urbanite, and it is usually of poor quality. But don’t despair – plant roots are remarkably good at growing through or around anything in their way. A healthy community of strong-rooted plants will improve the underlying soil, and in time you will be able to incorporate plants that are more choosy about their site conditions.

What are soil types?

What do you do with a natural yard in the winter?

Plan for next year!

With a lawn, you know what you’re going to do next year: mow, water, add fertilizer, repeat. With a natural yard, every year brings something new and exciting. Winter is a great time to think about what you’d like to add to your yard.

Many gardeners like to draw maps of their yards to plan what will go where. These maps include not just dimensions but site conditions: the patterns of sun and shade, drainage, soil type, and so on. A successful garden plan accounts for site conditions, incorporating plants that will thrive with minimal extra help.

The next series of posts on this blog will cover different site conditions and how to consider them in a garden plan. Winters in Madison are long, but preparing for the coming spring helps them go by quickly!

What do you do with a natural yard in the winter?

What do fertilizers do?

Fertilizer advertisements often depict a houseplant spilling lushly out of its pot. While this isn’t false advertising, it aims to capitalize on a common misunderstanding of plant physiology.

From a human perspective, the aboveground parts of a plant are the most important parts – often the only parts we think about at all. From a plant’s point of view, however, it’s the roots that matter most.

A plant’s root system can be as large as, or even larger than, the aboveground growth. A plant whose aboveground structures are larger than its pot obviously does not have this healthy ratio.

Yet it is exactly this pattern of growth that fertilizers are designed to encourage. The nitrogen in fertilizers stimulates plants to make more leaves and stems, neglecting their root development in the process. In the case of a lawn, this growth pattern often leaves the grass vulnerable to drought and insect attack – prompting the homeowner to add more water and pesticides, followed by more fertilizers, and so on.

All of these fertilizers do not stay on lawns, but make their way into the local water supply. The excess nitrogen makes water unsafe to drink, and contributes to algae blooms that make water unsafe to swim in. Contact with the toxins produced by algae blooms can produce unpleasant symptoms in people, including sore throat, difficulty breathing, hives, headaches, and vomiting. There is evidence that the toxins can be fatal to dogs.

Give your grass a chance to develop healthy structure, and it will need far less fertilizer to look great on the surface!

What do fertilizers do?

What was Bird Species #35?

The Pine Siskin is a small, goldfinch-like bird with a distinctive “zipper” call. It is one of the few birds on That Yard’s list identified solely by sound. To hear it yourself, click the preceding link, go to the “Sound” tab, and play the “zhreee” call.

Pine Siskins are common winter visitors in southern Wisconsin, though their migration patterns can be erratic. It remains to be seen whether more will arrive.

What was Bird Species #35?

Do natural yards encourage crime?


A study conducted in Chicago found that apartment buildings with more trees had lower crime. The buildings all belonged to the same housing project, all had the same architecture, and all had residents with similar characteristics. The researchers proposed two possible reasons for the reduction in crime.

Trees deter crime. That is, trees encourage potential criminals to commit a crime somewhere else. In buildings with trees, residents spent more time looking out their windows and sitting outdoors. People are less likely to commit a crime where there are observers.

Trees reduce crime. That is, trees lead potential criminals to not commit a crime at all. Studies show that nature helps us feel better, reducing our aggression and making us less likely to engage in antisocial behavior. People are less likely to commit a crime when they are in a positive mood.

Natural yards, with or without trees, draw our gaze and make us feel good. If the researchers’ theories for why trees reduce crime are correct, then natural yards also reduce crime.

Do natural yards encourage crime?