<em><strong>Muriel P. of Healdsburg asks:</strong> I've seen gorgeous flower beds with colorful blooms and thought, "I wish my flowers looked like that!"</em>
<em> Can you give me some simple steps on how to prepare my flower beds for spring planting?</em>
You really can have these pretty bloomers, too, and it all starts with the soil. What kind do you have?
The best way to determine your soil needs is to take soil samples and send them to your local soil lab for analysis. But if you don't have time for that, an easy-to-use soil test that you can get at a garden center can provide you with general guidelines for what you need to add to your soil for your spring and summer flowers.
These do-it-yourself soil tests will show you your soil pH, the levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and potash. The ideal soil pH for bedding plants is 6.5-7. If your soil is outside that range, you can add amendments to adjust the pH.
After you've determined the condition of your soil, there are some basic practices that you can do to continue to improve the soil to make your new plants happy.
Adding decomposed organic material to the top 4-6 inches of soil is easy. Organic material adds air space to soil and improves drainage. If your soil pH is low, you can also add lime to increase it.
Now that you've prepared the soil, it's time to pick your plants. You need to know how much sun and shade your planting bed gets.
Look at the bed in the morning, the middle of the day and late afternoon, so you can see whether it's getting sun or shade in various areas of the bed. Then you should choose plants that can tolerate your climate.
Our local Cooperative Extension can provide a list of plants that do well in this area, or you can read Sunset's "Western Garden Book," which specializes in plants for our climate, for a quick reference before you head over to the nursery or garden center.
But the work doesn't end once the plants are in the ground. Mulching, watering and fertilizing play important roles in the healthy, blooming success of your springtime flower bed.
Mulching plants is extremely helpful for reducing water use. Mulch retains moisture, which keeps plants from drying out quickly. It also suppresses weed growth by inhibiting weed seed germination, though plants will need more water for two to three weeks after planting, and then less once they're established.
Depending on the amount of rainfall we receive in winter and spring, plants may need additional watering, even after they're established.
Deadheading, or pinching, the spent flowers will keep more blooms coming throughout the season: When a flower has finished blooming, a plant focuses on producing seeds. By removing these spent blooms, the plant will put its energy into producing a new flower instead of producing seeds and, therefore, will provide you with a continuous color show.
By following these simple steps, you too can be the one with the beautifully blooming flower bed that's the envy of the neighborhood; the flower bed that makes people stop and say, "I wish my flowers looked like that!"
<em>Send your gardening questions to The Garden Doctors at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Garden Doctors, gardening consultants Gwen Kilchherr and Dana Lozano, can answer questions only through their column, which appears twice a month in the newspaper and online at pressdemocrat.com.</em>