Wednesday 18 June 2014

Nice looking soil

My soil surface is extremely scruffy

Miscellaneous scruffiness
I have a problem. It lies deep in my personality. I am not tidy. When it comes to the soil my natural scruffiness, my laziness and my fundamental belief in the benefits of nature’s recycling of organic matter coincide! It is best for the soil if organic matter created by plants is directly returned. It is natures way. My soil is more organic and black with higher levels of organic matter than any garden regularly top dressed with stuff from the garden centre. I decry gardens whose borders are dug and otherwise regularly stirred. Photosynthesis of green leaves creates in situ, far more organic matter than a gardener can easily add to his plot. Most gardeners destroy natural organic matter by repeated cultivation and physical removal! Worse, some gardeners even pull out large weeds with attached rich fertile soil and put it in the bin!

I am adamant that weeds should be killed and left on the surface to recycle their organic matter and nutrients. I argue that frequent soil cultivation oxidises soil organic matter away. I won’t bore you again with all the benefits of minimum cultivation. The problem I want to address today is that recycling bulky vegetation larger than my small weeds is not tidy and is therefore unacceptable to most gardeners.

For me In my cemetery gardens and on the village plot it is easy. I merely shred dead herbaceous tops with my hedge trimmer and leave them to decay. All leaves from the trees can lie there as a beneficial mulch. I never pull out overgrown plants and take them away. If unwanted, I spray large herbaceous perennials with glyphosate and leave them to  decay. If I had established perennials weeds such as bindweed I would kill them with glyphosate and let their remains enrich my soil. One year old woody prunings, I usually shred. Larger woody prunings, I burn on a bonfire but extinguish the embers with water to make my own version of biochar. 

All the tops of my uneaten vegetables are directly returned to the soil. I top and tail the leeks and clean up the sprouts before bringing them inside. Trimmings from cabbages and cauliflower, pods from the peas and beans are immediately returned from the kitchen and scattered on the vegetable garden surface. For me it is a fundamental part of no dig vegetable gardening. Let plants in life and death benefit the soil.

I recently described shredding the haulm of my broad beans and leaving them on the surface. A step too far for some of my readers. My very dear friend Rowena, gently reprimanded me and delicately mentioned  that when she tried it, it took a long time to decay. Most gardeners think my methods as unhygienic, untidy and completely out of order. I must confess to my own pathological obstinacy when it comes to these things. For most gardeners there needs to be another way!

In my own garden at Boundary Cottage I am not the complete master. Brenda insists that in the ‘less wild’ parts of the garden I cut down herbaceous perennial tops and take them away to compost. I did get away with it this year when she was not looking and shredded six foot high tops and further reduced them to a mulch with my rotary mower. I am completely beyond the pale. One last salvo, before you have a go at me for encouraging the slugs. I deny my slug damage will be greater than in the conventional tidy garden. Indeed I argue that it will be very much less. I also insist that my methods grow healthy plants that are generally free of pest and disease.

Liverwort and Moss

Oh dear, I have yet more thing to confess. My uncultivated soil surface in some places grows liverwort and moss. Brenda’s sister Joyce who has ecological interests, without any irony, recently admired my liverwort. Most people, and I include my dear friend Peter Williams, cannot stand this weed. Peter says that that he greatly admires my garden and he recently observed that for two show gardens, our two philosophies could not be more different. I think he was being kind.

Elaine’s method
I have played bridge with Elaine for the past forty years. She fluffs up her soil! Despite my protestations and explanations she says she likes it that way. In a small garden it is easy to keep her soil looking like sand on a beach by repeated gentle cultivations which she  says she enjoys. She does not actually dig and thereby chop up the roots of her plants, thank goodness, it would be too much like work. She understands that she is not aerating the roots, I have told her that so often. She has no interest that she is oxidising organic matter away when she can buy some more at the garden centre. I am pretty sure her garden debris goes straight in the green bin!
She is only too happy that she cannot plant and sow when it is wet, she is a fair-weather gardener. No one would dare walk on her soil and compress it. Her grandchildren are too old or wise to disfigure it by riding bicycles over it. Visitors like me who are disposed to walk on the soil to examine the plants are unable to do so. There is actually no need as  the borders are narrow and the plants common. I go too far, I gave her most of them! In its own way her garden is pretty. UK soils are amazingly resilient to gardener’s abuse!
Elaine has no hang-ups about glyphosate but is incapable of using it. Had her new garden several years ago been full of perennial weeds she would have had no inhibitions about calling me in!
I am rude to Elaine very often - but not about her bridge. She has a thick skin and never reads my blog. I mischievously forewarned her of this piece I was writing when we were at the bridge table last night. She told me I was a cyber-bully and later trumped my ace! She does not seem to be free next week!
(Bridge officiendos will be aware that trumping partner’s winner can sometimes be the correct play).

I don’t want to disturb my soil to show visitors that it has beautiful structure. Here the moles have insisted. If I scatter this soil over my borders they will look like Elaine’s!

Elaine is not alone. I visited a superb very small garden in Northumberland last week. The soil was fluffed up and it looked very nice.

Is there a better way?
Nobody actually tells me that my soil surface lacks a certain je ne sais quoi  Not to my face! The nearest a garden visitor came to it was saying he felt ‘comfortable’ in my garden because the soil resembled his own.

Of course a none dug soil can be tidy! Peter’s soil surface is always immaculate, cohesive, well structured, free of debris and has a tidy profile. Provided you do not stand on his self-sown trilliums you can walk on it too. He does not call himself a no dig gardener but like all quality gardeners his soil is minimally disturbed.
Like most gardeners he removes his unwanted bulky debris away to a compost heap. Unlike many gardeners he actually returns this compost, this most wonderful of materials, back to the soil as a mulch or sometimes in the form of his home made potting compost when he plants. He is quite prepared if doing some serious replanting to use a rake, fork or spade to re-establish a level and no doubt incorporate compost. When I saw the numerous tools in his barrow recently he looked like a real gardener. I can pay him no greater compliment!
Like my own, Peter’s weeds are killed when they are small and our methods and timing of weed control enables them to be left to shrivel and die on the soil surface. In Peter’s garden there is not a liverwort in sight! Liverwort can be controlled by the hoe on our sandy soils and easily raked away. Regular readers will remember I do approve of hoeing and often hoe the weed in my vegetable garden and sometimes in my ornamental borders. I hoe the weed by severing the weed at ground level without disturbing the rest of the soil. As a none digger with a no-letting-weeds-seed policy, this is easy, as unlike those who constantly bring buried weed seed to the surface by deep cultivation, my weeds are sparse. If weed seedlings are dense as in most gardens it will be best to hoe the complete area - but keep it shallow.
Although Peter leaves small Autumn leaves on the surface of his woodland garden, he rakes larger unsightly ones away. He composts them 50/50 with his accumulated lawn mowings to make some marvellous material.

There are many variations on how gardeners manage their soil surface in their perennial borders. Only the deep diggers are beyond the pale!

My giant herbaceous border in Winter are particularly scruffy. But in a few weeks now no soil will be visible at all.

A nice looking garden
Much of the above is written tongue in cheek and you might be wondering by now how anyone like me can have a beautiful garden.
Much of the answer lies in garden  design. I want the observer to look at my garden in soft focus and look at the overall view. I don’t want visitors to look at the soil. I want them to look at the plants. The layout should lead the eye to beauty and horticultural interest. Hard surfaces and sweeps of turf and grass access paths in my own garden help.

Overall in soft focus
I don’t want people to look at vast tracts of soil. I don’t want visitors to say what a good job of maintenance I have done today and how I have transformed a weedy patch. I don’t want anyone to notice I have done any maintenance at all! I want my garden always to be weed free and by my own low standards, trim.

Miscellaneous mulches
There are two significant methods of ensuring the soil surface is beautiful. One is to cover it with a suitable mulch. You can have most of the advantages of minimum cultivation and a whole array of further advantages too.

The best method of all is to cover the soil with plants. I don’t just mean  conventional ground cover that just fills a space, but how plants are used and how they mingle together. Both are beyond the scope of my article today!


  1. I'm not one of the manicured brigade but notice how volunteers on our allotment want to tidy up all the edges and prettify things. I think the best method is cover the soil with plants which is what I aim for.

    1. You are a girl after my own heart, L!
      I often wonder if I had an 'official allotment' what fellow holders would say about my methods!

  2. Roger, I have an attitude to gardening that is very different to yours, but I insist that "good" gardening is whatever type the gardener likes. It is like my attitude to wines. I am not influenced by the name or (much) by the price. If I like it, it is by definition good. I also recognise that different people like different wines, so I would not attempt to persuade them that their tastes are wrong. Each to their own!

    1. Despite appearances, I do agree Mark! One of the beauties of gardening is that much pleasure and extremely fine results are produced by very diverse methods to create so many different kinds of gardens. You can admire the genius and skill displayed in many gardens even though it might not be your own style.
      My former friend Elaine (I jest) has one of the nicest gardens in her locality despite my disparaging comments!
      I think I might have highlighted some of the deficiencies in my own methods too!

      What I try to do is to provide a few technical angles relevant to technique that is badly treated in the popular press and I cannot resist a ‘dig’ at those gardeners who think their methods are natural when they throw away or destroy their organic matter and then buy some more at the garden centre.
      I am also very keen to dissuade people digging amongst established plants, especially things like blackcurrants, raspberries and herbaceous perennials - oh and everything else!
      When I worked as an apprentice at Hartlepool Parks department I worked with a wonderful craftsman whose digging was a joy to behold. It was ergonomic, very speedy, absolutely uniform and level and I must say the dug over borders in the park were a joy to behold!
      Thought of you yesterday Mark when I picked my first ‘Cobra’ french beans in my cold greenhouse.
      Liked the analogy about the wine, cheers!

    2. Even more enthusiastic about Cobra having eaten them. Absolutely delicious!

  3. Your posts are always so interesting. I have to confess that I'm not a tidy gardener. My soil is almost totally covered with plants. Lawn mowings, leaves and all what I want out of the borders I put on the compostheap. The compost I use lateron again in the garden and I use it in spring in pots to draw the dahlias.

    1. I have just mown my hedge and the trimmings are nice and soft. I was wondering if I would get away with mulching my asparagus with them!

  4. I like to cram plants in to cover soil and we do leave fallen leaves on beds that miraculously disappear. We don't dig in the garden and get gew weeds but the allotment is a different proposition.

    1. I think we are very much of the same mind Sue, except for the allotment!
      For many gardeners it is a big step to abandon digging vegetable plots but those who do often become extremely enthusiastic after a year or two! It does not have to be scruffy like mine!
      Sorry I am still having a problem with the unwanted link at the bottom. Cathi is on the job and am sure it will be very easy for her to correct it!

  5. Every fortnight about 40 brown bins (not ours) are removed from our short road by the council as green waste, this must be depleting the gardens and I wonder what the long term effect will be – we never used to do this. The waste company BIFFA has some difficulty shifting the very high quality compost it produces and I heard that there were over 200 tons surplus last year.

    1. We use our brown 'green bin' for storing firewood!
      I think throwing all that garden waste away is a missed opportunity for gardeners and personally cannot bring myself in my own garden to do it! I confess when doing jobs like pruning for friends I sometimes use it myself- although of course I have described how I buried prunings in my son's garden.
      I think nature is so bountiful in creating new organic matter that there is not usually any real long term danger to most gardeners soil. Their plants will of course keep on suffering if they do not keep their garden soil in good physical condition.
      We have a waste disposal unit just up the road. Yuk!
      They seem to have a disposal problem too, they make their money on the waste they take which otherwise wood cost hundreds of pounds in land fill tax for each lorry load
      Actually I have supped with the devil and accepted two free loads of their product which does have some valuable garden uses. I will be blogging about them soon!

    2. Sorry about the spelling in the phrase 'wood cost' it should be 'would cost'!
      I think it is a freudian slip as much of their incoming waste is wood!

    3. We don't use our brown bins either but create vast amounts of compost from grass cuttings and what we call roughage basically anything from shredded prunings to forget-me-nots - it is wonderful stuff and used as a mulch it helps keep the weeds down and improves the texture of our heavyish clay - but it is quite heavy work and I am experimenting with hedge-trimming of perennials in Winter which is very satisfactory as the mulch created in very inoffensive, I am a bit too fussy and have too many open gardens to spread all my veg waste directly on to the soil but very interesting article anyway.

    4. The veg waste only goes back to the veg garden Pauline. Even I am not scruffy enough to put pea pods on my borders!

  6. Hi Roger, I have noticed that on your pictures most of your plants are quite widely spaced which I am assuming is due to your method of weed control so you do show quite a bit of earth on which your "debris" lies. In my garden the planting is if anything too close which means that some thinning is necessary each year. I cut everything down in winter and leave it on the surface but it soon disappears when things start to sprout in the spring due to the close planting. The only area where I have tried to leave a bit of bare soil is along the edge of the grass as it makes for easier mowing i.e. I can mow without destroying my plants in the process! The downside to this is that I can't really follow your weed control regime, although luckily the weeds don't get too much of a look in because of the close planting. Three things I avoid where possible, bare soil, hedges and grass.

  7. Roger--can't agree with you more. I have over an acre of actual flower beds and I clean up the yard in spring. I now only fill 1/2 of a 4x4x4 ft compost bin. The really big grasses go in there because I am too lazy to cut them into smaller pieces. Everything else is left on the flower beds. When I dead head or weed--I use the cut/pull and drop method. Can't be bothered to cart them off to the compost bin only to cart them back a year later. I call it in situ composting.

    1. You are a man after my own heart Robert!
      I must admit the tops of very large herbaceous plants and large tall are a problem each year and I don't even now have a regular strategy - although I have hinted at various approaches in past pieces


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