Thoughts on Urban Soil

By fallspark, April 25th, 2011 | No Comments »

I just returned from a weeklong visit with my son and his family in Sacramento, CA. and spring is in full abundance there. Walking around their neighborhood often found me biting at my thumb on more than one occasion, as I admired a miasmic array of flowering shrubs, climbing roses and other tender perennials, plants I knew would never stand a chance of surviving in our bitter winters here.  Still, because my son is working on the final stages of landscaping his back yard, I continued my usual practice of taking notes about the different plants I saw there, asked questions if I found anyone in the yards.  Good way to get to know the neighbors there and find out what plants are drought resistant for that area.

We visited a new garden shop he had been eyeing for a few weeks, one reputed to carry a good selection of indigenous plants, and got some great ideas, specifically a shrub commonly called “Pink Lady,” one often found in business parks and other areas where maintenance can be sporadic.  These shrubs are a showy explosion of pale pink in the spring, have pleasing green and red foliage the rest of the year, no thorns or prickly tips and so are a good choice for his young family.  These also seemed a good fit for his large backyard and a nice accent to the established yuccas and palms that are already there.  Here, as well as in Sacramento, it is pretty well accepted that local plant varieties are usually the best recipe for success, and hard as it is to ignore all the email offerings for exotic lilies and such, I have also found local varieties to be my own best options.

As my plane cut below the heavy cover and landed in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul airport on Friday, the dismal sight there of rain and wind initially cast a sullen mood over my return, but as I drove the short distance with my daughter for my overnight stay, prior to driving back to Sioux Falls yesterday, I also realized that the time was just right for my annual preparation of the planting beds in my yard.  The four hour drive was perfect for that planning.

One thing I found my children in California have in common with many urban dwellers, including me, whether they live in the Sacramento area or right here on the windy plains, is that we both have to contend with poor soil conditions.  Theirs is hard, red clay that quickly bakes to the consistency of pottery in the extreme summer heat there, and mine is simply poor, clay-based subsoil that was left after the topsoil from my yard was removed when the house was built around 1975.  This soil situation is something that took me a good twenty-five years to realize, but once that hard lesson was learned, my gardening efforts found fruition.

I won’t claim to completely understand why contractors strip the soil from new home sites (although there are others who are well versed about this subject) but most homes built after 1950 have this problem, and one should be aware that the practice is common here.  Although some topsoil is returned upon completion of the home, in most areas it is only a scant amount, barely enough to support a lawn.  Trees, even perennial shrubs have little chance of thriving in it.  One has to be aware that the lovely black topping on your new lawn is little more than that, and be prepared to act accordingly.

For several decades I struggled to amend what I knew appeared to be poor, clay soil, adding compost and peat to large areas.  But despite my continued efforts, the soil remained hard and drained poorly—I just couldn’t add enough matter to make a difference.  Topsoil acts something akin to a natural sponge, and in its absence, water runs off into the storm sewer or just sits in pools of sodden clay and drowns everything planted there.  After year upon year of adding all the organic matter I could find, my results remained stunted. Had I know what the problem really was, I might have been spared a great deal of backbreaking work, not to mention the frustration and expense of quite a few wasted plantings.

In short, I finally stopped trying to amend the soil in the large areas, using this technique only for planting individual perennials, digging the planting holes much wider and deeper than called for, and simply backfilling them with equal pats of purchased topsoil, compost and peat moss mixed together.  This mixture seems to work well and at least gives the plants a fighting start, something to run their roots through to get established.  Raised beds have also been a godsend, and a convenient place to blow all the mulched leaves each fall.  I just keep feeding the same smaller areas with this and other organic matter, and have finally been rewarded with good results.

Now is a good time to lay that essential foundation, and there are several books I know of (and many more I haven’t yet read, I’m sure) that give some really excellent suggestions.  All New Square Foot Gardening, by Mel Bartholomew is a proven winner in its raised bed philosophy, giving clear and easy to understand directions for growing a good amount of flowers and produce in small areas.  A second is Lasagna Gardening, by Patricia Lanza.  Ms. Lanza’s approach of layering organic matter without all of that mixing offers a good alternative for those garden enthusiasts like me, who have put away the pitchfork, but still want a strong soil to work with.  Both come highly recommended, provide really interesting reading and are available in paperback.  I have tried both methods mentioned, and they work.

Finally, it wouldn’t be spring without the return of our county extension show, Garden Line, which begins its 2011 season this coming Tuesday at 7PM on PBS.  Over the years, I have learned so much from this very informative show, all about growing things in our area, tips on pest control, good plant varieties and other timely topics.  Call or email in your questions, and they will answer them on the air.

As a friend of the Falls Park Farmers Market, I’ll be sitting at the table on opening day from 9-11AM, rain or shine, to share what works for me, and hopefully to learn what has worked for others, as well.  Come join us at the market on Saturday, May 7th and share your ideas on soil, and all things growing.

Georgia Totten-Sioux Falls

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