‘No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth … and no culture comparable to that of the garden … But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.” Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826)
In my first year at Reading University, all the Landscape Management students were required to take a ten week course in soil science. I was young, ambitious and though passionate about plants, not awfully interested in getting up close and personal with the brown stuff. The classes were taken in an antiquated old building by an equally antiquated old lecturer. Frankly, I had better things to do and paid minimal attention to the shaking of test tubes and flocculation of particles.
Yet as every experienced gardener knows, everything in the garden begins and ends with soil. Fail to attend to it properly and your garden will fail too. Of course there’s many a garden founded on unpromising ground, but any gardener worth their salt attends to the drainage, fertility and structure of the soil first, and worries about the plants later. It’s also true to say that there are plants which will grow happily in the most difficult soils. Some habitats, such as chalk meadows, only exist because the poor conditions reduce vigour and encourage a rich tapestry of plants to co-exist. Over-improve the land and invasive species such as nettles and thistles will move in and take over. But, by and large, in a garden environment soil improvement is an essential and ongoing activity which should not be overlooked.
I am a little older now but, like Mr Jefferson, still a young gardener. I am learning daily, and hopefully by the time I get my hands on a larger plot I will have learnt from my many mistakes and unsuccessful shortcuts. This week the process of lawn removal in London has continued. With pick-axe and fork in hand I have started to undo 15 years of soil compaction that resulted in a highly unsatisfactory lawn. To my great surprise the heavy clay is alive with far juicy worms and I have suddenly become the birds’ best friend as I bring them to the surface. Amongst the slimy yellow clods of pure London clay there is some good workable soil, simply needing loosening up and aerating. Once that task is completed it will be time for a good dose of compost. I’m using a peat-free soil conditioner which has been sustainably produced by blending bracken with good old-fashioned farmyard manure. The mix will provide natural, slow release nutrients and help balance the pH. Whilst the compost will retain moisture it will also improve the structure of the clay so that it drains better. Once that’s worked in, perhaps with a little blood, fish and bone for good measure, it will finally be time to plant …. and not a moment to soon. Caring for the soil can be hard and inglorious work, but whether you consider it a pleasure, a chore or a necessary evil, it’s work that will always pay back in better flowers, fruit and vegetables.
Image – unknown origin but sadly not one of my own!
Organic, peat free compost from Dalefoot composts