‘Ottawa’ Prepare Your Soil for Best Gardening Results
As the soil warms and the early spears of your perennial hosta begin to jab out of the soil, there is an overwhelming temptation to grab a shovel and start digging holes in the garden.
Truth is, every gardener gets these early spring urges and I encourage you to satisfy them. But keep one thing in mind: The success that you enjoy in your garden will be the result of one thing above all others – proper soil preparation.
Why not just plant in the soil that you have? A great garden is made only when there is a solid foundation at its roots, pure and simple.
Here’s how you create a growing environment at the root zone of your garden.
Know Your Soil
Go ahead and dig your hole. Use a sharp spade or shovel and the job is infinitely easier than if you use a dull one. I use a bastard file from the hardware store to do this job – and I sharpen my digging tools every time I use them. It takes about one minute and makes the job of digging a joy.
As you dig, observe: Do you have clay? Sand? Old, tired topsoil? Does your shovel move through the soil easily or does it take all of your weight and some wiggling to get the shovel blade to slice through the soil? If you have not added lots of organic matter over recent years, chances are you will discover heavy, clay-based soil that is not conducive to good growing.
If you have been blessed with heavy clay, welcome to the club. You have a choice: Either dig your new garden out to a level about 30 cm (12 inches) deep or amend the existing soil with lots of sharp sand (sometimes called “play sand” for sandboxes) and organic matter in the form of compost: A mix of about 1/3 sand to 2/3 compost is a good start. I spread the triple mix 5 cm deep each spring and let the earthworms pull it down. You may choose to turn the triple mix over with a garden fork or spade.
My general rule is if you have to use a pick axe to dig your garden, get rid of the stuff as there is very little that you can do to revive it. Use of a large metal dump bin to dispose of the clay material.
If you can dig your existing soil with a sharp shovel or spade and not put your back out doing it, you can add the good stuff (sand/compost) to it to bring it up to standard.
I have been a great fan of backyard composting for more than 25 years. Compost, the raw material that you have left over after meal preparation (but not meat), can be very useful in your composter. So can much of the waste that you produce in your yard (but not woody sticks or evergreen boughs).
Take the leftover salad, carrot tops, potato peels, fallen leaves, grass clippings, spent tulip and daffodil leaves and put them into a compost bin or compost tumbler and away you go. Mother Nature has a wonderful way of breaking all of this stuff down for you while you simply wait. In several weeks or two to three months of warm weather, you will be surprised at how much progress your compost has made.
When you add finished compost to the surface of your soil you are providing a charge of organic matter that will attract earthworms, protozoa, beneficial bacteria, microbes and much more. All of these things add up to a sophisticated living colony that we are not meant to completely understand – and we don’t! What we do know is that the addition of this fuel for your soil will help you to produce a nice friable soil that is — Wait for it — like chocolate cake.
Your goal is to produce soil that is the consistency of chocolate cake – light, easy to cut through, full of air pockets for oxygen and a joy to work with. Remember to add lots of sharp sand for porosity.
Get this right and your plants will explode out of the soil this spring.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com. Look for his new book, The New Canadian Garden, published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook.