It's the time of year to start thinking about your soil.
Updated: Mar 5
There are myriad books, websites and programmes that have been produced over the years to explain or illustrate how to create beautiful garden borders or planting schemes. The greatest gardener’s, people such as Gertrude Jekyll, Vita Sackville-West, William Robinson, Christopher Lloyd, Bob Flowerdew and Beth Chatto, to name but a few, are all known to be creator's of the most distinguished gardens and planting schemes. I could name a thousand names more and still not have listed all of the experts whom, in the past, have spoken with authority on the subject of plants and gardens and how to go about creating your horticultural heaven. There is nothing more I can add here on the subject of bountiful borders that you can’t find elsewhere.
What I can do, however, is talk you through what needs to be considered before you head to the nursery, garden centre, market or website to satiate your desire to stick something gorgeous in the ground and watch it grow.
As a garden designer and professional horticulturist, I read a lot about gardens and plants, garden styles and trends, garden designers and gardeners. Everyone has an opinion and most people want everyone else to hear about it. We live in the information age after all. However, even though lots of gardeners and garden designers want to espouse to the world what they know about plants and gardens, I can guarantee that I hear or see less than 1% of professionals talk about THE most important aspect when creating a garden, wherever you are lucky enough to have one. And that is 'The Soil'.
It amazes and frustrates me, almost daily, when gardeners, professional and amateur, still don’t understand this most fundamental aspect of gardening. Got a pesky weed issue? Reach for the weed killer. Slug issue? Slug pellets will sort that. Plants need a boost? Grab the Miracle-Gro. No, no, no, no NO!!!! Let’s run through that again, and this time, see if you can spot the differences. Got a pesky weed issue? Grab a trowel or get on your hands and knees and pull it out or even leave it to flower for the pollinators. Slug issue? Set beer traps, or better still, create a pond and introduce wildlife. Plants need a boost? Dig some organic matter into your soil or mulch it in the late autumn with something rich and fertile. You see the difference? There was a glaring one that anyone interested in creating a garden better not have missed. There was no use of chemicals. Don’t use chemicals. Do. Not. Use. Chemicals.
I understand that plants need chemicals to grow and survive. What plants don’t need, however, are chemicals that kill certain creatures so that other creatures can multiply. Balance is the key to healthy soil and a healthy soil is key to avoiding wasting big bucks on plants that are going to die. Using too much of one chemical can upset that balance and in my opinion, if you’re not gardening organically, you’re lazy and unknowledgeable.
If you want beautiful beds and/or borders in your garden, you’ve got to look at the soil health first. These are the 3 amigo's to consider when thinking about your soil.
Get a testing kit (they’re very cheap) and test your soil to establish its acidity/alkalinity levels.
Once analysed you’ll know what plants are going to prosper in your garden. You can play around with the acidity/alkalinity levels in your garden soil to enable you to grow the plants you desire to grow by adding lime, for example, to acidic soils to increase alkalinity or by adding sulphur to alkaline soils to help create higher acidity levels. However, this is a long game, not an overnight process, and to be honest, it isn’t something I would encourage. Why? Well, no matter what you do to try to change your soils ph level, if you look around your garden you will quickly see the reason why your soil has the ph levels it does. Unless you are going to start ripping up trees or creating underground barriers to stop the transference of minerals from surrounding areas entering your soils ecosystem than this will be an undertaking you’ll never stop participating in. Got acidic soil? Deal with it. Got alkaline soil? Deal with it. You’ll have more time to enjoy your garden if you work with what you have and if you’ve always wanted blue hydrangeas but your alkaline soil will only encourage the pink flowers to bloom, get a pot... (although hydrangeas don’t do so well in pots so maybe just don’t buy a hydrangea)!
Now focus on what you need to add to your soil to make it as fertile as possible.
If it’s acidic, you could try sphagnum moss, pine needles or bark chippings, amongst other things. ➡
If it’s alkaline, which the majority of our garden soils in the South East of England would be, use leaf-mould (but not from pine leaves), mushroom compost, well-rotted horse manure (it has to be well-rotted otherwise it can cause plant burn, which can kill plants, due to the high levels of nitrogen, ammonium and salts in fresh manure that need to be removed by composting) or good-old homemade compost. ⬇
I use a mixture of well-rotted horse manure and homemade compost on my alkaline soil. By using homemade compost made up of some garden waste, you are putting local bacteria back into the soil which is better for the soil ecosystem and as what the ecosystem has helped create through plant growth/flower production is being returned to the soil, it is therefore contributing to the maintenance of healthy symbiotic relationships. However, there are certain materials that shouldn’t be added to your compost, materials that could affect the ph balance of your soil. Citrus or coffee grounds for example can add acidity to your soil so shouldn’t be composted in large quantities if you have an alkaline soil ph.
It is also worth mentioning that any home compost should consist of a rough ratio of 30:1 carbon (paper, cardboard and woody materials) to green waste (grass clippings, plant debris, and food waste).
There are different methods of adding rich, fertile matter to your soil and at different times of year these should be done for optimum results. Some people like to dig the matter into the soil and some people like to leave it as mulch and let the worms take it down over time. If you’re a proponent of the no-dig philosophy made famous by Charles Dowding then you will understand the potential harm that is caused by digging into your soil and disrupting the ecosystem that has been building there over time (read more about the no dig philosophy here... No Dig). If worrying about bacteria, mycelium and mycorrhizal fungi is a step too far for you, grab a fork or spade and get digging. If spreading mulch on top of the soil, it helps to do so before the wettest months of the year arrive so that the rains can encourage the soil life to come to the surface to feast and therefore create new soil from it (yes i mean worm poo, amongst other things). This also allows nutrients to get down into the soil before the majority of planting or seed sowing takes place, in the spring.
So, you’ve worked out your soil type, introduced the necessary beneficial fertility and now you’re ready to plant, right? WRONG!!!
One more key factor regarding soil that needs to be decided before you start thinking about plants is its structure. Want a Mediterranean garden, full of herbs for the kitchen?
Got heavy, water-retentive clay soil? Forget about it.
Want a beautiful rose garden, flowering all through the summer, replete with big, fragrant blooms? Got sandy or rocky free draining soil? Never gonna happen.
Want lush, green, tropical looking leaves to create your own Eden, reminiscent of those places you travelled to when you were young and happy...?! Got a Leylandii leaching out all of the moisture and nutrients in the soil nearby? Who you kiddin’?
Soil structure is just as important to consider as ph make-up and fertility. A good soil structure will mean less watering as the soil is able to hold more water, meaning less is lost through surface run off or drainage. It will also reduce the potential for soil compaction. If you’re growing food, to maximise the nutrient uptake by the plants’ roots, you should aim for your soil particles to be between 1-10 mm in diameter and they should remain stable when moist. This doesn’t mean you need to go and get your ruler and start measuring all of the components in the handful of soil you have just scooped up but it’s worth noting that a good mixture of sand, silt, clay and organic matter should mean a healthy soil structure. Again, you can change the structure of your soil by adding fertile, organic matter but this may not be the correct method for growing the type of plants you have set your heart on. After all, that well-rotted horse manure you just dug in might help to break up those clay particles in your soil but those herbs will become leggy and prostrate in your new, nutrient-rich beds. Those flamboyant dahlias that you dream of flowering at the end of the summer until the first frosts of late autumn, the ones that you’re going to plant in that boggy patch down by the shed? No way, Jose.
Those tubers will rot quicker than you can say ‘Where the hell are my dahlia tubers that I dreamed of flowering at the end of summer until the first frosts of autumn, the ones that I planted in that boggy patch down by the shed?’ The structure will determine, just like the soil ph, what type of plants you can plant and needs to be understood so that you introduce the right material to enhance it. In general, yes, fertile, organic matter will create a good soil structure but it takes time and you may need the addition of gravel or horticultural grit to improve drainage on heavy soils or well-rotted horse manure on sandy soils to add the bulk that a mushroom compost, for example, won’t add.
One more thing
Taking notice of these three key areas of your soil will reap massive rewards for your garden if considered at this time of year. Remember, hard work now will result in much bigger blooms and healthier plants next year.
Now, you finally ready to shoot off to the shops to start spending money on those gorgeous plants you’ve been dreaming of? You sure? OK, off you go then. Oh, one more thing, what about your aspect...?
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