Heaven smells like dirt.
At least according to my soils professor at University. There I was, in the woods of Quebec, standing directly next to the Professor when he offered up the handful of dirt and asked me to take a smell. He was one of those rare teachers who can take a potentially unbearably boring subject and turn it into the most fascinating class, purely through oblivious passion for the subject. But, I hadn’t yet discovered this and was, in fact, in a right panic trying to figure what the heck I was supposed to be smelling.
Heaven was not on the tip of my tongue. But, now I know what he means…the smell of damp woodland soil is special, even more than special, it is cathartic. Even moreso after a week, breaking my back and close to tears, trying to garden a very typical Irish garden: stone and clay, far from Heaven I can tell you. More like penance as every throw of the spade clatters off a boulder, as I try to make yet another cup of tea with 6″ of clay stuck to my wellies. Wellies that I have not removed for almost a month. Is there anything called Wellie Toe? There must be, I can’t be the only one who has bruised toes from the constant press of Wellie rubber.
Trying to make wild Irish soil into a garden is one of the more trying undertakings you can begin and to do it right takes not just resolve and commitment but the right soil amendments. And a lifetime.
I will say this once though: GETTING YOUR SOIL RIGHT IS VERY VERY IMPORTANT FOR A GOOD GARDEN
Unfortunately, soil amending is one of the more boring tasks in gardening but the time and attention to preparing your soil will pay huge dividends, I promise. Your plants will thrive, your flowers bloom bigger and better and your foliage will be lush.
What you are aiming for in Ireland, in your existing garden beds, is a loosening of the heavy clay soil. Heavy clay is the type of soil that tends to water log, restrict root growth and be poor in nutrients (the nutrients are there, they just need to be freed from their clay cations or something along those lines that I remember from my soils class, when I wasn’t busy searching for the scent of Heaven). The best way to do this is adding composted manure, leaves or compost. Mulching every one to two years with fine bark mulch is another fantastic way of improving your soil little by little. The mulch also gives a beautiful finish to the garden. By the way, that black weed gard/mypex stuff is the worst thing you can do for improving your garden soil.
If you are starting your beds from scratch just spread a good layer of your amendments over the top of the bare soil and work in with a tiller or by hand.
How about pH you ask? There isn’t much point in trying to change your pH as it will always revert back to its original state. It is good to know before you start so pick up a testing kit at a garden centre.
My favorite amendments:
Gee-Up – black gold, mix in with soil or other compost as it can be very, very potent
Celtic Gold – I haven’t used this one yet but it looks fantastic
Dalefoot – Another one that utilizes waste products, sheepswool and bracken! I pretty much love everything about this compost and some English gardeners swear by it. Tough to get in Ireland though but maybe someday
The one thing to remember about amending soil is that it is not a once off undertaking it is a lifelong commitment. And keep in mind that even after you amend your soil, you should still plant for the soil you have and not the soil you want to have. When you finally have that moment, the moment when you have dug a hole for a new plant and the rich, black soil crumbles between your fingers, the moment when you can smell Heaven in your garden beds….that is when you can say: Amended
Plants that do well in clay from my own experience in Ireland: Asters, Rudbeckia, Libertia, Eryngium, Perovskia, Hemerocallis, Cercidiphyllum, Birch, Cornus controversa, Calamagrostis, Hammamelis, Hellebore, Hakonechloa, Persicaria, Astrantia, Astilbe, Rodgersia, Euphorbia (beware though…toxic sap and some can be invaders).