Mulch: Making dirt work in the garden


No matter what a gardener grows – a tree, a vegetable garden, or a flowerbed, he or she must first start with the soil. The healthier, the more alive the soil is the better for the growing. Unlike the land of yesteryear, left to rest and restore itself, today’s topsoil suffers from the stripping of land, the over use of the soil. Finding good, rich soil by simply putting down a shovel is difficult. Consequently, reputable landscape companies and nurseries offer products and practices for building up soil.

There are simple tests for determining how a soil needs amending. Take a handful of earth and pat it into the form of a hamburger patty. Then, bounce the patty in the palm of the hand. The longer it takes to break up the patty into smaller granules, the more clay in the soil and, thus, the soil requires amending.

Another test: fill a cylinder jar with three quarters topsoil and fill the remaining jar with water. Shake the container 30 seconds and let settle for six to eight hours. After that time has elapsed, ideally, there should be one third of each sand, silt, and clay with particles floating on the top of the water. There should be some separation of granule sizes of the soil. If there is only one granule size, the soil is heavy with clay and will need improving.

Once a conclusion has been reached with regard to the old-fashioned topsoil, landscape and gardening professionals can provide guidance and recommendations for soil improvement. Rick Gammon, president of Gammon Landscape Nursery in Auburn, said any reputable professional can help gardeners amend their soil by first asking what the soil will be supporting. From there, a determination can be made for what is needed for the success of that garden or project.

“Our topsoil is blended with at least 25 percent organic matter,” explained Gammon. “That’s important because organic matter locks in the nutrients until the plant can absorb them, aerates the soil, allowing the plant roots to be serviced by oxygen by keeping the soil fluffy and open to breathe, and it contributes to the amount of micro-organisms in the soil.” He explained further, “The more bugs, worms, and microscopic organisms in the soil breaking down and excreting matter, the healthier the soil will be. It’s a perpetual cycle. Good soil is alive and very active and if you can get the right blend of sand, silt, clay and organic matter, the sky’s the limit for what you can grow.”

Gammon stated that often, if there is a problem with a plant’s performance, it can be tracked to problems with the soil. He mentioned Stephens Memorial Hospital in Oxford as an example. “The hospital had planted some beds with nice perennials and expensive plantings, but they weren’t doing well as they were planted in sand. We stockpiled the plants, dug up the beds, stripped out the soil and amended it,” Gammon explained. His team then re-designed the beds.

“Most plant roots grow in and take up nutrients in the top first foot of soil,” said Gammon. “Deeper roots provide for anchoring the plant but don’t feed it at all. If soil is deficient in one nutrient, the plant will only do as well as what that one deficiency will allow.”

Gammon’s business offers a “triple mix” for soil amending, a formula of peat moss, paper mill byproduct (flakes of bark, leaves, minerals and organic “duff” from the forest floor that gets washed off the logs), and sewage sludge. “There’s a lot of healthy micro-organisms in there. It’s like a food bank for plants. It’s already working; it’s sterile, without weeds or diseases.” He continued, “Every soil can be improved by amending. You can even grow a good patch of grass in sand if it has all the other nutrients.”

So, shovels up! First, amend the soil. It’s a “dirty” business, but if the fruits of the labor are to be plentiful and rewarding, we all have to do it.