Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Soil Tips for a Low Maintenance Garden
Healthy, happy soil will make healthy, strong plants for you to enjoy! Attention to their growing environment and Soil preparation is the place to start when creating a low maintenance garden. The time taken to do the groundwork is time well spent, saving you money on failed plants and hours of time further down the track, on second attempts.
Follow the tips below, and your successful garden will bring you joy and respite from the busy places in your life.
Drain all the garden beds from underneath so that the plants don’t languish in soggy, cold soils through the winter. Most building sites and new subdivisions have had topsoil and natural free draining layers of original soil scraped off, leaving compacted clay with no natural drainage as the soil base. If you dig a hole in clay and fill it with nice soil, the hole will continue to fill with water. Water always finds the lowest point and your hole, full of luscious compost and a precious new plant, will be it! The plant effectively sits in a bathtub with no outlet, and won’t dry out until the summer months. Its roots will rot and fail to thrive. By providing an outlet at the base of the hole, usually about 400mm down, you are re-creating the soil’s normal drainage capability. Excavate the whole garden bed or big tree pit, provide a drain at the base and fill with new free draining soil. This diagram shows a typical construction of drainage beneath your garden.
TREAT THE SOIL
Treat existing clay soils with lots of compost material, add gypsum to break up the tight molecular structure of the clay and, above all, allow for drainage if your soil is heavy. In general, add a 200mm layer of compost and dig it through the top 300mm of existing soil. This will feed and condition the soil, and can be more beneficial, and less expensive than replacing poor soils with new topsoil. Fertilise with natural products such as mushroom compost, sheep pellets, seaweed and animal manure to add minerals and healthy bacterial systems to the soil. Fertilising with artificial fertilisers must be done with care, as they most often end up in our streams and oceans.
Where drainage is impossible to install and heavy soils are a major problem, it may be useful to construct raised beds, or mound your gardens to get the plants out of the bottom heavy layer and into a free draining layer.
A raised planter can be useful from a design point of view as a ‘room’ divider, directing views and defining spaces. They can also become furniture when you make the capping timbers seat width. Build the seats wide and comfy and add bright cushions to bring your space to life! Get creative with materials so the planter walls add a sculptural design element to the garden. Be careful, be bold and simple with planters as little walls will look over constructed and bitsy.
PREVENTATIVE WEED CONTROL
Inherent weed problems in the garden such as Oxalis, Couch or Convulvulus will need major soil surgery. In this case, you are best to physically remove the top 250mm of soil where these weeds live, and bring in new weed-free soil and compost. This may seem extravagant, but these sorts of weeds can be major time wasters. Soil is inexpensive compared to the discouraging hours of weeding an infested garden! If you are importing soil or compost ensure it is weed-free before you buy it. Check where it has come from to ascertain likely problems such as chemical contaminants or debris. A soil from an old industrial site for instance, could have real problems.
The last soil prep after planting is mulching. This is a gardener’s term for an applied layer over the garden to feed the soil and protect it from drying out, heating, cooling or eroding. Mulching was historically part of seasonal garden maintenance and nourishment, but we now use this term to describe an inanimate layer such as bark or stone over the soil to inhibit weed growth and keep the soil moist. A mulch of weed-free compost or fine bark is a final dressing over your soil, and will slow normal weed growth without creating an impediment to future gardening. For a less refined look, bark peelings or pea straw mulches are cheap and easily applied. Stones and heavy bark will last forever without breaking down, adding little to soil health, but are very effective for achieving the lowest possible intrusion of weeds. Weed mats are best avoided as they suffocate normal soil processes. Instead use a composting mat such as cardboard, coconut matting or wool matting, which are designed to decompose after 3-4 years when their work is done. As an extra bonus they are impregnated with fertilisers to feed the soil while they protect it. A healthy soil equals healthy plants, and will reduce maintenance in your garden!