I have been told that dirt is what gets picked up by a vacuum cleaner, and soil in a medium in which to grow plants.  Semantics aside, I prefer the word dirt.  What is under my fingernails, and inside my socks is dirt.  That dried material on the end of my spade or on my trowel is dirt.  What cakes the floormats in my truck is dirt. What the dogs track in-dirt.  What provides a home for my trees, shrubs, and perennials, and my container plants-dirt. 

Dirt is a big word.  Some dirt is cream white, and grainy-do not count on it to retain water.  Sand is a type of dirt whose particles do not stick together.  Water drains right through it. On the beach off Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia-sand.  It drains and dries within seconds of its exposure to waves.  A sand beach on the ocean-one of life’s great pleasures. What grows there?  Tufts of grass.  Those tufts always look stressed, and tired, I might add.  Sand is a lean medium.    

Some dirt is an iridescent colored and greasy material that sticks to everything-shovels, hands-and roots that are gasping for a little air.  Clay is a very heavy water retentive dirt.  Once it dries out, it is hard-bone hard.  Terra cotta pots are made from clay dirt.  The word terra cotta, literally translated, means fired earth.  Very heavy clay dirt is loath to give up its water.  Farmers use clay to line the bottom of ponds built to provide water for livestock.  I have only built one pond that was lined in clay.  I had a client who was game.  12 inches of clay lined her pond.  Once all of the air was compacted out of it, the water level in the pond stayed fairly constant. The heavy clay soil pictured above-like the bottom of that pond.  

Both sand and clay-dead dirt.  I don’t mean this, really.  Both are composed of minerals-natural elements.  Silica, iron, manganese and the like. A ball of clay that I have squeezed all of the air out of-rock like. My clay rock is not so different than a granite rock,  in theory.  Granite is just harder than clay.  Formed clay, like granite, has been a building material for centuries.  Drain pipes, chimney flues and floor tiles-made of fired clay. Natural rock may be inert, but it is has a history that one could call a life.  Some geologists think that rock is a living organism.  This may be true in the abstract, but would you expect a columbine to take hold in a stack of quarry tile?  Not likely. 

Good dirt, the kind of dirt that encourages vigorous growth and health, is loaded with organic material.  What does this mean exactly?  Plants grow and prosper.  Once the seeding, fruiting and blooming is done, they die.  Even the biggest and the oldest trees enentually die. When living things die, they decompose.  They become compost.  Compost is the decomposing residue of the lives of many.  In undisturbed forests, lichens and moss colonize the surfaces of rocks.  Those colonies catch the debris from falling leaves-and trees.  This lean dirt, these natural and shallow pockets of decomposed plant material, provide a medium in which plants can take hold, and thrive. 

 Clay dirt, and sand dirt mixed together makes a leavened soil.  The sand particles help break up the clay.  This means water can be supplied to a plant, and then drain away before the roots rot.  But leavening is not enough.  Great dirt is loaded with organic material.  compost.  The remains of other plants.  Organic material further leavens dirt-dirt great for growing is loose, friable.  Air is a big part of the party.  Roots need air to survive, and thrive.  Who knows what other nutrients in decomposing plant material contribute to the next generation of plants. 

What else from that organic material?  There is plenty of controversy.  There are those who say compost feeds the soil.  There are those who say all compost does is promote an even absorption and slow release of water.  Water retention, if you will.  There are those that say organic material fuels the next generation of plants.  That organic material,  unsullied by any human intervention, makes for healthier, better lives.  Purely organic soil, organically grown plants-whenever I hear this, I swing back to some straight dirt talk.  Good dirt is essential to a garden.   

 good dirt

Great dirt is crumbly, friable.  It holds moisture to a point, then it drains.  A high compost content makes soil rich-I cannot really explain what I mean by rich, but I can smell it.  It has a certain feel.  It falls off  the spade and trowel. Great dirt running deep will endow your garden.  Dig a big scoop of your soil.  Pick up what your hand will hold.  If it sifts out between your fingers, add lots of clay, and lots of organic material.  If it sits in your hand like a heavy lump, add some sand, and lots of compost.  Aim to amend your soil. Your treasured plants need air, minerals, and compost. Thinking to plant a garden, or install a landscape?   Cook up some really good dirt.

good dirt

I could not cook a dinner for friends if my life depended upon it.  But I can make, or amend, or tweak dirt-cook dirt- such that plants grow.  I do what I can to provide good dirt for every plant on my property.  Could I teach a class in soil science-no. This is by no means a scientific discussion of soil. This is a fairy tale about good dirt.  A story-no more.  Take this story where you will. But I will say that the dirt under your nails will help your garden prosper. 


Muddy Day

May 25 is not my idea of a great time for a chilly rain day, never mind the cold rain for days that we have had. Oh I know, Memorial Day, which we celebrate four days from now, traditionally marks the earliest that I can plant tender plants in my zone.  Every year, I think there is bound to be some variation in that regularly scheduled programming that will let me get out earlier than usual.  Every year, I see that hope dashed. 

May is a perfect time to plant new perennials, divide old ones, and move plants.  There are of course exceptions.  Move and divide peonies and oriental poppies in the fall only.  But cool temperatures and regular rain help transplants and new plants get established.  But what we have now is soil soup.  A good client stepped off the driveway this morning into a new bed, thinking she would walk across the dirt. Almost knee high in mud, she had to be rescued. What is mud?  Soil suspended in water.  I am thinking a lot about soil today.  I have time. 

Great soil is a special dish gardeners nurture or prepare for their plants.  Natural topsoil , usually present in the top 8 inches of the earth, is teeming with bacteria, micro organisms, minerals, and organic matter.  There is so much bacterial activity in soil it is correctly understood to be living.  Soil berefit of organic material and humus is unfriendly to the nutrient uptake of the roots of plants.  By this, I mean unfriendly to life.   The iridescent, airless, non-draining and stinking blue clay that gets excavated from future basements-not so much living goes on there. This urban landscape project-that clay that sits on top, and does not drain is an issue.  The water from our relentless rain is like a lake sitting on top of the clay in this yard.

Great soil is easy to identify.  It smells earthy, truffle-like, humid; great compost laden soil smells great.  It holds moisture, but drains surely.  Loaded with air, it crumbles to the touch.  Should your soil seems to be a perfect material for clay pots, do something to leaven that clay.  If your sandy soil runs through your fingers, invest in a giant compost pile, or a collection of succulents.  You are a gardener-so you were born with the hope gene.  Nurture your soil. 

There are those to say that native soil cannot be changed to any appreciable degree, but I am certain my soil at home is vastly better than it was 16 years ago.  I mulch all of my beds with bark fines-ground hardwood bark mulch.  It disintegrates in a season or less, adding lots of organic material to my soil.  No wood chips, please.  Wood, or cellulose, requires the action of bacteria that feed on nitrogen to live in the decomposition phase.   Any plant mulched with wood chips will soon look nitrogen-starved.  Bark, or lignin, readily breaks down, and will nurture your soil.  The smaller the bark particulates, the faster decomposition will occur.  Via the bark fines, I load my soil every year with organic material.   

My plants seem to like this regime.  My boxwood flush 8 inches of growth every spring.  My European ginger is thriving.  My Princeton Gold maples leaf luxuriously. The yews under the maples-flushing new growth everywhere. My lawn is thick and green.  None of these plants get any fertilizer.  I just make sure that the soil in which they grow is loaded with organic matter and air.  My enriched soil living and breathing-see the result above.

The Dirt

Anyone who gardens has ideas about dirt; I am no exception.  I like friable soil that drains readily, and is heavily weighted with compost for good soil retention.  Though these two characteristics may seem to oppose one another, they in fact speak to a need for balance. Most plants need a regular source of water, but not swimmingly so.   Heavy clay soil stays wet.  Clay also makes a great material from which to make pots; when clay soil dries out, it is is so densely hard it repels water. In any case, if you are a root hair, either clay state sounds less than optimal.  Liberal amounts of compost can help leaven that soil, but choosing plants that like heavy soil is a very good idea if clay is what you have.  

It is is easy to establish plants in a sandy porous soil-provided you are planting grapes, succulents, lavender or rosa rugosa.  You will have a very tough time getting peonies or delphiniums to prosper, though it is easy to get them to root.  Determining your soil type is important.  Loads of compost can improve the texture of any soil, but you would be hard pressed to completely change its character.  I do have clients that cook up soil as if it were their most favorite thing to do-and their gardens reflect that.  But after you have improved clay soil, you have improved clay soil-not sandy loam.   

This older home had been completely redone on the inside.  The work was not kind to the soil. Pickup trucks, dumpsters and various equipment drove over and parked on that soil for months. Who knows what got dumped on it. Redoing a landscape from scratch requires at least as much time devoted to restoring the health of the soil as planting.   

Shoveling out the weeds and lifting and storing plants that will be saved is the first move. This phase alone is a whomping lot of work.  We are not ready for plants yet.  The front door of the home is not in front-is is actually located on the east side.  The design of the walkway will need to address the 90 degree change of direction, and the relatively long trip to the door.      

The process of installing the stone makes another kind of mess.  This phase always pains me, given all the clean up and out that has already been done.  But the process of creating a landscape is always quicker and more efficient if if all the hard structure comes first.  Working around existing plant material is difficult; inevitably something precious gets damaged.

The mess proved to be well worth enduring; the walk is beautiful.  At the juncture of the north leg and the west leg is a terrace. Though the views out the windows to the rear yard are beautiful, the property drops off precipitously.  As very little of the rear yard space is useable, this landscape will feature a terrace in the front yard. 

I do not often plant buxus Green Mountain.  Its 4′ by 3′ eventual size makes it a tall and narrow growing plant.  I wanted this small space to afford my client some privacy. So the plan is to plant tall.  Taller plants will screen the view of the drive from the garden, and make the terrace feel more secluded.

The beds on either side of the walk that will contain smaller plants.  The soil in these beds was excavated down some 10 inches; a our own plant mix that contains our own compost.  Steve’s long tenure as superintendent of grounds at Grand Hotel made him a compost expert.  Mackinac Island has very little topsoil, and bringing soil to the island was very expensive.  So we have a considerable pile of great compost available for projects. We mix in some sand, and some worm castings for good measure. 

The soil here is actually quite good.  I suspect the years the garden had been neglected and the leaves unraked contributed a lot of compost by default. Once dug, the soil had a good hand, and was crumbly. Our main issue was to try to restore some air to the soil.  I am encouraged by this-all of the new plants should thrive.