THE DIRT on suc­cess­ful gar­den­ing

Good soil key to grow­ing healthy plants

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - HOMES - COLLEEN ZACHARIAS

WHAT are you plan­ning to do dif­fer­ently in your gar­den this year? With the start of a new year, most gar­den­ers en­vi­sion a new and bet­ter way of do­ing things. Whether you are fu­elled by frus­tra­tion be­cause of un­der­per­form­ing plants or in­spired by the prospect of in­stalling new ones, get to the heart of the mat­ter by first as­sess­ing your soil. The state of your soil may not rate as the sex­i­est as­pect of gar­den­ing, but when it’s work­ing for you, it’s a sat­is­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Sparkling eyes, glow­ing hair, ra­di­ant skin — th­ese are the things we no­tice first in some­one who is glow­ing with good health. Visit a gar­den with sturdy, ro­bust plants that are able to achieve their max­i­mum size at ma­tu­rity, sport­ing healthy fo­liage, more nu­mer­ous, larger blooms or higher yields, then look at the soil. Plants are only as good as the soil they are planted in. It is the in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness be­tween the roots of plants and their abil­ity to ac­cess what they need that de­ter­mines the over­all health of plants. Soil is se­ri­ous business. 2015 has been de­clared by the United Na­tions Gen­eral Assem­bly as the In­ter­na­tional Year of Soils in recog­ni­tion of soil’s in­valu­able re­la­tion­ship to veg­e­ta­tion and agri­cul­ture. A peren­nial bed or back­yard veg­etable gar­den may not fig­ure large in the grand scheme of things, but there is a great deal of life in even the small­est patch of earth, and it is ours to man­age as best we can. You can call it dirt, but even just a hand­ful is teem­ing with es­sen­tial liv­ing or­gan­isms such as bac­te­ria, fungi, earth­worms, cen­tipedes and much more. In ad­di­tion to liv­ing or­gan­isms, ev­ery soil con­sists of min­eral and or­ganic mat­ter, wa­ter and air. Soil is made up of dif­fer­ent sizes of min­eral and or­ganic par­ti­cles. The tex­ture of your soil is de­ter­mined by the proportions of clay, silt and sand, all of which in­flu­ence soil struc­ture. The strat­egy to im­prov­ing one’s soil be­gins with un­der­stand­ing the proportions of its ba­sic com­po­nents. In our part of the world, the soil is pri­mar­ily clay and al­ka­line, a recipe for chal­leng­ing con­di­tions and yet con­sti­tutes some of the most pro­duc­tive soil on the Prairies. Un­for­tu­nately, the soil in ur­ban ar­eas is quite of­ten de­pleted of nu­tri­ents. But let’s talk in plain terms about that hand­ful. Can you ac­tu­ally scoop up your gar­den soil with your hands? Or is it dif­fi­cult to even slice a spade through? Does it ap­pear rich and crumb-like or is it packed hard and crust­ing? Does wa­ter flow eas­ily or does it pud­dle on the soil sur­face? Even if you are sat­is­fied with the soil in some ar­eas of your gar­den, other ar­eas may need im­prove­ment. Lyn­don Pen­ner is the au­thor of The Prairie Short Sea­son Yard (Brush Ed­u­ca­tion, 2014). A land­scape de­signer and hor­ti­cul­tural con­sul­tant, Pen­ner grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan where a layer of rocks was never too far be­low the sur­face of the soil. Plant­ing a sin­gle tree could take hours. Pen­ner has planted many gar­dens and to­day preaches the ben­e­fits of top­dress­ing and mulching to im­prove the soil’s nat­u­ral fer­til­ity. Not just oc­ca­sion­ally, but ev­ery sin­gle year. In­ter­est­ingly, it is less work than it sounds. Pen­ner de­scribes a bed of soil in a friend’s gar­den that is so mag­nif­i­cent he would like to lie down in it. He com­pares it to freshly ground cof­fee. And yet, when his friend first moved to her prop­erty and be­gan work­ing in the hard, com­pacted clay soil, her spade broke in half. To­day her soil is fra­grant and rich with nu­tri­ents and a joy to work in. Her se­cret? Con­sec­u­tive years of faith­fully feed­ing her soil with or­ganic mat­ter. Pen­ner ac­knowl­edges it takes time to amend soil. He longs for an un­lim­ited sup­ply of com­post or or­ganic de­bris with which to fill his wheel­bar­row. His recipe for im­proved fer­til­ity con­sists of com­post with added ma­nure, and some kelp meal. He top­dresses with 2.5 cen­time­tres of this mix­ture then adds a 2.5 cm layer of mulch. If the gar­den is brand new, he in­creases the depths of each layer by another 1.27 cm. Pen­ner prefers cedar mulch be­cause of how good it smells but also rec­om­mends shred­ded bark. One of his clients uses only alpine mulch, a very fine tex­tured, aro­matic mulch made from com­posted pine mulch and suit­able for mulching around small, del­i­cate alpine plants. Another client gath­ers fallen pine cones and mulches with those. A cou­ple of ques­tions quickly arise. Does the top­dress­ing need to be worked into the soil? How long does it take for the mulch to break down be­fore the next layer of top­dress­ing can be ap­plied? Pen­ner knows some gar­den­ers like to use a gar­den fork to work the top­dress­ing in and around each plant. He doesn’t, pre­fer­ring to leave this task to the worms. The size of the bark chips dic­tates the rate at which it breaks down. “It’s an as­tound­ing process,” says Pen­ner, who in­sists gar­den­ers re­ally don’t need to fa­cil­i­tate ev­ery­thing. “Th­ese are pro­cesses that have gone on since the be­gin­ning of our planet. It’s a nat­u­ral oc­cur­rence for or­ganic mat­ter to de­com­pose and work its way back into the soil. We’re just cre­at­ing the sit­u­a­tion where that can hap­pen.” The fol­low­ing spring or fall, when the or­ganic mat­ter is at least 50 per cent de­com­posed, Pen­ner ap­plies another thin layer of or­ganic de­bris, then a layer of mulch and re­peats the process the next year and the next, a stack­ing of lay­ers, so to speak, with a view to feed­ing the soil, which in turn feeds the plants. When soil lacks in suf­fi­cient wa­ter and nu­tri­ents, plants are ef­fec­tively starved. Some plants, such as pep­pers and toma­toes, have high nu­tri­ent re­quire­ments. If the nu­tri­ents sup­plied are min­i­mal, then your har­vest will be min­i­mal. The even­tual re­sult of adding or­ganic mat­ter is a health­ier, more fer­tile soil with im­proved tex­ture and aer­a­tion and hence, greater poros­ity. Your soil will be less com­pacted as wa­ter is able to move more freely, but also it will be able to hold a re­serve of mois­ture be­tween the par­ti­cles for dry pe­ri­ods while al­low­ing a con­stant flow of air, de­liv­er­ing life-giv­ing oxy­gen to the root sys­tems of plants. Let trees do some of the work for you. Al­low for an undis­turbed layer of leaves each fall in your flower beds, sim­i­lar to the or­ganic layer on the for­est floor that de­com­poses back into the ground. The blan­ket of leaves pro­tects the roots and crowns of plants over the win­ter and en­cour­ages ben­e­fi­cial in­sects such as lady­bugs to in­habit your gar­den.

In the spring­time, Pen­ner clears away some of the leaves, but does not re­move all of them. In the de­cid­u­ous for­est, he says, the trees are sup­posed to have leaf mould around their base. Think about what you are us­ing for trac­tion this win­ter on your drive­way and side­walk. Salt is dam­ag­ing to nearby flower beds. Pen­ner sug­gests us­ing ze­o­lite, a coarse soil amend­ment made from por­ous vol­canic rock that works well on icy path­ways and is ex­cel­lent for break­ing up heavy clay. Vic Lesser, man­ager of Red River Soils, a whole­sale sup­plier, says home­own­ers in new hous­ing de­vel­op­ments face a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge in restor­ing fer­til­ity to their soil. With the top­soil re­moved and the sub­soil se­verely com­pacted from heavy build­ing equip­ment, the re­main­ing soil is in­hos­pitable to plant growth be­cause of poor soil struc­ture and the re­sult­ing re­duced move­ment of wa­ter and air in the soil. At the very min­i­mum, a 30-cm layer of qual­ity top­soil will be needed for land­scap­ing a new, un­de­vel­oped prop­erty. Lesser says that num­ber

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