In the Garden:
Upper South
June, 2005
Regional Report

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The ideal soil has a balance of nutrients with lots of organic matter, a nice chocolate color, and a crumbly feel. It holds moisture yet drains well.

On Becoming a Steward of the Soil

In more than thirty years of working as a professional horticulturist, one of the most frequently heard statements from others is, "My plants don't grow well because I have bad dirt." My response, learned at my father's knee, is that the first problem is in the terminology. What's swept under the rug is dirt, what is outside holding up plants and being trod upon is soil.

Granted, this might be considered a technicality, but it implies a significant point of view. Dirt is, well, dirty; it's dust, waste, garbage. Soil, on the other hand, is one of the most important aspects of our existence and is surprisingly complex. Although it can be argued that soil is not directly necessary to sustain life, since food can be grown in water (hydroponics), it's difficult to imagine life without terra firma, good or bad.

The first step when considering sustainable gardening, which implies methods you can practice indefinitely without degrading the natural system, is to show some respect and use the proper word for the core of what makes everything else possible. So, the word is "soil."

Soil does more than just hold up plants. It provides air, water, and nutrition for plants. A healthy soil produces healthy plants, which look better, produce better, have higher nutrient levels, and are better able to fight off pests and infections.

Don't Settle for Poor Soil
Actually, many people are correct in thinking they have poor soil, especially those who live in new homes. House construction involves heavy equipment, running in all types of weather, when the soil is wet or dry, covering topsoil with inferior subsoil, then adding insult to injury by compacting it. If the owner is fortunate, a thin layer of topsoil is brought in right before grass seed is sown. But all is not lost. Even though soil can't really be "made," it can be improved immeasurably, often without much effort.

If you're not convinced, let me tell you briefly about my father and his work. Starting in the 1940s, he renovated two farms -- totalling 450 acres -- that had been abandoned. Both had been abused with overcropping and underfertilizing. No one cared that the soil eroded away. His first cattle herd died because there was not enough nutrition in the soil to sustain the animals. Over time, he filled in the gullies and built seven miles of terraces (with horses!) to prevent further erosion. He tested the soil, added fertilizer and lime, grew pasture, used crop rotation, and returned these farms to productivity. A similar story can still be read today in a book called Malabar Farm, by Louis Bromfield, written in the 1940s but still in print (Wooster Book Company, 1999; $14.00).

As we garden, whether it be to attract wildlife, preserve native species, have a flourishing lawn and flowers, or raise our own healthful vegetables and fruits, we need to know soil as we would a friend. That is, what makes it the way it is, and, gently, what we can do to make it better.

Take the time to study what makes up soil and how it was formed; learn about the structure and layers of soil as well as the elements of sand, silt, and clay; find out how to test soil texture, improve drainage, and encourage soil life. Have your soil analyzed, then study the different nutrients and the many ways to add them to soil and to correct the pH. Get to know compost and organic matter because it is the soil's -- and your plants' -- best friend. As you nurture your little patch of earth, you'll develop a deeper kinship and bond with the earth and appreciate the wildly successful natural system.


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