Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Oh dirt, yes dirt, that lovely, lovely dirt.  You think I've gone mad. Go on, admit it.

I was beating the weeds back in the garden today (around the beds, not in - those are behaving quite nicely) and found that my compost pile has composted rather nicely.  The texture of soil produced by two years of kitchen scraps, ash from the stove and the discarded weeds with bits of dirt attached have combined to make some really fine and outstanding dirt.  I'm really looking forward to turning it into a new bed once I get the initial digging done.

Composting is a terrific thing to do if you have a home garden or lack naturally richly textured soil.  My parents live in the woods and own a strip of grass along side.  The dirt there is the composting of every bag of leaves, twigs, ash and kitchen scrap they've produced over many decades.  Their garden soil is simply the most amazing you'll ever see.  Any garden vegetable will grow there and provided the deer don't get to it, be enjoyed at their table.

So what's with dirt? Why can some people coax forth bounty while others kill everything they plant?  Well, it's the dirt and the planting that matter.  Planting to the proper depth for the plant, shrub or tree in question is essential.  I planted a new $25 dwarf semi-sweet cherry tree about two inches too deep in heavy clay.  Then it rained for 4 weeks.  The tree died a slow drowning death.  I learned of the proper depth after complaining to my horticulturalist co-worker.  You'll notice that everything you buy comes with a suggested planting depth.  Pay attention to this - and if your plant isn't a water and alkaline loving sort, go a shade shallower in heavy clay.

I've talked about clay in the past - how to break it up mechanically or naturally (you should use a spading fork or let Swiss chard do the job - tilling makes potters clay and it will harden quickly in rain) and what to amend with.  Dirt, or more appropriately soil, is a complex thing.  It's alkalinity as well as its composition can vastly affect the health and success of your plant and shrubs.

I planted some hearty figs this year.  They love the alkaline clay and are growing like mad.  My two little blueberry shrubs, though, prefer it more acid and more sandy.  I turned equal parts sand, Canadian sphagnum moss and clay into a coarse mix and worked in a cup of Holly Tone which is an iron additive made for acid loving plants.  The blueberries went into wide holes half full of this mix and then filled over with it.  The plants are doing tolerably well.  If I were to PH test the soil and further fin tune it, I might get a bit more vigor out of them.  As is, I'll need to feed them with Holly Tone (also see Ironite) annually.

In my woods, there is a fair amount of detritus to help the clay be a better soil, but the honey suckle that grows thickly there robs so much shallow nutrients that hardly anything else grows.  Breaking out the honey suckle (hawthorn) at the root crown has allowed this soil to be generous to walnut, maple, wild cherry, ash, box or wax cedar, hosta, periwinkle (myrtle) and Japanese painted ferns.  Thinning has been the balance.  Eliminating also helps but then the shade value is lost and other trees take some time to restore it with their own growth, so I have been carefully mulching and feeding in these areas to help the soil have enough nutrients available, in only the spots I want, to keep my ornamental plants healthy.

Mulching and feeding are topics all their own, but they are critical parts, along with proper composition maintenance, of creating and fostering productive dirt.

No comments: