Deomonstrating soil quality

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Soil that sticks together nicely, but breaks up with just a hint of pressure. That’s loamy soil with organic matter (compost) mixed in.

Soil that doesn’t stick together very well– a little too sandy. This is garden mixture that I bought last year. It’s OK, but doesn’t have enough organic matter to support earthworms, so it’s not improving over time. (Sorry, pretty crappy quality of video. I’m new at this!)

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A Primer On Soil Characteristics–Part 1

What’s your soil like?

Here are some of the possibilities:

Clay-ish: rich in nutrients, but very fine particles, so it clumps together so much that there’s no air spaces between particles. Doesn’t drain very well.

Sandy-ish: almost no nutrients, but very large particles, so drains very well. So well in fact it’s hard to keep plants hydrated.

Loamy-ish: this is your preferred quality, a combination of both clay and sand, so enough fine particles to hold onto water, and enough course particles to let it go.

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Notice the happy little worm in the middle of the pic enjoying the combination of loam and organic matter.

(All pictures are enlargeable by clicking on them.)

I’ve posted two short videos here to demonstrate nice loamy soil that sticks together weakly, and slightly too sandy soil that I bought as garden soil amendment.

Then there’s organic matter.

Organic matter bulks up soil making it “fluffy”. It is also what attracts earthworms and microorganisms, both of which do the real work of making soil healthy. Earthworms eat small portions of food and plant material, leaving behind “castings”–earthworm poo, aka “black gold” (not to be confused with “black gold–Texas Tea”). And bacteria and fungi are able to take molecules of nitrogen that are unavailable to plants and convert it to ammonium and nitrate that is available to plants.

Optimal soil is loamy and rich in organic matter. But really, we have what we have, and trying to change it can be an exercise in major frustration!

Wendy tells me she has clay soil.

Her backyard is flat, at the bottom of a hill, and in the winter the turf is VERY soggy. In the summer it’s so dry it’s like straw; she figures that because there isn’t enough depth of topsoil on top of the clay so it’s difficult for the grass to put down deep roots.

Really sounds like she’s got it right. Unless you’ve got at least 6″ of topsoil, preferably 8″ of topsoil, grass will not do well. There just isn’t enough depth for a reservoir of moisture and nutrients deeper than the roots, so they don’t reach downward. And if underneath that not-quite-deep-enough layer of topsoil is predominately clay, the clay creates a barrier underneath the layer of topsoil allowing a pool of water to collect when it’s wet. Roots of plants that aren’t really “bog-tolerant” will either rot, or just stay shallow. When the rains stop the pool of water eventually dries out, but the grass roots are still petty shallow and suffer from the relative drought. Even if you water the lawn regularly, there’s still that clay barrier just a few inches away preventing proper drainage.

Wendy thought she would like to  dig it all out, put a better layer of topsoil, and seed a new lawn.

What do you think? What would you advise Wendy to do?

For those who are interested, here’s an excellent short article on managing turf on clay soils.

There seems to be no one solution to improving the site. If you scrape and replace, you’ve still got the layer of clay underneath, and sooner or later end up with the same results. If you regularly add layers of organic matter on top, eventually the worms will do a great job of incorporating the OM with the clay without the damage that rototilling would do. Do you want to work on this project for 5 years or so? (I would.) If you already have large shrubs or trees, they have adapted to the current level of the ground, and their superficial roots would surely not appreciate several inches of material on their heads, effectively suffocating them. So if you do choose the “top dressing” option, keep those layers less than about 2-3″.

Now here’s a couple other options, and both involve abandoning any attempt to have a grassy lawn:

1. Substitute your grass turf with another lawn alternative.

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Thanks to A Small Green Space for her picture of a clover lawn.

Dutch White Clover will grow from seed on your clay patch, and if you already have grass “growing” there, the clover will happily coexist. If the site is bare, sow a lot of clover.

Sedges are another option, such as Carex “Hime Kawasuga” or C. pennsylvanica, short growing, underground spreading, infrequently mow-able clumping grasses.

I’ll do another post exclusively on lawn alternatives, so stay tuned…

2. Raised beds. Instead of trying to manage the whole yard, build several raised beds with pathways in between. These can be your typical 2×8″ boards filled with compost and soil, or something a lot more attractive and creative-looking like dry-stack stones in less rectangular shapes.

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Dry-stack bricks, not dry-stack rocks, but still very cool.

This has been an overly long post, so I’ll stop here and save the rest for a future post.

Do you have soil that is less than Ideal? In fact, how do I even know if it is less than ideal, or if it’s my less-than-optimal technique that’s responsible for under-performing plants?

Leave a comment, share this to your favourite social network site, ask questions. You don’t need to suffer with a garden space that doesn’t meet your needs. Let’s get things working better!

As Promised, Creating Your Herb Container Garden

There’s no shortage of Youtube videos on creating your container Herb Garden, so I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. Here’s one that covers all the essentials–Susan Doherty on six minute style.

So I’ll just make a few comments both on what Susan Doherty said, and what she didn’t say:

Pots:

The bigger the better. I’ve said this quite a few times now, but for a bunch of reasons I usually go too small when it comes to containers, and I’d like to save you the headache of failure. I’m not very big or strong and so I’d rather not have to move a 100 kg (filled with wet potting mix) container; I’m cheap so I’d rather not pay for a large (beautiful ceramic) container; I don’t have much space, so I’m not sure where to put a large heavy beautiful container. All bad reasons for going small. In fact there are not many good reasons for going small.

Using strawberry pots is often recommended for herbs, but there are a few problems with them, which of course I’ll explain:

http://gardenwithpassion.com/tower-herb-garden/

Cute as anything “herb tower”, but…

As you can see in the picture, each of the side pockets houses one plant. Which means that each of these plants has a very small, terracotta (read “dries out quickly”) pot. So keeping these outside plants adequately hydrated is a little tricky. And when you water from the top, the water tends to pour out the pockets rather than going all the way to the bottom. There are ways of preventing this–for example, using pvc pipes with lots of holes drilled–but IMHO the advantages aren’t worth the work. Choosing ceramic instead of terracotta is a little better for the first problem, but none at all for the second.

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It’s difficult to gauge scale here, but at about 16″ tall and 18″ in diameter, this would be ideal for any combination of herbs.

Watering:

Your big container won’t need watering all that often. Even in the heat of summer, a lot of potting mix will hold a lot of water, and your herbs are not big water guzzlers. (Other container-happy plants ARE big water guzzlers, so this won’t apply to them.) Expect to water once a week, but check more often than that: push a chopstick into the soil about 2-3″, and if it comes out still pretty dry–not much soil sticking to the chopstick–it’s time to water.

When you do water, make sure you see water escaping the bottom through the excellent drainage holes you drilled before you started. Did you drill excellent drainage holes? Did you check your pot to see how many and how big the drainage holes were? All you want is safe drainage–you don’t want stagnant water. I love this picture from Winsford Walled Garden.

The tiny pot has four LARGE holes, the MUCH bigger pots has a lot of TINY holes. Take a drill and make those small ones much larger.

The tiny pot has four LARGE holes, the MUCH bigger pots has a lot of TINY holes. Take a drill and make those small ones much larger. For ceramic pots use a “spear-point” drill bit or a “core” drill bit.

And incidentally, you don’t want to do what was always recommended (and unfortunately still is), that is to put broken crock (clay pots) or pebbles in the bottom of your container to “aid drainage”. For I can’t remember what  scientific reason (and Google is stubbornly resisting me here), water wants to stay in its comfort-zone rather than going somewhere else. So your styrofoam peanuts or gravel or broken pots or crushed pop cans or plastic milk jugs, or what ever you’ve put at the bottom of your pot for whatever reason, is going to HINDER drainage, not AID it. The water will stay in the soil, not drain into space, so your pot will get actually waterlogged instead of draining freely, and your plants won’t like it much.

Where Is It?

In most cases, your container garden will be positioned with an unequal amount of sun front and back. The plants on one side of the pot will get more sun than the plants on the back. Not a problem! Tall things at the “back”, short things at the “front”. Or more shade tolerant at the back, less shade-tolerant at the front. Or put the pot on a lazy susan and rotate every few days. That’s my own preference, because it also lets me move the container whenever I want. You can buy container lazy susans, (pardon the unintentional plug for Home Depot), but they’re not very durable, and the wheels are a bit small. I made one myself years ago with 2×4’s that is still working just fine, and the key element was large castors.

Now besides what plants get how much sun, the other question here is, Is it on a balcony? Will your neighbours be upset if your draining container is pouring down onto their balcony? You’ll want to have a nice big saucer to collect all that draining-out water. Some will (reasonably) recommend that you not let your pot sit in water for more than an hour, but emptying that saucer from underneath a 100kg pot is easier said than done. So yes, water until you see drainage out the bottom, but only as much as will fill your nice big saucer. And don’t worry too much about standing water, you won’t likely see mosquitos breeding there, and the roots of your plants are nowhere near the water level, so they’re not going to rot.

One Last Really Important Thing…

…Make sure your plants are all well hydrated before they go into the large container. Remember water not wanting to leave its comfort zone? If you water the newly planted container, but the individual plants’ soil is dry, the new water will not want to invade the plants’ dry zone, and it will take some long period of time (maybe days?) for the dry zone to wick up water from the wet zone, meanwhile the plant is panting for water and may not survive the ordeal.

So it’s not rocket science. And whether you get it all right first time round or not, never worry, just enjoy the process. Next year you can do things a little different.

Comments? Questions? Leave a reply, share to your preferred social media site… And stay tuned for the next post. You may want to click on the “Follow” button.

These Are a Few of My Favourite … Herbs

Everyone seems to want to grow herbs. When I look at custom garden designs, many of them have a dedicated “herb garden”, often in a knot garden kind of look. Here’s a link to a detailed How To for an Herb Knot Garden, thanks to DIY Network . Personally, I prefer to have my herbs scattered among all the other plants of the garden. For a few reasons:

Flowering Herbs

All your herbs will flower at one time or another, and it’s nice to have them contributing to the overall look of your flower or vegetable beds. Chives for example put on a lovely show of purple balls, so why isolate them when they’d look lovely with anything red or yellow or white–or almost any colour.

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Chive flowers and friendly bee.

The picture leads me to another reason to plant your herbs in mixed-use beds:

Attracting Beneficials

There’s no way to avoid the presence of precious-plant-eating garden denizens, but there are LOTS of ways to minimize them, and most important of those ways is to attract to your garden the good insects that feed on the bad insects. You do that by planting the plants the good guys like, inviting them to your house. Then they see that you’ve also laid the table with their other favourite foods–like aphid larvae–yum, yum!

A lot of flowers attract beneficial insects, but it seems the flowers of herbs are particularly adept at that. Diane’s Flower Seeds has a list of flowering plants that attract bees, butterflies, lacewings (the list of beneficial insects is pretty long…), and the vast majority are herbs.

Pollination

You can see in the chives picture the flowers are attracting bees which are key to pollination. So plant bee-loving herbs near tomatoes or cucumbers or squash. Thyme,  oregano, dill, parsley, cilantro, all are herbs that will attract the bees.

Sun or Shade

Some herbs will grow in almost any amount of sun or shade. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a member of the mint family, which means it’s a THUG. It’ll grow anywhere, take over any space, and outcompete anything that was there before it. But the smell is divine, and makes some kind of therapeutic tea (you can tell I’m a real fan of herbal teas…), so if you want to grow it, just make sure it’s in a container–containing it from spreading.

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Lemon Balm–I’ve been pulling this out of the garden for three years, thanks to the tenant’s love of herbal teas.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) on the other hand wants FULL sun, and lots of heat. So don’t plant it until our coastal BC nights are over 10 C. That’ll be June at the earliest.

Unfortunately for the person with a mainly shady garden, almost all herbs (excepting the afore-mentioned mint family) want at least half-day sun. But if you don’t have outdoor sunny space, maybe you have indoor sunny space–a window sill? Basil will still grow happily indoors as long as that window is south facing with the sun streaming in almost all day.

So here are my list of favourites: first the part-shade-tolerant:

Parsley: EASY to grow, perennial, fabulous rich green colour, hard to kill.

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I’ve accidentally dug up the parsley many times thinking it was buttercup, and it always comes back. But unlike the dreaded mint family, it’s quite civilized in its spread.

Oregano: even tho’ it’s a Mediterranean herb, indicating full sun and lots of heat, it really will grow in quite a variety of spots, and perennial in our zone. Mine is in the sun until the vegetables grow up in front of it, then it gets lots of shade. It’s still happy as a clam.

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Growing at the foot of the grapevine in this picture, under roses in another spot.

Cilantro: (Coriander sativum) What a brilliant herb. It tolerates cold, so it can be planted as seed really early in the spring. I sowed seed last fall, and it’s coming up now. Once the weather gets warm, it’ll begin to flower, and that’s the end of the cilantro, but not the end of coriander–the seed of the same plant. Wait for the seed heads to get white, and you can collect the seed for cooking or for replanting. But you don’t have to wait for next year to get more, you can keep sowing seed all later summer and fall. Once the nights get coolish again,  your cilantro will happily keep putting out leaves. And a little shade from perennials that grow up around it will help keep it cool as the weather warms up–giving you maybe a few more weeks of harvest. The more you take, the more you get.

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Cilantro in amongst the garlic–that is, I think it’s garlic…

Favourites that really want a lot of sun:

Basil: I just can’t be without it. And when there’s lots and I want to harvest more than I need now (to stimulate more growth–take more and you’ll get more!), I just put the fresh leaves/stems in a baggy and freeze the whole shebang. Or of course you can make your batch of pesto and freeze it in small portions. Basil won’t survive our winters–in fact it’ll barely survive our Falls. Before the nights get cold you can dig it up and put in a pot in that sunny window. Should be able to get a few more harvests from it.

Dill: Wants lot of sun, but it’s another plant that tolerates cool temperatures, and will start to flower as it gets hot, and stop making leaves. So don’t sow all your seed to begin with; sow about 1/4 of the seeds now, then once those flower, start another batch, and every few weeks after that.

Rosemary: Another herb it’s hard to be without. Rosemary wants full sun, and altho’ it is perennial in our zone, it’s best to offer it some winter protection in case we get a colder than usual winter. I bought two rosemary plants late in the season last year, and potted them in 1 gallon pots so they could live on the protected porch through the winter. When the soil gets warm I’ll plant them out in the garden.

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You can see it’s been a little cold-damaged on leaf tips, but it’s happily putting out new growth.

This post is already way too long, so stay tuned for the next one when I’ll tell you how you can grow most or all of these in containers.

Feel free to ask me questions, after all, that’s the point of this blog. And share in your chosen forum. 🙂

Fragrance in the Garden

I’m sitting here in the living room doing some computer work, and intermittently something distracts me. I’ve just realized it’s fragrance!

I went outside an hour ago just to get some air, and was drawn into the garden by the scent of the Daphne odora, across from the front steps. Beside the front steps is Skimmia japonica, and it was actually the Skimmia that attracted me. So I cut off a few stems and put them in a vase here a few feet away from where I’m working. And carried on working.

Every few minutes I’d raise my head–obviously distracted by something, but not really thinking of it–then go back to work. Until I realized I was subconsciously noticing the beautiful scent of the Skimmia.

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Just a few branches cut from Skimmia leaving the shrub looking untouched.

What and Where to Plant

You can’t overestimate the value of fragrance in either the garden or the house. (Admittedly, you have to be careful about fragrance in the house. Hyacinths out in the flower border will be delightful; in the house might make your eyes weep!)

The key to fragrance in the garden is to plant your sweet-smelling flowers and shrubs where they will be brushed against, or otherwise appreciated close enough to actually smell them.

For example, if you plant creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum , not Thymus vulgaris, which despite the vulgar name is actually the eating variety) you really want it to be underfoot. Walking on it (perfectly tolerant of walking on, but maybe not playing soccer on) will release those delicious aromatic oils. Do be careful of the bees that also love it…

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Plants and Stones blog–click to link

I have Sarcococca confusa on the other side of the front steps, and as I come in from the car, I brush past it. Sarcococca (or Sweetbox) blooms in January, and the surprise of the garden giving such extravagance in the middle of winter makes it one of the more valuable shrubs around. And perfect for coastal BC, where it’s shade loving, evergreen, and pretty much maintenance-free.

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Fragrant Sweet Box by my front door. I brush by it on the way to and from the car.

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It’s difficult to tell from the picture, but the flowers are almost invisible, yet they deliver disproportional sweet scent.

How have you incorporated fragrance in your garden? How would you like to incorporate fragrance in your garden? Leave a comment…