A Dirty Little Secret

a dirty little secretMany years ago I had the side of the Detroit Garden Works box truck identified by the phrase “dirty little secret”.  We are a shop that specializes in ornament and fine plants for the garden.  Our shop location is in an out of the way manufacturing district.  Seventeen years later, we still routinely give out directions. As for the dirty part of the phrase-everything we have been, or hope to be, starts with the dirt.  We specialize in great containers for the garden.  Sculpture, furniture, trellises, ornament-our inventory is deep, and varied.  We like 19th century French urns.  We like fiber pots-made in America. But so basic and critical to growing a good garden involves the state of the dirt.

fountain gardenYou can shop our place for sturdy white china and equally sturdy wine glasses- great for outdoor entertaining.  Belgian candles that do not blow out on a breezy night. Framed herbaria from Italy.  Rusty steel spheres and topiary forms.  Oak and steel orangerie boxes.  Stone cisterns and garden antiques from all over the world.  But it could be that the most valuable thing we have available comes in a 40 pound bag-a custom mixed, compost based soil which can help your container gardens to thrive.  Our soil was formulated by my landscape superintendent, Steve Bernard.  The 16 years he spent in charge of all of the gardens and golf courses at Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island made him an expert on the topic of compost and soil.  I lost all of my isotoma fluvialitis over the winter.  I suspect because it is truly a zone 6 plant.  While I am mulling over what to do now, Steve made sure he prepped the soil down 12 inches with his compost.

springThough my neighborhood is noted for its poorly draining heavy clay soil, I inherited my property from two men who made it their mission to improve, and leaven the soil.  It was obvious that the men who owned my house before me understood that good soil is essential to a healthy landscape.  For a good many years after I moved, I did nothing in the garden besides topdressing the beds with a yearly 3″ thick layer of composted bark fines. The dogwoods and azaleas were in place the day I took possession-some 19 years ago.  I do just about nothing to take care of them, aside from regular water. Every spring, they bloom profusely.  Over the course of the summer, they grow.  Though azaleas reputedly ask for acid soil, I am sure my soil is on the basic side.  But I do know that the soil is friable, fast draining, and loaded with worms and other beneficial micro organisms, and the azaleas like it.  The rare occasion that I have to dig, the soil is loose, friable, and dark.  An garden empire can be built upon good soil.

scilla Plants will colonize where the soil favors robust growth.  My small perennial garden at home has rich soil further down than a shovel will reach.  It would not make grapes, nasturtiums or cosmos happy-it is too rich and water retentive.  It would not make bog plants happy either.  But it does provide a happy home for all the plants I have chosen to grow there.

annual plantingThe soil we put in containers is topsoil mixed with sand and compost.  I do not recommend soilless mixes for containers.  While they are lightweight, and a giant bag is easy to carry to the car, the peat base gets rock hard when it dries out.  It has no nutrient value per se.  Plants in soilless mixes have to be fertilized regularly.  I favor a good quality compost enriched real soil for my containers.  Soil retains moisture longer.  Real soil has micro nutrients and organisms that are beneficial to plants.  Good soil is a complex living environment that promotes healthy growth.

soilContainer plantings perform better in good soil with high fertility.  I change the soil out in my containers every year.  The old soil goes to one of our several compost piles-for revitalization.  All of our soil gets recycled, but we do not reuse until it has had a year or two to lie fallow, and be mixed in with new compost.

garden in springWhenever I see a garden in my area where that plants are a rich shade of green, and the growth generous, I know there is good soil for growing.  In perennial beds, the soil cannot be changed out every year.  So a topdressing of compost, or ground bark fines adds back to the soil what the plants have used.

Boston ivyThe walls of the neighboring building at the shop is completely covered with Boston ivy.  7 individual plants now cover 3000 square feet of wall space.  Did we prep that soil before we planted-oh yes.  A few shovels full of compost in the fall, and liberal watering is all we do to keep the plants happy and healthy.


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.