Give your garden time, not money

This article was originally published in May 2019, in The Point, Crown Point’s community newspaper.

Is something terrible happening to your favourite shrub? Did you make a garden bed last year and everything died? Is your rock-hard soil growing a bumper crop of weeds?

It’s natural for keen gardeners to tackle problems head-on. We want to fix them fast before they get any worse. And, like helicopter parents, we want to help our plants along, even if they’re not showing signs of distress. We want to give them every possible advantage.

Every spring, homeowners, even people with nice established gardens, order a “load of dirt” and spend the next two days schlepping it from the driveway to the garden. Arising from the best intentions, along with a lifetime of consumer habits, the urge to spend our way to garden success is hard to resist.

But we must resist.

Just because it’s one of the few things we can do in April is no reason to do it. Soon it will warm up and the soil will dry out and we can do something other than shovel black stuff onto plants that are just poking their heads up. There are better ways to stay warm in April!

Burning with cabin fever and billboard visions, too often we load up with Big Yellow Bags, little white bags, expensive red bags. We buy treats for our gardens, hoping that, this summer, they’ll finally behave themselves and do what they’re told. But gardens are not consumer items. They scoff at our lazy, puny, and misguided efforts to get them to perform.

Consumer culture permeates modern life. We’re rooted in it and conditioned to expect quick and cheap solutions. Instead of shopping we should take time to observe, analyze, research, diagnose, and understand what’s happening in our gardens.

I have a friend, a non-gardener, who wanted a better front lawn. She lives in an older part of the city, next to a ravine so there are deer, skunks, squirrels, and old trees that make roots and shade. So, having done no research and having only a faint notion (about wanting to “put something on the grass”), she went to Green Horizons / Hamilton Sod and asked for advice. Of course they sent her home with several bags of “black earth” and a bag of fertilizer. When I told her that neither of these were necessary and, if anything, she should have used a light topdressing of compost and overseeded, well she was a little distressed. Her lawn will recover, but what a waste of time it was.

We don’t need products. We need Science. Science tells us how plants function in an ecosystem, how the complex interaction of sunshine, rain, air, mineral-based soil, organic matter, and soil-dwelling organisms, both microscopic and visible, create the conditions for terrestrial life. Biology calls this the carbon cycle. Gardeners call it loam.

And we can’t buy loam. The black earth in the bags is not loam.

Here is what’s in those bags (quoting from the company’s web site): “black loam, peat loam, very-well-decomposed manure and a touch of mineral soil.” I phoned them to get details.

“Black loam” is the anaerobically decomposed remains of ancient grasses and ferns removed from the bottom of deep-water bogs in the Ottawa area. This is what gives the product its dark colour. “Peat loam” is partially decomposed sphagnum moss from peat wetlands in the Turkey Point area. I did not ask where they obtained the “well decomposed manure” but note the use of “decomposed” and not “composted”. This suggests that the manure is not from a managed aerobic process. And, finally, the tiny “mineral soil” portion comes from the sod farm side of the business. So, it’s clear why the product is virtually weed-free. And, although it would likely support microbial life should it encounter any, it is pretty much dead.

A quick note about peat… It is a finite resource and cannot be harvested in a sustainable way. Once the wetland has been destroyed by excavators, there is no going back. The producer may level the ground and plant trees but the wetland is gone forever. As a soil amendment there are far better alternatives to peat: composted manure is probably the best. Composted garden “waste” is also excellent.

Returning to our black earth product, we now shovel the stuff onto the garden, and watch the drainage and growing problems begin. Almost certainly the new “soil” will be different from the existing soil. Anything planted into the soft top layer will have trouble putting down deep roots; once they reach the original soil layer (which is likely to be more dense and compact) they don’t push through. They just go sideways, taking the path of least resistance forced to remain in a biologically inert bathtub of peat

Water, too, will completely saturate the top layer before slowly percolating into the lower layer. It’s simply the physics of the way water travels in soil of different textures. The effect is similar to what happens when we put a raised bed on top of clay: a soggy saturated planting layer perched on top of the native soil at grade.

To create a natural way for water to drain and moisture to wick to the surface we must make a transitional layer by tilling two or three inches of the new soil into the native soil. Then, more can be added. It is well worth the additional effort.

Of course, the better way to avoid these problems is to not add “new” soil in the first place.

Instead of buying stuff to put on our garden we should do what nature does: allow organic matter to decompose in the top few inches of soil. This is the role of leaves—nature’s mulch—that carpet our gardens in the fall. Also, the role of trees that fall and decay into the soil. We can speed this up a bit by chipping the wood and shredding the leaves first. But principle is the same. Organic matter goes on top, in the top few inches.

Soil fauna reproduces and dies so quickly. The microherd both creates and becomes organic matter. They cause channels and pore spaces to open up in the soil, for air and moisture. They are how plant roots are fed in natural systems, in healthy soil. We can’t fake these systems. We can’t buy them. We can provide the right materials, encourage the right conditions, and then we must wait.

Slow gardening, like slow food, has some general guidelines.

Add organic matter. Material such as well-rotted manure, compost, kitchen scraps, or crop residues. Incorporate these lightly into the top six inches of soil–don’t bury them deep. The organisms that do the work of decomposition live where air and moisture are available.

Get something growing. Keep the soil covered with something living for as long as possible. Look into growing “green manure” or “living mulch” plants instead of having bare garden beds, especially over winter. Native grasses have extremely deep roots that, left undisturbed, will travel down up to six feet. Root systems are constantly growing and contracting, sloughing off feeder roots that become food for the microherd, create channels for the movement of water and air and, over time, create what we call good “tilth”– the ability of soil to form sticky crumbs that we love to touch.

Cover thy naked soil with materials that decompose: arborists’ wood chips are a good choice. Straw, hay, and grass clippings can also help. Avoid using mulch made of shredded or chipped wood bark, as well as any mulch made of cedar. These are resistant to decomposition. And, of course, avoid using plastic, landscape cloth and anything else that creates a barrier to rain or air.

Do Not Disturb the soil. Reduce tillage and digging that inverts soil layers. Churning up the habitat of soil-dwelling organisms is harmful to them. Don’t create new soil layers by adding commercial “soil” products.

Right Plant, Right Place. Find plants that will thrive in the soil you’ve got right now. Instead of fretting over creating the right pH for Rhododendrons or trying to fix clay with gypsum, peat, epsom salt, or some other concoction, just get something growing. If you do some research you’ll find there are many uncommon and beautiful plants that will thrive in clay or sand.

Your dream garden is possible. With time, knowledge, care–and no more big bags.

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