“Let the good earth produce.”

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008 by Jenny Watts
    • The “Wave” petunias make wonderful hanging baskets for full sun. They come in purple, bright pink, reddish-purple and pale “misty lilac.” They can also be used for a colorful summer ground cover.
    • Cover cherry trees with bird netting to protect your crop.
    • Attract hummingbirds to your patio this summer with hummingbird feeders, so you can enjoy their iridescent beauty and charm.
    • Azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons can be pruned now without sacrificing next years bloom. Ask at your nursery if you need help.
    • Spray roses every two weeks with Neem oil to keep leaves free of black spot and mildew.

The Good Earth

Dirt gets no respect. When we’re not ignoring it, we’re walking on it, or doing our best to wash it off. Look up ‘dirt’ in the dictionary and you’ll find words like filth, grime, and muck.

You might even say that dirt gets treated like, well dirt. But gardeners know better. Gardeners give dirt the reverence it deserves, because they know that the right soil can make the difference between sparse, sickly plants and a thriving bumper crop.

The stuff we call dirt—more formally, soil—is actually made up of two distinct types of material: minerals (the main ingredient) and much smaller amounts of organic matter (living things and their decaying remains).

A typical soil is over 90 percent mineral, made of tiny fragments of broken-down rock, and less than 10 percent organic matter. Good soil is a mixture of clay (to retain water), sand (to drain water), and organic material (for nutrients).

Soil is alive. It is full of useful bacteria and fungi, which turn organic matter into useful humus, and make nutrients available to plants. Healthy soil is home to earthworms who eat decaying vegetation, and excrete worm castings that are rich in plant nutrients. In the process they aerate the soil allowing water and air to penetrate to the roots of plants.

If you find it necessary to grow your vegetables in containers in order to keep them on your deck away from the deer, for example, then you’ll need to fill your containers with potting soil. Garden soil just doesn’t work well in containers. It doesn’t drain well enough and it tends to pull away from the sides of the pot when dry.

Most potting soils are made up largely of peat moss, bark, and perlite. They may also include compost, vermiculite, sand and crushed lava rock. So potting soil isn’t really soil at all.

Actually, “soilless” potting soil helps make an interesting point: You don’t really need soil to grow plants. Hydroponic gardeners grow plants using only nutrient-rich water. In place of soil, inert substances such as perlite may be used to provide aeration and structural support for roots.

Modern potting soils are excellent at providing the support and nutrients needed for healthy plant growth. But potting soils are not sustainable. Sustainable gardening produces abundant food without depleting the earth’s resources or polluting its environment. Filling containers with potting soil to grow your vegetables is not sustainable, unless you are making your own potting soil from your own materials.

Sustainable gardening means not requiring outside inputs. It means working with the dirt in your garden to improve it so that it will sustain healthy plants year after year. If you can only do one activity in preparing or maintaining your garden for lasting results, then creating healthy soil is it.

“Let the good earth produce.”