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Sunday, January 8, 2017

Love the soil you're with

I’ve got sandy soil, and the sooner I accept that, the happier my plants and I will be.

Swamp milkweed seems to like the sandy soil I can offer

Conventional gardening wisdom used to dictate that all good soils were the same. We all aspired to develop and maintain rich black loam, not too acid or alkaline and loaded with organic material.

     This old point of view is exemplified in a recent Fine Gardening Garden Photo of the Day blog post. The creator of a mountainside retreat in Tennessee writes, “. . . the first thing we did was to totally create a garden area…beginning with bringing in the best dirt!” Actually, bringing in good dirt is an idea we need to get over

If it were truly possible for us all to create identical soils, we’d achieve a boring consistency within climate zones. We’d be likely to grow the same plants across the country. Mainstream horticultural production already conditions us to buy a short list of highly prized perennials (hellebores, anyone?).

Hellebores are having their 15 minutes. They do brighten early spring.

 It’s depressingly like passing a Staples, a Barnes and Noble, and a Starbucks at every mall.

            Fortunately, nature doesn’t allow us to change our soil permanently to match some imagined ideal. You can knock yourself out, for example, trying to turn your acid New England soil alkaline to suit your delphiniums or hydrangeas. Once you stop pouring money into the ground in the form of additives, the soil will revert to what local conditions provide.

Some hydrangeas bloom pink in alkaline soil

            A better approach is to plant for the soil you have, instead of the soil you wish you had. I’ve learned the hard way that some plants just aren’t happy in my soil. Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) ‘Husker Red,’ for example, looked great in the catalogs but dwindled quickly in my garden. The Husker soubriquet probably should have tipped me off that this was a prairie native that wouldn’t appreciate New England soil conditions (nor the climate or the less-than-full sun exposure that I provided).

'Husker Red' prefers the wide open spaces

            I started out trying to match my garden to glamor shots of English-style perennial borders in the White Flower Farm catalog. “Living landscape” designers such as Rick Darke, Claudia West, and Thomas Rainer have recently opened my eyes to the truth that a garden exists in a particular place. These pioneers are showing how we can gain a deeper understanding of our local ecosystems and distill their essence when we choose plants and design gardens. It’s better for the environment, as well as making for more interesting yards.

Bloodroot is a New England native that's at home in my yard

            I haven’t thrown away my prized purchases of hellebores, peonies, balloon flowers, or day lilies. I still love them, even though you can see them all over the country. What I hope to do going forward is to channel the spirit of my specific natural surroundings and move toward a garden that has a more local inspiration. That will include embracing my sandy loam and what likes to grow in it.

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