Sunday, April 01, 2007

A cure for crappy soil

Got miserable soil? The big reason that the soil in most yards is so poor is our neatnik habit of carting away every last bit of fallen leaves and plant debris. The result: soil that's starved of humus, and really hard to garden. In the woods, where nobody rakes up, all stuff that falls from trees is recycled into humus, creating rich, crumbly woodsy-smelling soil that plants love.

(The other big reason for crappy soil is developers removing all the top soil, compacting the subsoil during and after building, and then believing an inch or two of top soil will make up for all that abuse before the sod is laid. It doesn't, but that's another story.)

Anyway, this spring, instead of removing all the free organic matter Mother Nature drops off each fall, just chop up the dead plant material and leave most of it on the flower beds. If you've got stray leaves, rake them under your trees and shrubs as mulch.

Not only will this help your soil, but you'll get a good balance of insects too. Erik Grissell goes into this in his wonderful book, Insects and Gardens(Timber Press, 2001). According to Grissell, the folks who vacuum up every bit of garden debris do the garden's insect residents, their soil and their plants a disservice.

Dried-up stems and leaves, plant debris and mulch are all great over-wintering spots for insects – which is why you're usually told to clean the garden up.

Instead, Grissell recommends keeping as much foliage intact over winter as you can to provide cover for a diverse population of insects.

Then you cut back the dead foliage right about now (or whenever early spring comes where you live). Just chop it up and tuck between the plants so it can compost in place.

Here, at our place, we do the chopping with a rented gas-powered hedge trimmer, cutting perennials and grasses back in layers, so that the bits and pieces are about 2 or 3 inches long. (Sometimes, the remains of ornamental grasses are so thick that we do remove some of this material.)

Leaving most of the chopped stuff on the beds means you don't have to drag everything off to the compost pile, and then lug the finished compost back to your beds. If you have enough plants (especially perennials), they grow so quickly that you won't even see the stems and other plant debris you've chopped up. Now, isn't that a practical idea for big country gardens?

For Grissel, the point of creating this mulchy environment is to help stabilize the insect populations for a better balance between prey and predators. For me, the bonus is that it's an easy way to build soil humus.

The only downside for us is that instead of spreading the work of cutting plants down over fall and spring (or doing it all in fall), you concentrate the workload into the spring. This job is exactly what's ahead for us in this month: tackling half a dozen large beds, each the size of an average suburban backyard.


  1. Hm, this post almost makes me long for an outdoor garden... Eventhough the job concentrates in one month, this method saves a lot of work later on, and I'm a huge friend of energy savings... ;-)

  2. This is exactly what I do each year-- chop up the dried stuff and return it to the earth.

    Unfortunately, here in Chicago, it's turning cold this week. I need spring to stay!

  3. Great comment, Vicki. You're right about patience.

    Cheers, Yvonne


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