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Knowing what’s in your soil is the secret to a healthy, gorgeous garden, writes MONTY DON

When some people regard soil as ‘dirty’ or not really significant in terms of how their garden grows, I’m always surprised and a little dismayed. Soil is, in fact, by far the most important part of your garden in defining what you can grow and even when you can grow it. 

Think of it as a living entity working with your plants rather than an inert medium in which to raise them under your bidding. 

The received wisdom used to be that there were four basic soil types – clay, chalk, sand and peat. The average garden was likely to be dominated by one of these types, which would determine the broad swathe of plants you could comfortably grow. 

It was a given that all four types of soil would be immeasurably improved by digging and by adding lots of manure. 

The soil in your garden is complicated, idiosyncratic and teeming with life. There are four basic soil types – clay, chalk, sand and peat, explains Monty Don

You can establish your soil type with a simple pH test. This will tell you if your soil is alkaline, acidic or – as most of our gardens are – roughly neutral. 

This is useful in as much as soil with a pH at either extreme will not be able to support plants that have adapted to the opposite end of the pH spectrum, but in truth just looking around will suffice. 

If your neighbours are growing rhododendrons, camellias and heather, then the soil is acidic. If on the other hand all these are absent but weigelas, lilacs, ceanothus and lavender are common, then your soil will be alkaline. 

We now know that this is rather crude. The soil in your garden is complicated, idiosyncratic and, critically, teeming with life. 

Sustaining that largely invisible life and nurturing its relationship with your plants is the secret to a healthy garden. 

A third of all life on this planet lives in the soil. One teaspoon of soil will contain billions of microbes, divided into thousands of species of fungi, nematodes and protozoa as well as mites, ants, beetles and earthworms. 

MONTY’S JOB OF THE WEEK 

Sow sweet peas now and you’ll have bigger plants with a stronger root system next spring. The young plants will, however, need storing and some protection over winter if the weather is bad; I sow some now and another batch in February to spread the risk. Sow three seeds in a 7.5cm pot using potting compost. Germinate on a windowsill or in a greenhouse, and once the first leaves are out, place outside in a cold frame or a spot where they’re protected from hard frosts, mice and becoming sodden. They’ll be ready to plant out in early April. 

Sow sweet peas now and you’ll have bigger plants with a stronger root system next spring

Sow sweet peas now and you’ll have bigger plants with a stronger root system next spring

These will all be working to improve fertility and aiding plants to grow, just as plants, with their decayed organic matter, are adding food for these creatures to feed upon. 

The most important thing you can do to improve your soil is to add organic matter. Every time we harvest something, be it a cabbage or a rose, we take goodness from the soil, and his must be replaced. 

Anything that has lived is organic material, be it manure, leaf mould, straw, grass clippings – anything is better than nothing. You can buy soil improver, compost from your local council and mulches such as bark chippings, all of which help greatly. 

But nothing is better than compost made from your garden, which will return the bacteria, fungi and nutrients to the soil. You need only to add this as a thin layer spread on the surface, and then let the worms do the work for you. 

Soil structure is almost as important as soil content. If the structure is good, your plants will be best able to take up available nutrients and moisture. 

To improve soil structure, add living and composted organic material while avoiding compaction. Nurture a healthy worm population that’ll aerate and feed lawns and beds alike. 

Make compost at every opportunity and add it as a boost for the teeming life busy at work in the ground. In short, nurture your soil rather than your plants if you want a healthy, beautiful garden.

ASK MONTY…

Q I have a hydrangea that has been really nice this summer and seems happy in its pot. But when and how should I prune it? 

E Bell, Cumbria

A Leave it unpruned for the winter, then after the last frost remove the old flower heads and trim it back by about a quarter. Any old or damaged stems can be reduced right down to the base. 

Q My fruit trees are infected with codling moth. I put the windfalls in my compost bin, but will this have made the compost unusable? 

June Pearce, Kent

The ‘normal soil’ may be the clue; to flower, nerines like light, free-draining soil and baking sun

The ‘normal soil’ may be the clue; to flower, nerines like light, free-draining soil and baking sun

There should be no harm if you turn it regularly so it becomes a sweet-smelling crumbly texture, just don’t mulch your fruit trees with it. But infected windfalls and leaves should really be burnt or disposed of. 

To deal with the moths, try pheromone traps or nematodes, or encourage birds such as blue tits that will eat the eggs.

Q My nerines produce healthy leaves but never flower. The soil is normal. Any advice? 

Paul Gymer, Herts 

A The ‘normal soil’ may be the clue; to flower, nerines like light, free-draining soil and baking sun. If the current site is sunny enough, lift the bulbs, add a lot of grit and replant.

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