Healthy soil is the foundation of any perennial meadow planting
I have already written about my decision to mulch newly planted perennial meadows following initial planting in order to suppress weeds.
Time 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.
Surprisingly 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.
Before 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.
The 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.
When 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.