Published in the Toronto Star, April 30, 2016
You have a dream of an amazing garden. Perhaps, in your mind’s eye, you can see plants loaded with colour galore, others hanging with fruit and vegetables in abundance. You see songbirds, butterflies and hummingbirds calling in to your place, choosing it as their home this summer.
We all have these dreams. And in my case, these dreams are reality, though I would be the first to admit that the season never unfolds quite like I had imagined it in the dreamy, snow-filled days of winter. However, the disappointments are always balanced off with good surprises: Mother Nature is like that, never predictable.
One thing that I can predict is this: if you prepare the soil in which you plant well, you are far more likely to see your gardening dreams become reality.
This is Composting Week in Canada, what are you doing to celebrate? Me? I am hauling in a truckload of the good stuff and beginning my planting season in earnest by spreading it wherever I am planting.
Consider what compost is: decomposed natural material. Your banana peals, egg shells and coffee grounds break down to a higher purpose. As they rot, they marry up with other organic materials, water and oxygen to become alive with the most precious things in life: microbes, beneficial bacteria, insects (including earthworms) and mycorrhiza. Indeed, without the alchemy of compost your garden would languish in an inert soup of tired medium. Roots would not thrive and the top portion of plants just sit there, at best or die, at worst.
What to Do?
I remind you of the farmers #1 rule: feed the soil. All farmers, but organic farmers in particular, know that when they add nutrients to the soil amazing things happen. Seeds germinate, plants grow and disease and insect infestations are minimized (no, they don’t go away). In short, the soil is to plants what the dinner table is to humans. It is where they go to get life.
It is the first of May (tomorrow), the perfect time of year to prepare for planting. Here is how:
My top 5 soil enhancement tips:
- Spread it deep. Last year’s garden used up much of the nutrition in the soil. Now is the time to replenish it with generous quantities of finished compost. Compost from your composting unit works, but generally there is precious little of it to show for all of your trekking out there with kitchen scraps. Acquire quality compost by the 20 kg bag at your favourite garden retailer and look for composted cattle or sheep manure that is certified by the Compost Quality Alliance. ‘Bio Max’ is the trade name and this is the good stuff: it is safer to use than many other composts as it has been properly composted, or ‘cooked’. Spread it 3 to 5 cm thick and dig it in or…
- Earth Worms. Let the earthworms turn your compost under the soil for you. By merely spreading compost over existing garden beds and relaxing, you will allow the myriad colonies of earthworms in your yard to do their job: they are the foot soldiers of the garden. Within about 6 weeks they will have pulled the compost down into the sub soil and converted it into earthworm magic: castings.
- Add castings. For a long time earthworm castings were considered expensive and were hard to find. A fishing-worm supplier in Burlington has changed that and now you can buy a 5 litre bag of earthworm castings for about $8 at the hardware store. I mix one part castings with 10 parts compost and the results are undeniably much better than without the earthworm castings. This is garden magic: natural, organic, full of microbes and good for everything that grows.
- Prepare the hole. You will be digging holes for larger plants that also require soil preparation. Dig the hole more wide than deep as most roots spread horizontally. A hole that is three times as wide as the root mass of the plant and two times as deep is perfect. Back fill the hole with 2/3 soil and 1/3 compost and a scoop or two of worm castings, or purchase a quality pre mixed garden soil and add one part worm castings to 10 parts new soil. Do not backfill the hole using the existing soil if it is clay. If it is of reasonable quality to begin with, only add about 1/3 of it back into the hole by volume. Firm the soil mixture around the roots with your foot (if it is a big plant) or your hands if it is a small one.
And finally, think of building a house. Would you do it without a foundation? Not here in Canada you wouldn’t. You should not build a garden without proper – generous! – soil preparation either. Simple as that.
Happy Composting Week!