Soils in LaBelle
If you examine a soil survey of Hendry County you find two types of soils mentioned: sands and mucks. Mucks occur in areas of old swamps and are the soil prevalent in Eastern Hendry County, including Clewiston. Mucks in LaBelle region generally won’t be used as a building lot so your yard probably isn’t muck. Most of us in LaBelle and Muse have yards with sand as the base. People in Alva have clay. Both the peat and the clay are much richer soils than found in LaBelle. Some of us have shell, this is where the underlying shell subsoil has been brought to the top by dredging of the Caloosahatchee river or by fill operations designed to raise the height of the soil. The term “shell” is literal, such sandy soils have visible fossilized limestone sea shells throughout them. Shell is invariably alkaline, Phosphorus poor and calcareous (full of chalky limestone) with little organic matter.
Sandy soils can vary considerably, even within a given house lot. They vary depending on what they have been used for in the past:
- Old pastures are rich and acid in their makeup. Tons of cattle manure deposited for many years can work wonders with a soil.
- Old oak hammocks can be very rich and acid in their makeup. The oak leaves have enriched and acidified the soils. These make good soils for planting if fertilized.
- Old pine plantings can also be acid. But the soils tend to be poor in nutrients and need fertilizer.
- Some of the sand is alkaline and mixed with limestone rock, with a bed of limestone typically just below the surface. “Shell” comes under this category.
I have two beds of plants on either side of the sidewalk in my front yard. One bed has dark grey sandy soil in which plants thrive. The other side is filled with large lumps of limestone in a sandy white shell soil. The plants in this side are dying despite applications of fertilizer. Welcome to LaBelle!
It is important to have your soil tested by the County Agricultural Extension Office. The test will tell you two things: the amount of Phosphorus in the soil and the pH of the soil. The variation in pH and phosphorus content in LaBelle Soils is quite high, ranging from phosphorus rich acid soils to very phosphorus poor alkaline soils. Thus the need for a soil test. But virtually all soils in LaBelle are poor sandy soils, where “poor” refers to lack of organic matter or clay.
There are several things that can be done with a poor sandy soil:
- Add as much organic matter as possible on a continuing basis. Don’t collect lawn clippings, allow them to lie and decompose into the lawn. Ace composted cow manure is a very good top dressing. Organic matter stops nematodes.
- Some people add fertilizer frequently and continually. The best fertilizer is 12-4-12+4Mg palm fertilizer as it has essential Magnesium, Iron and Manganese. This fertilizer is best for pretty much everything including a lawn (most lawn fertilizer sold today has far too little Potassium, the last of the three numbers in the N-P-K analysis). Fertilizers are best obtained at Diamond R Fertilizer on Commerce Street in LaBelle. Personally I have learned not to fertilize as just a little fertilizer will produce volumes of weeds in South Florida.
- Avoid plants which are highly hybridized. It used to be that some flowers like Vinca (Periwinkle) grew and flowered well in poor sandy soils. They even reappeared year after year. I planted several hundred of the new red hybrid Vinca plants. In three or four months they had all died. I hadn’t fertilized them and new hybrids of virtually all plants require regular fertilization in poor sandy soils. Hybridizers of plants grow seedling “crosses” very fast with a lot of water, sun and fertilizer. Out of hundreds of “crosses” the hybridizer might select one or two (most of the times the crosses don’t work out and no crosses are selected for further propagation). This process continues for tens of generations, all the time selecting for hybrids which grow and bloom the best under conditions of high sun, high watering, and high fertilization. The results are hybrids which only do well with high sun, high watering and high fertilizer. This has happened with annual flowers, perennial flowers, tomatoes, peppers, roses, hibiscus, desert roses, bromeliads, fruit trees, etc.
- Avoid plants which are listed as “liking rich soils” as poor sandy soils are never “rich soils”.
- Grow plants such as fruit and vegetables in raised beds which have been filled with compost and ground up trees from local road construction. Muck is also an excellent bedding material if you have a swamp on your property you can borrow from.
- Mix your ornamental plantings up with lots of variety. That way if one species of plant doesn’t like the soil you’ll only lose one or two plants, not a whole planting. I only planted six canna in three areas of my yard so when they died they didn’t leave any big holes. I made the mistake of planting macho ferns over large areas of my yard and they have all died, leaving large holes which will need to be replanted. Turns out macho ferns hate alkaline soil.
- Plant plants that are doing well at your neighbors’ houses. Don’t be afraid to go up and knock on someone’s door and ask the name of a particularly beautiful plant. They typically will be flattered. Your neighbors will typically have the same alkaline soil that you have.
- Don’t plant formal hedges, in poor sandy soil at least one plant in the hedge is going to do poorly and the symmetry will be destroyed. Avoid landscapes that emphasis symmetry as it is very difficult to obtain in difficult soils. Just look at the hedges in your neighborhood or at the local Burger King to get an idea of what NOT to do.
- Mulch plants with ground melaleuca or eucalyptus. It lasts the longest and is the least prone to termites. Still, keep all mulches at least a foot from the house to keep termites and other insects from the house. If you want to try an acid loving plant in an alkaline soil, mulch with pine bark as it is very acidic. Pine needles are recommended by several landscapers but in my experience the needles don’t shut out enough light from the soil. Weed seeds on top of the soil germinate when they are hit by light. So weeds are a problem with pine needles.
If the soil is alkaline with a pH over 7.0 and the test defines it as “calcareous”, you’ve got a problem with growing many species of plants and a lawn. As alkalinity ties up Phosphorus alkaline soils will typically also require relatively large fertilizations with Phosphorus rich fertilizers (the middle number on the N-P-K analysis). Note that the local water, both City water and well water, is quite alkaline and soil irrigated with this water will become alkaline over time. St. Augustine and Bermuda Grass will grow in alkaline soil if well fertilized and sprayed with iron on a regular basis. Most other grasses won’t grow very well in it. Vegetables and even ornamentals can be a challenge.
Gardenias, hibiscus, ixora, camellias and most hollies supposedly per some references all sulk or die under alkaline conditions. Note that there is not universal agreement among the experts. One on-line source says cannas require acid soil while “Reference Guide to Florida Landscape Plants” says cannas live in a wide range of soils. Cannas die in my alkaline soil so I tend to believe the former. By the same token I have several tropical hibiscus thriving just feet from where the canna lilies all died. Just goes to show you there are all shades of grey when it comes to what survives in what soil. The IFAS guide lists Hibiscus as surviving in “slightly alkaline” soil. It also list canna as surviving in “slightly alkaline” soil. So possibly my canna were killed by something else, nematodes or lack of fertilizer perhaps.
These alkaline soils require additional steps:
- If the soil is alkaline per the County Extension soil test, one can add soil sulfur in fifty pound bags on a continuing basis, spread it just as you would fertilizer. I don’t do this even though my soil is very alkaline, I just grow plants which accept alkalinity.
- Grow plants which grow well in alkaline soils, such as native plants and bromeliads. Yaupon holly will grow in alkaline soil as will most South Florida natives. The library on this website and the list of “Native Plants that Attract Birds” are both good resources to find native plants which will grow in LaBelle.
- If the Extension Service soil test shows your soil to be alkaline, avoid acid loving plants such as camellia, gardenia (grafted gardenias grow in alkaline soil), ixora, hibiscus, macho ferns and most hollies.
- Spray iron as a foliar spray on everything on a yearly schedule. Use a mix of iron sulfate (Diamond R Fertilizer) and iron chelates (I buy mine on the internet and I recommend the expensive $28 per pound 6% Iron EDDHA chelated from customhydronutrients.com. It is the only chelate that works in alkaline soil) at the rate of one fourth of a cup each per gallon. Use a very small amount of a spreader sticker (available at Ace) as part of the spray. Don’t use soap or detergent, these will tie up the iron.
Acid soils locally are typically nutrient poor sands that can grow a wider range of plants than an alkaline soil. Locally these acid soils are only mildly acid (5.5 to 6.5 pH) which is perfect for growing virtually any plant as long as specifications for that plant don’t specify a “rich” soil. The LaBelle Garden Club Library has one book which lists virtually every plant which will grow in LaBelle and its soil preference; “wide”, “acid” or “alkaline”. The book is the “Reference Guide to Florida Landscape Plants”. Perusing the book I was dismayed at the number of “acid” soil plants I had planted in my alkaline yard. I didn’t find a single plant which “preferred” alkaline soils, only plants which tolerate it (“wide” soil preference). This soil preference guide is also available under “Landscape Plants” in the upper menu on this website. Each plant on this extensive website link identifies the soil types the plant is compatible with.
Most sandy soils in Florida are “coated” sand. That is each sand particle has a phosphate coating. For this reason most soils in Florida do not need phosphorus fertilizers. This is the basis for the fertilizer regulations in place which basically ban phosphorus in fertilizers for environmental reasons. Unfortunately for residents of LaBelle and Western Hendry County our sandy soil is uncoated sand and deficient in Phosphorus. One needs to have the soil around the house tested for phosphorus but most of the time in LaBelle the soil will need large amounts (greater than three pounds per thousand square feet) to grow plants well.
It is also important to be aware of special soil situations around your house. I had a low lying area in the front of my house where I planted a lot of nice plants. The area flooded in the torrential 2013 summer rains and many of the plants died. I looked up “Plants for Damp Soils” in the Southern Gardening book and only planted plants from that list in the area which had flooded. Live and learn.
Dave Bogert DLBoge2@gmail.com