Soil Management for Perennial Meadow Planting Schemes
Americans mulch and Europeans don’t and arguments rage between those that do and those that don’t.
Like 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.
To 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 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.
There 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.
Digging 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.
Like 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.
In 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.
Grow the right plants lean and hard and they will reward you with effective and low maintenance results.