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Ignore soil quality at your peril.

Byline: GARDEN RULES John Humphries

IN much the same way as someone who buys a second hand car without checking out the engine cannot complain when it breaks down, a gardener who ignores the fertility of his soil can expect it to perform poorly.

Starting with a good loam always helps but that's no longer guaranteed because the pressure to build houses generally means what's left after the builders have departed can be as infertile as a bucket of sand.

In the past, when the British lived off the land, fertility determined where whole settlements were built. That's all changed, and the soil in many new gardens lacks structure, is poorly drained in winter, dry in summer, offering little encouragement for root growth.

All this means modern gardeners frequently need to devote as much attention, probably more in the early days, to improving the soil as cultivating plants.

The first garden I created might have been on heavy clay but despite the heavy digging not once did it cause me any real injury.

The latest on what the builders left behind has cost me a torn shoulder when levering out a lump of concrete!

Six to nine inches of good quality topsoil is the minimum for gardening success.

Anyone lucky enough to live in a river valley or flood plain could have several feet of it while someone gardening on chalk just a few inches.

Those taking advantage of the latest housing boom could well find that the topsoil removed during construction is often returned as a mixture of loam and builders rubble.

The depth of topsoil is easily checked by digging a trench across the site of the new garden.

This also exposes the subsoil, usually lighter in colour, and often releasing useful nutrients when brought into cultivation by double digging.

Soil types are classified according to the varying amounts of sand, silt and clay.

Loam contains an ideal mix of all three together with essential organic matter. Suitable for most crops, it is easily cultivated and retains moisture well.

Clay is the most difficult to cultivate because the fine particles cling together. But rich in nutrients it's worth the extra effort bringing in to cultivation by double digging.

Once the nutrients are released, plants can thrive better than those grown in a good loam.

Commercial growers dislike clay soils as they are slow to warm up and really only workable in spring.

In winter, when clay is easily compacted by foot traffic, it is best avoided. Improved drainage, dressings of sharp sand, grit and lime all help, the lime causing the particles to cluster but of no value on chalky or alkaline soils.

Sandy soils are the easiest to cultivate in all seasons. Warming up early, they are good for early cropping although the main drawback is that they dry out quickly and plant foods are washed away by heavy rain and over-enthusiastic watering.

It makes sense to purchase a load of topsoil to supplement what the builders sprinkled across the site before they fled, or as a booster for exhausted soil.

But buyer beware! Avoid purchasing topsoil from a mountainous pile that might look fine and workable but is likely to be inert and infertile.

Good q-uality topsoil contains the fibrous roots of turf stripped from the site before it was excavated.

Ask John...

Q: I've not had much luck with tulips. Could it be because the ground is too wet? A: Always plant in November because they are susceptible to disease if planted earlier. On poorly drained soils, plant 6in deep, lining the bottom of the hole with a 2in layer of coarse grit and back fill. Mice are also partial to most bulbs, except it seems daffodils.

Soak tulip bulbs overnight in paraffin to discourage vermin.

Modern gardeners frequently need to devote as much attention to improving the soil as cultivating plants

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Soil in many new gardens >lacks structure and is poorly drained in winter
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 2, 2013
Words:662
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