By Carol Cavanaugh, firstname.lastname@example.org
Do you think you could flourish if you had no access to food, water, or an environment that lets you thrive? No, I didn’t think so! It’s the same in the plant world. You’ve got to match the spots in your garden … sunny, hot, and dry or cool, shady, and moist … to the needs of individual plants for them to really strut their stuff. An equally critical element in a garden’s success, and our topic this month, is the quality of the soil. This sometimes-overlooked factor can create the difference between a luxurious garden paradise and a miserable heap of scrawny survivors.
Here in Burleith, our soil has a lot of clay. Though I’ve heard people lament this fact, clay soil is not entirely a bad thing. Porous soils may dry out so quickly that it’s impossible to keep moisture in the soil. Clay soils retain more water but can have drainage problems, as clay can become very compacted. So, while our soils are not ideal for rock garden plants, they might delight plants that like it a little soggy, and make you happy that you don’t have to water daily.
A key factor in planting is to loosen the soil all around and underneath your planting site, thereby avoiding the Dreaded Teacup Effect. The DTE, as I’ll call it, is a side effect of lazy gardening. You have an annual in a pot with a 4" diameter and a 4" depth. So you dig a hole 4" in diameter and 4" deep, right? Wrong! Think about what will happen. Your new plant probably was potted in really porous soil. If the roots are delicate, they may have a hard time growing outward through the denser clay layer around them. Now rain comes in and pours right through that porous soil, hits the harder clay underneath and all around, and just sits there. Your plant’s roots are trapped, so they can’t rise to the surface gasping for air like you would at the swimming pool. Yikes! Dead plant! If you dig a hole larger and deeper than you need, and then backfill it with loosened soil you got from that hole, the roots have room to spread, and water has more space to soak into.
As for soil amendments, my choice is Leaf-Gro. This organic substance (essentially, it’s composted leaves) provides Better Living Without Chemicals. To your plants, it’s black gold. Here again, you have to use it wisely, because it will increase the ability of soil to hold water. If starting a new bed, spread a few inches of Leaf-Gro on top and then dig it in well, loosening the soil to 6 inches down or so, and combining the Leaf-Gro well. If you just want to put in a few plants, use judiciously, again making the hole large and digging in the Leaf- Gro well, unless you are growing tropicals such as elephant ear (with these, use lots of Leaf-Gro and let them guzzle water). You can also top-dress soil with Leaf-Gro, using it like mulch and then letting the rain slowly transfer nutrients to the soil underneath.