Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners

| April/May 2003

Soil, Beautiful Soil

Jo Ann Gardner

WESTPORT, New York—We all need soil—after all, it’s the medium we use to grow the herby plants we love. But let’s be frank: soil is boring. It’s the plants we lust for, especially in spring when the first sight of unfurled leaf, swelling bud and fresh flowers makes our hearts beat faster. This, not the plain ground beneath, is what satisfies our gardening souls.

That may be, but as I have learned, a little passion for soil will go a long way toward creating the kind of gardens we dream about, full and lush, not only in the spring when conditions are nearly perfect—gently warm and moist—but throughout the entire growing season, through searing heat, droughts or torrential rains.

As a conscientious gardener I always spread compost on my planting beds in the spring and fall on top of the natural soil. Such a virtuous feeling, this spreading of good stuff on the ground, knowing you are creating rich, friable soil. I was especially pleased with the job I’d done in creating a bed that extended 2 to 3 feet beyond the network of tree roots in dry shade, so I could plant the spring and early-summer herbs I love: lungwort, cowslips, violas, sweet cicely and bistort—a plant I’ve grown in sun and shade—in tight borders and naturalized in damp meadows.

But last summer’s heat and drought (weeks of searing sun with temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s), when even plants in the deepest shade wilted whether they were watered or not, jolted my complacency. A shade border of pink astilbe, Japanese painted fern and herb Robert that had filled out a bay beneath ash, oak and maple made a pleasing midsummer picture—but not for long. Soon leaves curled or turned brown, and herb Robert, a robust, hard-to-kill ground cover, simply dried up and disappeared.

By chance I read George Schenk’s reissued classic (originally published in 1984) The Complete Shade Gardener (Timber Press, 2002), and from the author’s remarks about ideal soil and what can be grown in it, I suddenly understood where I had gone wrong. Schenk tells us that there is a plant for every degree of shade and every soil condition from hardpan clay to sand, but if you want to grow a wider range of plants than tough ground covers, you must create a thick soil blanket at least 6 inches deep on top of existing soil. In other words, it’s not enough to amend existing soil (or topdress it as I had done), you must build it up by making it ever deeper. When you have created a deep base you can even grow sun-loving plants in partial shade. By extension, I realized that my plantings in full sun, which had survived drought but, under stress were not deep enough, and those in dry shade had been scanted even more.



September 12-13, 2019
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