Is your garden looking tired? Are your flowers and greenery feeling lacklustre and generally not doing their thing? Have you been avoiding manuring or adding mulches or composts because it all sounds like too much hard work? The true heart of any garden has to be in the soil. It's the stuff that gardening dreams are made of. Pay attention to your soil and you'll be amply rewarded - and here's how to start:
The soil is a living component of the garden - comprising water, air, mineral particles and organic matter, which includes loads of living, dead and decomposed matter. The healthier the soil, the more complex micro-organisms it can support and so the more plant life will grow in it. A simple rule to follow is to work with the prevailing basic conditions which include the pH (acidity or alkalinity) and to keep on improving the soil so that you can grow lots of healthy new plants.
You're going to have to get dug in. This is the best way to learn what your soil might need and it costs absolutely nothing. It will give you all the essential clues to the soil texture.
Grab a nice big handful of some soil in one of your beds. Run it through your fingers to see how it flows when dry, then moisten it and feel how gritty it is. You can see how much a moist lump sticks together (clay), whether the lump breaks apart easily (sandy) or if it rolls out easily (loamy). It could of course be a combination of these!
Dig a couple of pits approximately 80 cms (2 ft.) deep to check what the soil profile looks like. This is the average depth required by the roots of herbaceous and shrubby plant material. The soil profile will tell you how deep the topsoil and subsoil layers are and whether there is a soil pan that requires breaking up - a hard horizontal layer that prevents air and water moving to lower levels.
Soil pH can also be determined with a small-scale testing kit, available from gardening websites and stores. This will tell you the basic range of plants that can be grown in an area. It would be a waste of time trying to to establish a beautiful rhododendron on free-draining, chalky soil with high pH levels (alkaline soil) because the plant's ancestry is in the Himalayas, so it needs moisture and humus-rich soils with a low pH (acid-rich).
Then, knowing the basic type of soil and drainage aspect, you should be abel to avoid hideous mistakes when selecting plants.
But soil can also be improved, and your research will also help you decide on what improvements need to be made - including
More on these next time....