Q: I want to redesign my whole yard while I’m on vacation this month. I read I can plant potted plants any time. I need some quick landscaping advice.

A: Has the writer you read ever been outside in a Gulf Coast July or August? Yes, potted plants can be planted any time, but if you want plants to thrive, cooler fall is their best time to develop strong root systems. Reschedule your vacation. You have plenty to do to stay busy — and hot — until then, because fall planting begins now, with summer preparation.

Landscaping, even the basics, is a big topic, so … quick advice? I’m not sure I can do quick. If you’re looking for quick, you could follow us on Twitter at @MoCoGardeners, but in my humble opinion, anyone who does not have time for more than 140 characters doesn’t have time for landscaping, so enjoy this slow version of landscaping basics, written in actual words.

The dirt on landscaping: Healthy plants make their own food when they have appropriate sunlight, and they need water but not too much, healthy soil structure to retain moisture and support microbial action, and minerals and trace elements. Plants have varying soil pH needs, that thing which determines whether your hydrangeas will be acid-blue or alkaline-pink. Get to know your soil with a soil test. Free soil test kits with instructions are available at your Alabama Cooperative Extension, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile.

Photo | Bellingrath Gardens and Home

Photo | Bellingrath Gardens and Home

Soil tests are great, but sometimes you just need to get up-close and personal with your soil. Dig down a couple of feet. Is your soil gray with yellowish streaks? If you squeeze a handful, does it retain a ball shape in your hand? If your answers were yes, you probably have heavy clay soil.

It compacts easily, becomes concrete in drought, but soggy after a Gulf Coast deluge, encouraging root rot. If your Oak leaf hydrangeas suddenly wilted after a run of subtropical rain, they probably developed root rot from staying too wet for too long. Your clay likely has a low pH level, great for acid-loving plants. May your azaleas flourish and your hydrangeas be forever blue.

Read educational publications to discover plants that thrive in the soil you have. There is a reason native, traditional and heritage plants are everywhere. Think azaleas. Think camellias. Think hydrangeas. They survive. Learn to love them.

Decisions, decisions: Go into your yard and decide what to keep. Look for healthy plants that contribute something important: shade, seasonal variety, food and protection for birds and pollinators, a mature specimen you treasure. Request the utilities to come mark underground lines before digging commences, get permits you need, then remove the plants you don’t want.

Assess and record data: Now, slow down. Take a glass of sweet tea and a lawn chair outside to the shade of that wonderful oak tree you saved. You know, the one that brings down the temperature under its canopy by 10 or 15 degrees and hosts a small city of wildlife. Observe and record hours of sun and shade. You may think you already know, but look again.

Gauge seasonal light changes. Find slow-draining spots. Notice where your oak roots will prevent planting. Really observe, then draw a sketch of your yard. This is not art, but make an effort at scale and proportion, and label your areas of sun, shade, low (wet) or high (dry) spots, problems, outlines of buildings, driveways, existing plant beds and how you use spaces. Copy this template to use later, when you add the elements of your new plan.

Lift the hammer — soil preparation: Time now to get out in that summer heat and lift the hammer. Add compost to enrich your soil, loosen compacted soil and use your soil test results to add what is needed. Summer’s heat is also the time to solarize soil to non-chemically reduce weeds and pests (see: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/in856). Spread mulch to enrich and cover the raw earth. Now, let your site settle until fall. On rainy days, visit www.aces.edu/publications to read about Alabama Smart Yards, soil, landscaping and various plant requirements. Come back in two weeks for Part II: Design Tips and Plant Selection. In the meantime, you have plenty to do.

(Free and open to the public)

What: Monthly Master Gardener meeting
When: Thursday, Aug. 4, 10-11:30 a.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N. (Mobile)
Topic: “Preparation for your fall vegetable garden and some variety recommendations”
Speaker: Bill Finch

What: Lunch and Learn
When: Monday, Aug. 15, noon to 1 p.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N. (Mobile)
Topic: “Every Kid Should Eat a Pound of Dirt”
Speaker: Dr. Judy Stout

MASTER GARDENER HELPLINE: Call 1-877-252-4769 or send your gardening questions to coastalalabamagardening@gmail.com.