Managing Soils

Healthy soil is the foundation of any perennial meadow planting

soil preparation

I have already written about my decision to mulch newly planted perennial meadows following initial planting in order to suppress weeds.

soil preparationTime and again I am amazed just how much work it saves and the fact that we don’t have to walk in amongst the plants to weed means that the soil does not get trampled and compacted; in every way, that initial mulch is a good investment.

soil preparationSurprisingly though most contractors and designers in Europe don’t include mulches in their plans. I suspect the main reason is cost as clients are more interested in plants than wood chips or gravel, but there is also a view that mulches are not natural and so unnecessary; a purist view to hold, especially if you are not the one who is going to have to maintain the planting.

soil preparationBefore we get to the point of planting and maybe mulching, the work needed to prepare the site is even more important. To start with, perennial weeds cannot be allowed to remain in the soil prior to planting. How you get rid of them is up to you and dependant upon what options you are prepared to take. Trying to dig out all of the offending roots will never succeed in eliminating them all unless you are prepared to repeat the digging many times over a period of at least a year. A far better approach, although not much quicker, is to cover the soil surface with black polythene and kill the weeds be excluding light and cooking them in the closed conditions you have created. And finally of course where efficiency is top of the list, systemic weedkillers such as those containing glyphosate are available to us.

soil preparationThe advantage of not digging the soil is that its structure, which may have taken decades to develop, remains intact. Black polythene may not be organic, but it works, and more natural alternatives exist. The famous plantsman, Ernst Pagles, used wide sheets of cardboard throughout his nursery for decades long before eco-friendly gardening was ever heard of.

When ground such as an old lawn is being converted into a planting border there is really no justification for digging it over. The roots of the grasses forming the lawn will have penetrated the soil and over many years died and been replenished to form a natural humus rich layer filled with populations of bacteria and fungi that will aid the growth of your new plants. Think of such situations as underground networks ready to have the plants plugged into them and capable of delivering water and nutrients from far and wide; much more extensive than the discrete root system of your chosen plants.

initial mulchWhen soils are compacted they lack the spaces between their components that will allow the free circulation of air, water and dissolved minerals; all essential for healthy plant growth. In such situations you are forced to dig, but only do it where you know it is absolutely necessary. The worms that live in most average soils will do a far better job of turning your plot and incorporating fallen leaves and debris than any spade and more importantly for me will save much time and effort.

As ever working with nature and gently manipulating it in the direction you as a gardener desire is the way towards a successful planting solution.

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Managing Garden Soils

Soil Management for Perennial Meadow Planting Schemes

King_131004_10583Americans mulch and Europeans don’t and arguments rage between those that do and those that don’t.

Soil and MulchLike many generalisations there are more exceptions than truths, but apparently an over reliance on bark mulches in American landscaping has triggered a knee jerk reaction against them. In a recent book I have just read on perennial meadow gardening, the very first full page photograph shows how desolate a typical American municipal planting scheme appears where mulches fill the wide spaces between the perennial plants. There is no arguing agains this, but there is really more to say about the practice and like many other things, when used intelligently, mulches do have a role to play in establishing planting schemes.

Soil and MulchTo put my cards on the table I think we should mulch any newly planted perennial meadow planting scheme created in the spring or summer. Not only will this initial mulch suppress a rash of weed seedlings, it will also help retain moisture in the soil and thereby aid the plants’ establishment. I do not mulch schemes planted in autumn as there is the danger of locking in too much moisture around the young root systems, and I do not add fresh layers of bark mulch in subsequent years. A generous bark mulch following planting is all that is required.

Soil and MulchSoil is the foundation of all vegetation be this natural or installed. Different species thrive in soils that favour them and we as gardeners must match plants to the available conditions. Historically gardening aimed to overcome any incompatibilies by controlling growing conditions and in particular adjusting soils to suit all the plants they wanted to grow. Today, gardeners are more pragmatic and realise it is better to grow the plants suited to the conditions available than attempt to alter the status quo.

Perennial Meadow and Shrub FeatureThere are two fundamental misconceptions propagated by gardeners when it comes to soils. Digging is seen as worthy and essential for creating ideal planting conditions and secondly that the soil plants grow in needs feeding with either farmyard manure, garden compost or artificial fertilisers.

Soil and MulchDigging breaks up compacted soil and of course plants will establish well in friable loose soil through which oxygen and water can easily travel. If soils are compacted by all means dig them, but if not, limit digging to just the excavation of planting holes and thereby avoid destroying the complex layers of minerals and humus that have taken a long time to develop. More importantly, the networks of mycorrhizal fungi that permeate all soils and which are now increasingly seen as essential for the long term health of plants will be left in tack.

Soil and MulchLike digging, the need to feeding soil is a hangover from the practices of the vegetable gardener and the once popular herbaceous border. In nature nobody deposits wheelbarrows of compost or manure on the soil, but instead the plants drop their leaves, and stems die down to feed the soils in which the plants are adapted to grow. Likewise, if we grow the right plants for our soils and allow their dead vegetation to decay around their crowns they will be found to grow and thrive without becoming bloated and larger than in nature.

Soil and MulchIn practice we effectively need to mulch our perennial meadows with the dead remains of the plants growing there by chopping this debris up during a spring tidy-up and dropping it on the soil next to the plants. I do this by hand in my small gardens, but on larger projects mowing machines with mulching blades can be used. The result is a rough mulch between the plants in spring which is quickly covered by the newly emerging foliage of the perennials. It decays, slowly feeding the plants without promoting excessive growth and necessitating the common practice of staking that is a necessity in the traditional herbaceous border model.

Soil and MulchGrow the right plants lean and hard and they will reward you with effective and low maintenance results.

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Perennials Prevent Weeds

Late Summer Sensations In the Perennial Meadow Garden

Perennial Meadows Although I have had to neglect my trial gardens on the edge of Amsterdam this year following a decision to move house and all that involved, it is surprising just how well they have grown and how little work it has been to keep them looking good.

King_140827_13743The key to successful perennial planting is not only choosing the right plants but planting enough of them. My borders were planted densely in the first instance as these gardens are where I trial the plants I write about and design with, but as the borders mature the planting densities become even higher. The result is that there is little room left for weeds to become established.

Perennial MeadowsThere are some borders in my garden that have not changed for more than ten years and every year they seem to become easier to maintain; we are talking about less work than an hour per year in some cases.

Perennial MeadowsFour years ago I planted up two similar long borders and in the first year the mulches were essential to keep down the weeds. This year with no time to spare they have had to fend for themselves and apart from the occasional towering example of nettle or willow herb that seemed to have appeared overnight, there has been little else to deal with.

Perennial MeadowsEstablishing a balance between the various plants we include in our planting scheme is never easy and involves a lot of trial and error, but when it works life becomes a lot easier. That is not to say you have nothing to do. The new double borders contain a fine umbellifer, Cenolophium denudatum, which after a slow start has now decided to set seed possibly too enthusiastically. I need to watch it and this summer decided to remove all the seedheads before they matured – it was actually beginning to look untidy so the borders looked better after the half hour I found for the task.

Perennial MeadowsPlants compete with one another and we as gardeners need to referee. Sometimes I favour the thugs and allow them to take over, but in other cases some plants need to be controlled by reducing their spread every year or so – Inula hookeri is a case in point; I wouldn’t be without it, but it is a strong competitor.

Perennial Meadows with shrubsThe shrubs I have been adding to my borders in recent years are beginning to play a role; in some cases too much of one and this is again something I will eventually teach myself to understand and work with. Without the weeds, nature becomes something fun and enjoyable to play with.

Shrubs and perennials

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Maintaining Perennial Meadow Plantings

Amsterdam trial gardenMy trial gardens on the edge of the city of Amsterdam have taken a back seat in my life this year following the decision to move house. After months of viewing properties, packing and unpacking boxes of possessions and endless trips to furniture showrooms it is finally time to return to gardening and assess how well, or not, things have faired.

King_140827_13721Gardening this summer has taken on more the form of a series of kamikaze raids than the leisurely pursuit that the hobby magazines would have us believe in. Visits to the gardens have involved a dash around with the watering can followed by frenzied  snatches at towering weeds and ruthless attacks with secateurs at anything encroaching on a path be it flower or flail.

King_140827_13743Regular rain in the second half of summer following a mild spring and none existent winter has meant that everything in the garden has grown larger than our gardening books and nursery catalogues would lead us to expect. To say my gardens are full to overflowing would not be an understatement, but surprisingly things are just about under control and I am sure that by next year I will feel more relaxed.

King_140827_13781Faced with serious limitations upon the time I had for gardening this year has made me focus on what is really important and necessary to keep up a decent garden display. Yes, there are more weeds around the edges of the borders and paths than I would like to see but there were ways of dealing with them that did not involve hours of kneeling, nor have I felt the need to resort to weedkillers. Understanding how plants grow in garden situations and focussing on the essential tasks of managing them should allow us all to create extensive perennial planting schemes that are possible to maintain over the changing patterns of our lives. Sometimes compromises will have to be made and acceptance of inevitable natural processes, but in the end, a more satisfying gardening experience should surely be possible.

In the following series of posts I will endeavour to summarise my thinking following my summer of neglect.

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This was the garden in the previous summer:

King_130815_9094King_130814_8962

And this is the same area this year:

Panicum 'Northwind'

 

King_140827_13691All in all the differences are not that great apart from a few weeds around the edges that have been carefully excluded from my camera’s view.

sedum roof and perennial meadowsAnd, here is the situation in front of my new home where the wrong plants have been used and not managed properly. The perennial borders are overrun with perennial weeds and the sedum carpet over the garage roof is infiltrated with weeds. The contractors plan to kill everything with weedkiller and cover it all with lawn; one mistake to follow another – it could have so easily been so much better.

 

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Grasses – the current state of play

_DSC8224The introduction of ornamental grasses into planting plans was one of the most significant changes to occur within garden design in the past twenty years. Through their inclusion amidst an evolving planting pallet of perennials, contemporary gardens took on a naturalistic feel, far removed from the stiff block plantings of traditional herbaceous borders; grasses introduced an informal air with strong associations with wild nature.

grass_scan105The distinctive characteristics that set grasses apart from the other plants that we grow in our gardens results in them having a powerful influence wherever they are used and this brings with it both advantages and dangers. Their presence within your planting schemes will never go unnoticed and invariably leads to powerful associations and significant contrasts.

grass_scan114Most of us associate grasses with the countryside and therefore their presence in our planting schemes triggers a sense of informality. This suggests that to use grasses in a formal arrangement is going against their true character and will lead to problems. As a rule this is true, but it can also be a rule to break when exploiting their other qualities of distinctive forms, textures and foliage colours.

Designing with grasses requires an ability to balance these somewhat conflicting characteristics and being aware that every single grass in your designs must be placed with extreme care.

_DSC7464From a position of total obscurity in the 1980s to their heyday as the most trendy plants in the 1990s grasses are now finding their rightful place in our planting designs. Used with sensitivity they can be used to weave together mixed perennial planting schemes into evocative perennial meadows, but often just a few plants in a scheme will be enough to develop the appropriate emotional response.

King_110818_157Contrasts in planting design are fundamental, but need balancing with areas of harmony. When grasses are planted in masses or used as the dominant theme in a mixed planting scheme, their characteristic shapes introduce zones of harmony. Alternatively single specimens of bold grasses can stand out within their settings making striking contrasts with any broad leaved plants nearby.

_DSC5897One mistake too often seen is a designer lining up bold upright grasses to form barriers in their landscapes. When deliberate such arrangements make bold design statements, but without care can also introduce disruptive elements that divide up garden space that do not call for such organisation.

King_110712_038Many ornamental grasses both short and tall are capable of bringing impact to contemporary planting schemes and learning how best to use them in a variety of different situations and for different reasons needs to be mastered by both keen gardeners and professional garden designers in equal measure.

My online gardening courses at MyGardenSchool offer students the opportunity to work directly with me in discovering the secrets of gardening with grasses. The four video lectures are followed by weekly assignments that give us the opportunity to discuss your own projects and address some interesting design challenges. In this way, by tackling real assignments you will learn far more than simply reading a book. My last online horticultural course for this summer begins on June 7. Since grasses should not be divided or planted in the autumn or winter now is perhaps the time to introduce them into your own planting schemes.

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