It’s a good thing I work with people who work with plants: I have the advantage of turning to people in the know to seek advice. What’s the best, indestructible perennial for dry shade? What’s the best, indestructible shrub for dry shade? Plant recommendation upon plant recommendation, I’ve tried them all. Plant recommendation upon plant recommendation, I’ve lost them all.

More than a dozen years into planting and replanting my postage-stamp backyard, I’m starting over – again. It’s the second growing season after I had a new patio installed, and I was waiting this spring to see what emerged following the wrack and ruin of demolition and reconstruction. I practice tough love in the garden: If it survives, it survives. If it doesn’t, there’s always another plant. I justify this approach with the firm belief that I’m supporting the industry.

The plan this year, however, is a bit different. Many of the old standbys made it through, but there’s still (much) room for improvement. And what needs improving, I’ve finally come to accept, is the soil. It’s been a battle since I bought the place and had to remove several layers of landscape fabric and “decorative” stone. I had assumed that the previous residents just weren’t into gardening. Silly me: It’s the soil. Compacted, clay soil, embellished here and there with chunks of concrete and pieces of brick. Little pieces of history, but so far no potsherds or arrowheads.

As if that weren’t enough to contend with, I now have leftovers from the new patio. Gravel has popped up – not pea gravel, not sand, but good-sized, one- to one-and-a-half-inch stones. The rake has been getting a workout.

It wasn’t until I read Joe Boggs’ and Jim Chatfield’s article on “Dealing with Damaged Suburban Soils,” though, that the light finally came on. Their comprehensive article, Part I of which appears on page 22 of this issue, is an outstanding explanation of soil basics. What struck me, aside from Joe’s exceptional illustrations, was that compromised soils can recur.

The house has stood for more than 40 years, and one would think that the soil would have recovered by now. But 12 inches of landscape stone and fabric helped to keep it comatose; more to the point, “new” construction on the site has served to alter it again. And not for the better.

Is this about my frustration? Not at all; oddly, it’s kind of an interesting new challenge. But with the housing market being as goofy as it is, we’re seeing fewer housing starts and a lot of improvements being added to existing homes. The same soil principles apply. Whether it’s a room addition, a new patio or deck, a bigger garage – soil on the site is bound to be damaged. And it’ll need your help.

In the second half of our soils article (appearing next month), you’ll learn what needs to be done to contend with damaged suburban soils. Tear it out and keep it with you; it’s a great reference for your own planning, but I’ll bet clients would appreciate the lesson, too.

Talk dirt with your clients – it’s something I really wish my landscape crew had done when they installed the lovely new pavers. I had specifically asked them about the existing plants, but I never thought to ask about the soil. And without healthy soil, the plants don’t have a chance.

Whether it’s a room addition, a new patio or deck, a bigger garage – soil on the site is bound to be damaged. And it’ll need your help.