There is nothing more satisfying to a gardener than the coming of good gardening weather. This year we have certainly earned our spring days, after all the crazy late snows and harsh weather. My spring bulbs were just starting to emerge, and now they are covered by a blanket of white. My father always said that a little snow was nature's fertilizer, and he never worried too much about a late dusting of the white stuff. But I am anxious to get out and get my hands dirty in the soil.
I recently attended a webinar put on by the Mulch and Soil Council, a trade organization that has been involved in supporting the industry and educating the public about soils and mulches. I learned some interesting facts about soil, top soil and mulch, and some of it was quite eye-opening. Did you know, for example, that grass can grow on concrete? Some people equate a healthy lawn with good soil, but it is a fallacy, and causes many of us to spend lots of time and money on products that contribute little or nothing to soil health.
Most of us garden in what is known as urban soil – that is, a non-agricultural soil that is a mix of sub-soil and other amendments, but not true top soil. Most developers and builders strip away top soil, as it cannot support construction of a building. Many do not return the soil to the site, or just place a minimal amount (2 or 3 inches) back on top. This small amount of top soil will support grass, which only needs 2-4” to grow, but has a disastrous effect on your other plantings. Annuals need 3-5”, shrubs 3-8” and trees need 12-18” of top soil – good, healthy soil teeming with microbes – to survive. I am often asked about planting around foundations and what can be done with poor soil conditions that exist in many lots. The Council suggests that you must return organic matter to the soil, as that will “set the table” for microbes to return. Healthy top soil contains a staggering 5 tons of microbes per acre! These little critters are what constitutes healthy, living soil – bacteria, algae, protozoa, nematodes and earthworms are all present and munching on organic matter when the conditions are right.
The chickens help turn up the beds and add "fertilizer"
So, you think you can just call your local landscaper and order some of this miracle soil? Guess again. There is no testing of top soils that can be bought in bulk, so you cannot be sure of what you are getting. These soils are often a mix of top soil, sub-soil and added amendments, usually a local and inexpensive source, like bark fines, mushroom compost or other additives. They may look OK, but they are not going to help you regain the top soil you need for your garden. How about trying a bag of top soil? Again, you may not be getting true top soil. A cubic foot of “top soil” in a bag may weigh 12 lbs or so. Real top soil weighs in at 80 lbs per cubic foot, so you probably are not getting top soil in that bag. You can use it, or even the yards of soil from your landscaper, but it will take two to three years for the amendments to break down enough to start the microbes' return.
So what to do? Organic, organic, organic! Add as much organic matter as you can. Add mineral soil, planting mixes, and build your soil. Till it in deep and wide. It's going to be a lot of work, but you will get results. This is especially important in areas around your foundation, as this is usually the worst soil on your property. Then mulch – with a mulch that will help improve the soil. Small particle mulch is a much better choice, as it will decompose more quickly, adding more organic matter to your soil. And you may want to buy bags of mulch certified by the Soil and Mulch Council. I found out that some shady dealers are grinding up pallets and passing it off as mulch. I guess it is, as it is a wood, but, really! And watch out for some of the colored mulches. Some are safe and colored with rust oxide (red) but some black mulches are colored with petroleum based synthetics, not something I would want on my soil.
So, here's to getting your hands dirty. I love this quote by Margaret Atwood -
Gardening is not a rational act. What matters is the immersion of the hands in the earth, that ancient ceremony of which the Pope kissing the tarmac is merely a pallid vestigial remnant. In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt
Happy Spring - Karen
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