Around the Garden with Busy Lizzie

I have a wonderful old book entitled ‘Your New Garden’, which was written in the days of mass new housing development and is specifically directed at the new home owner who is confronted with making a garden of his own, perhaps for the very first time.

Most of these garden areas would have been little more than building sites and refuse grounds and most would also have had little in the way of useable, fertile soil.

Archaic phrases such as ‘Double Digging’, ‘Chemical Fertilizers’ and ‘Clay Breakers’, much used by this veritable tome, are, thankfully, now a thing of the past as there are a wealth of products available to the modern gardener which will help him, or her, to improve their plot with little effort.

However, a cleared plot ready for cultivation offers an invaluable opportunity to look at the soil again and to provide it with some much needed improvement.

In my grand scheme of garden re-juvenation, this is my task for this month.

Digging is, surprisingly, a controversial issue these days.

There is now a well researched and documented argument against any kind of soil disturbance.

The addition of regular top-mulching being enough to keep soil in good condition and adequately fertile for the job.

Digging, boffins argue, merely serves to break down soil structure and disturb beneficial organisms.

By and large, I agree.

Some of the most productive areas of my garden have been left un-dug since initial cultivation several years ago.

However, when dealing with previously un-cultivated ground or that which may have become jaded through over-production, a little cultivation is necessary in order to give the new inhabitants a good start in life.

Remember that any herbaceous planting is likely to be in situ for several years, shrubs and trees for much longer, so getting the goodness in to the soil now is to be highly recommended.

Firstly, invest in a soil testing kit.

These are cheap and very useful.

Soil acidity levels can vary dramatically throughout even the smallest of areas and if you are intending to plant something that requires a certain level of acidity or alkalinity then knowing your soils pH is imperative.

Just follow the instructions on the packet and test in several different areas, both before and after soil improvement.

Anything with a pH below 5.5 is considered acid and ideal for Azaleas, Rhododendrons, and Pieris; anything over 7.5 is considered alkali and ideal for Verbascums, Ceanothus and Box.

A pH of around 6.5 is considered neutral and hospitable to a huge range of plants.

Adjusting the pH level of soil is not always straightforward.

It is often easier to turn a neutral soil to a more acid one with the inclusion of acidifying material such as flowers of sulphur or fertilizers such as sulphate of ammonia.

Digging in composted bracken or bark may also help and of course there is also garden peat (which I hardly dare mention as its harvesting is such a contentious issue).

Adjusting soil to raise the pH is more difficult.

The addition of garden lime can be detrimental if your soil is neutral or acid and if the soil contains a high percentage of clay or organic matter, any adjustment is likely to be unsuccessful.

The best thing to do is to live with what you have been given and plant accordingly.

Soil types are easier to deal with.

Pick up a handful and squeeze it.

If it forms a ball, it is clay, if it crumbles it is loam, if it will not form anything it is sandy.

This will give you a measure of how well the soil is likely to drain and is again a strong indicator of what is likely to grow well in it.

Changing soil structure can be done in a variety of ways.

All types will be vastly improved by digging in quantities of organic matter such as compost or well rotted manure.

In clay soils this will open the texture of the soil and make it more manageable, although it will not happen overnight.

The inclusion of pea gravel will improve drainage, which will also be improved by building raised beds.

The inclusion of organic matter will help to slow drainage in sandier soils and will generally improve fertility.

Well rotted manure is easy to acquire from stables, which are nearly always delighted to be rid of it.

Farmyard manure may be purchased in plastic bags as can compost with varying levels of peat content (both widely available), but you really can’t beat making your own compost and it is simple.

A purpose made bin (available via your local council) or some pallets nailed together make an ideal starter kit.

The inclusion of some compost from a friends heap will help get things started and then all you have to do is add a variety of materials, both plant and un-cooked kitchen waste (cooked will attract vermin).

Once it is reasonably full, turn the heap regularly until it is rotted down, which will take about six months and then it is ready to use.

Failure can often be attributed to the heap becoming too dry (keep covered in the warmer months and add a little water if necessary), too wet in the winter (adjust the drainage) and too slimy (too many grass-clippings) which can be addressed by ensuring that you compost in a ratio of two parts woody material to one part soft material.

If you have room for more than one bin you can rotate the compost more easily.

Of course, bins are not attractive so push them in to that corner which you have never done anything with (and we all have one – some of us have many!).

If you do not have the time or energy to deal with it, it is unlikely to come to any harm.

The rotting process will take longer but you will still make compost.

Unfortunately for me, time is not on my side and I had better get started with this border which is not going to dig itself.


Plant of the month

Iris Reticulata

A small, bulbous plant which produces a single flower in early spring above narrow leaves which elongate after flowering to give longer interest.

They grow well in open, sunny sites with free draining soil, perhaps with a little shelter in exposed sites and in a position where they will not be disturbed, when they will then bulk up in to attractive groups.

Slugs are their main enemy but they don’t like clay or wet soils either so may be easier to cultivate in pots.

Varieties include the pale blue ‘Katherine Hodgkin’, the darker blue ‘Joyce’ and the reddish-purple ‘J S Dijt’.

Can be purchased now as pot grown plants which will need transplanting in late spring, or planted as bulbs in early autumn, ensuing that they are set at least five inches deep.