Ever wonder why some of your gardens look great year after year, while others go downhill?

Or why does a plant look great in one spot while that same plant fails to grow nearby?

Your site characteristics determine how well a plant will grow.

A site assessment is a simple way to gauge your property’s ability to support healthy plant growth. Completing a site assessment should be the first step when you purchase a property, plan to renovate or expand a garden or start a new garden.

Winter is a good time to take stock and start to put your assessment down on paper.

A site assessment will help you determine your property’s strengths and weaknesses as you collect detailed data about the physical characteristics of your yard. This information will help you make better decisions now and down the road. Determining the pros and cons of a site is critical when making additions or changes to the landscape.

As you discover the assets and shortcomings of your yard, write them down in a notebook or start a file on your computer. Take notes as you identify your needs — such as a play area for the kids — and desires.

Start by making a map of your property to scale on grid-lined paper. Mark where the house, garage, shed, or fences are located.

Your sketch can include other items such as patios, paths, dryer vents, or electrical outlets. You should also record garden dimensions as this information can be used to calculate how much fertilizer, mulch, etc. to buy.

You may also want to mark unsafe spots that need attention such as holes in the ground or a tree with a broken limb.

Add information about overhead wires or underground utilities as this can save you some headaches down the road. This way you can avoid planting trees that will grow too tall under power lines.

If you know where your underground utilities are you can plant shallow rooted perennials or lawn near them. If you do not know where they are, you can call Dig Safely New York at 811.

Record north, south, east, and west on your map.

Knowing where the sunny and shady spots on your property are will help you decide what plants are best suited to that area. If starting a vegetable garden, you want to be sure it is going to be in full sun all day.

Determine your plant hardiness zone based on the USDA map, which you can find online. In WNY most of us are in zone 5 or 6.

Knowing your zone helps you choose plants that are more likely to survive the winter.

You should also try to determine if you have any microclimates on your property. These are spots that may be warmer or colder than your hardiness zone, such as low spots that frost early or protected areas near the house where a tender plant may survive.

Are there places where the wind blows across your property? Wind can quickly dry out a plant and stress it.

You may even lose those plants a year or two after planting. During the winter, wind can be damaging, especially to broad-leaved evergreens such as rhododendrons or boxwood, especially if the ground is frozen or dry.

If your site is very windy, you may want to consider planting a windbreak with trees or shrubs that are wind tolerant. One tip is to look for plants that are a zone colder than your USDA rating.

Do you know what type of soil you have? Is it sandy or maybe it has a lot of clay?

Do you have enough organic matter in the soil? Do you know the pH of your soil?

Most plants prefer a soil pH between 6 and 7. Acid-loving plants, like rhododendron, holly and blueberry prefer a pH of 4.5 to 5.8.

A complete soil test can help you determine pH and nutrient availability. All these things can impact plant growth and help you decide what plants will do best at your site.

This spring look for areas in your yard that are compacted or have poor drainage and mark them on your map.

Compacted soil can inhibit root formation and plant growth. You can amend compacted areas with organic matter, such as compost, to help loosen the soil.

If a site has poor drainage, many plants will not thrive under such conditions. You will either need to correct the problem or choose plants that are tolerant of poorly drained areas.

Does your property have noticeable slopes? If so, you should note them on your map.

Sloped areas may pose erosion problems over time.

Steep slopes may require plants with roots that can help to stabilize the soil. A more expensive solution would be to build a retaining wall.

What plants already exist on your property?

It helps to know what you already have, especially for a new site. If you are making changes to a current garden, you will need to decide if you are keeping plants or if you should remove them.

You may decide some of your plants require more maintenance than you have time for.

How many native plants do you have? Is there an area that you can leave “natural” for pollinators and beneficial insects?

Mark mature trees and shrubs on your map. Note where you have perennial weed problems such as bindweed or poison ivy.

Perennial weeds should be eradicated before installing a new garden.

Once you have finished your site assessment you can start modifying your site, make soil improvements if needed, design your garden, and choose the right plant for the right place.

Maybe this is the year you add a rain barrel. Anytime is a good time to consider how you can decrease your pesticide use.

In the long run, doing a site assessment of your landscape can save you time and money. It can help you avoid future problems and help you create a beautiful and easy to care for garden.

Have a gardening question? The Master Gardener office is open,

Please wear a mask when visiting the Cornell Cooperative Extension office and check in at the reception window.

Master Gardener volunteers are normally in the office Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. until noon. You can stop in at the CCE office at 420 E. Main St. in Batavia, call (585) 343-3040, ext. 127, or e-mail it at: geneseemg@hotmail.com.

If you are new to gardening or thinking about starting a vegetable garden this year join us at noon on Feb. 19 via Zoom for “Vegetable Gardening 101.” We will explore picking the perfect spot in your yard, how to start a successful garden and much more.

This program is free, but registration is required. Check http://genesee.cce.cornell.edu/events/2021/02/19/vegetable-gardening-101 to register.

Our next Garden Talk will be at noon on March 4 via Zoom. Join us to learn about “No Mow Yards” with Master Gardener Connie B.

Manicured lawns are a staple for most front yards. They require a great deal of money and work to keep lush and provide little to no support of a diverse ecosystem.

This program will explore alternatives to the front lawn that are biodiverse, nature friendly and low maintenance.

Registration is required. Visit the events page of our website http://genesee.cce.cornell.edu/events.

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