Toronto Star column – published April 12, 2014
Get Your Own Soil
“The best gardens… are those that are tended with a light touch.”
James Alexander-Sinclair, The Garden Magazine
The path to ideal spring weather is never a straight line. Like the journey to the Stanley Cup playoffs, there are some wins, losses and overtime contests that have to be had before we know where we stand. As my late father Len would say, it is all good, so long as you win a few more than you lose.
As we take this journey through the spring planting season, I am here to remind you of the most important garden activity of the year. The soil, in which all of your garden plants put down roots, needs attention.
As Oliver Twist once famously said to the bossy school monitor while on bended knee, empty plate in hand, “Please sir, I want some more?” your garden plants are asking the same this time of year. The nutrients that all of the plants in your garden depend on for life is at the root zone and in the soil. There is no substitute for proper soil preparation this time of year where garden health is concerned. Quote me on this anytime.
Monty, gardening columnist in The Garden magazine, has famously said, “The ground is alive in a scarcely comprehensible way.” For example, there are more than four billion living organisms in the average handful of healthy soil. Beneficial bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, mites, beetles and countless insects make their home under our feet in the garden. They work together in a symbiotic cooperative that has the potential to produce a bounty of colour, fragrance, landscape structure and food. The magic is in how we manage it.
April is soil month around my place. I turn my compost, order a couple truckloads of the finished material, spread it over existing soil all in an effort to produce a foundation for this year’s garden. My entire perennial bed [all ½ acre of it] receives a centimeter or two of 70% finished compost/30% sharp sand mixture. Vegetable beds [another acre] receive a more generous allotment of the same stuff.
Last year’s fallen leaves are left in place and the new soil spread over them. As temperatures rise and rains fall, the leaves break down naturally, providing a wonderful, all natural bed for veggies and cutting flowers alike. If your goal is to produce your best looking garden ever in 2014, I recommend that you do the same.
Consider the Source
One of the ‘secrets’ to a great looking garden is to acquire the best quality soil in the first place. If you are buying soil by the bag, this is easy: purchase from a supplier that you respect and can depend on. You will not go wrong with brand names like C.I.L., Premier, Pro Mix or [dare I say it] Mark’s Choice [Home Hardware]. Look for soils that are blended for specific purposes: vegetable garden soil, tree and shrub soil, lawn soil and triple mix differ in their make up and composition, but not in dramatic ways. When in doubt use ‘triple mix’ in the garden to plant most anything. Container soils are another matter: again, you cannot go wrong with well-known brand names. Avoid cheap, unrecognizable labels and remember that they are usually ‘cheap’ for a reason.
Don’t overlook the finished compost in your compost bin or pile. If it has been ‘working’ for a few months and if you turned it over last fall, chances are that it is ready to spread over your garden.
Buying quality soil in bulk is a trickier matter. There are many suppliers who mix all kinds of stuff together, fluff it up through a soil shredder and deliver it to your door for cheap. There is that ‘cheap’ word again. Reread my previous advice: ditto for bulk soil. If you are new at this, I advise that you go to a local garden retailer that you trust and ask them for the contact information of a recommended source of material. Once you have made contact, received a quote for the desired volume of triple mix or ‘lawn soil’ or whatever, ask for a couple of references. Call the references and ask what the results were like from this particular source. Like hiring new staff, checking out references is key to a healthy, long-term relationship. And every gardener wants a great relationship with their soil. I have had great luck with The Cutting Edge (http://www.cuttingedgesoil.com/) where I order my 30/70 mix and Miller Compost (http://www.millergroup.ca/waste_management/compost/) who are the same people who compost the leaves that you so kindly left in paper bags at the end of your driveway last autumn. Nothing like buying back your own waste.
A Powerful Metaphor
My friend Dr. James Clubine told me this story the other day: Two scientists had successfully cloned a human and decided that it would be a good idea to challenge God to a contest. They would see who could create a human faster. After God agreed to the challenge, the scientists got to work. They scooped up several handfuls of earth and began to fashion the damp soil into the image of man. They had no sooner started when a powerful voice alerted them from the heavens, “Hey. Get your own dirt!”
This story illustrates the need to work with nature in an effort to grow a successful garden. The truth is that fallen leaves produce great soil, given enough time. The earth worms travel to the surface and pull the damp leaves down beneath the surface, converting them into nitrogen rich castings. Farmers, to a much greater degree than ever before, are not tilling their soil before they plant but rather injecting seeds directly into undisturbed soil. We are learning that the less we turn the soil over the greater the nutrient value within.
Plant Above the Ground
If you are starting out, I recommend that you consider building wooden boxes to plant this year’s veggie garden. Fill them with the aforementioned quality growing mix and sow your seeds or plant your transplants with abandon. This method eliminates many weed problems in the short term and is an effective shortcut to ‘soil improvement’ which can take years to do well.
I started my garden 8 years ago in a field that had been used for growing soy beans and corn for 6 generations. Before that it was a hardwood bush. Today I can say that the soil in my garden is not bad, but it is not ideal. And this is after I have spread my 70/30 compost/sand mixture over it every spring.
One final note on soil management: it is true that a long, cold winter is the gardener’s friend [and the farmer’s]. The superbly deep frost that occurred this winter, frost quakes and all, broke up tough clay and as it thaws it will open up the soil, exposing and stirring up soil particles and all of the billions of life-forms that make up great soil in a way that benefits everything that grows.
But don’t assume that last year’s soil is ‘good enough’. When the garden puts down roots and pushes new growth later this spring, it is important to have done your ground work this time of year. There is, I would say, a great deal of value in the words ‘Get your own dirt’. Believe me.