Sunday, April 11, 2010

Oh, for acidic soil!

I just returned from a business trip to Portland and am now filled with acid-loving plant lust. The rhododendrons and azaleas were just beginning to bloom, in stunning colors from deep blood red to pale yellow. Set against the background of a mixed conifer forest, the plants were a sight to behold: glossy foliage and clusters of richly hued blossoms. Growing up in New Jersey, I had seen my fair share of big, healthy rhododendrons, but these West Coast behemoths were in a totally different class. I would post a picture, but I only had a cellphone camera, and won't besmirch the beauty of the plant with a hazy, poorly-lit image.

Hardiness issues aside, the thick clay soil of my little plot is not acidic enough for these plants to thrive. I could amend it rigorously, but methinks it is an uphill battle. I should probably just stick to the plants that do well in my "native" conditions (I write native with a cocked eyebrow, since I am unsure how native any soil in this area can be after centuries of urban disruption). Yet I know rhododendrons and azaleas, among other acid-loving plants, are thriving in areas near my house, like the Chicago Botanic Garden. I found their trick (and no, it's not a staff of professional landscapers): rather than conditioning native soil, the gardeners grow them above ground in raised beds.

But oh, for acidic soil! My little boy is a lover of blueberries, both real and literary, thanks to Robert McCloskey and his timeless Blueberries for Sal. When my son asked to grow blueberries, I was loathe to indulge him, for the above mentioned pH challenges of our area. Yet how could I say no to my budding homesteader? Encouraged by the pile of garden catalogs pushing "patio plantings", I now have three container blueberry plants living in big pots in my backyard. Along with the plants came some disks of sulfurous soil acidifier that we mixed in to the potting soil.

So now we wait....I'm not sure how old my son will be when we finally reap the benefits of these fruiting bushes, but for now we have Sal and her blueberry rival, Little Bear. We will pick with her in the bucolic Maine of the 1940's, and await the arrival of our own acid-loving fruit someday.


  1. Hi Abbie,

    Funny you should write about this today. I had been struggling with my rhodies for the past several years, replaced all three of them, amended the soil, turned off the sprinkler where they are and feed them an acid fertilizer.

    They are on my post today in their full glory, so I feel they must have known my husband was going to put a concrete porch in place of them if they didn't perform this year!


  2. Had to laugh when I read the title. We have acid soil here and I have to add lime to many planting holes. The grass is greener on the other side, right? Blueberries for Sal is a favorite around here, should be called Blueberries for Birds though. We are always a day late on picking.

    Christine in Alaska

  3. I've always wanted an azalea, even when I just grew bonsai, but have always resisted getting one for the reasons you mention. They're nice to look at when other people have to deal with the soil amendments.