What makes it good?
Dirt, not love, makes the world go round. There is more to dirt than meets the eye, but the most important thing to know is how to distinguish good from bad dirt and then maximize the good. And although it is not brain surgery, there may be a bit of bio-chemistry involved. Before you let that scare you away, what follows is simplified (maybe over simplified), but should be easy to read and heed. Almost certainly, native soils encountered by the Lowcountry gardener will be sandy and acidic. Your decision to move to the coastal plain and plant a garden does not automatically guarantee perfect conditions for your aspirations. It doesn’t take long to learn this.
In general, soils may be sandy or clay or somewhere in between, but frequently lacking is sufficient organic matter for good tilth. Sandy soil is composed of large particles of mineral material with large spaces between, causing water and nutrients to drain swiftly through (leaching), while clay soils are the opposite with small and sticky particles and small spaces between, inhibiting the flow of water. The natural result is water logging and stem rot.
The addition of humus is needed to solve both problems by amending the soil with organic matter, thus creating an environment teeming with living micro organisms busily converting soil nutrients to provide optimum conditions for plant growth. This activity builds a loose, friable structure that simultaneously holds moisture but drains well while encouraging roots to grow strong and downward.
The microorganisms, bacteria and fungi decompose organic material into a dark, crumbly, earthy-smelling medium. In short, humus is simply broken down organic material, the life support system of soil. Like humans, plants need oxygen, water and nutrients for life and growth and it is our job to provide them. When you see earthworms wriggling away from your spade, you know you are succeeding. How to provide the humus? Buy it or make it.
To purchase: topsoil, mushroom soil or compost, peat moss, dry manures, pecan, peanut, cocoa hulls. To make it yourself: compost! Compost is a combination of some of the above-purchased items for starters, plus your addition of leaves (chopped or shredded, although not the large, tough magnolia leaves); kitchen waste (vegetable, not meat or oil products) such as coffee grounds, eggshells; prunings, grass clippings, dead plants and weeds (disease and seed-free). Wood chips may be included, but not fresh ones, nor those from chemically treated wood.
Mix the above, add to your compost site, water occasionally and turn with shovel about twice a month. You will be rewarded over time with your own free humus to apply as topdressing on lawns, flower beds and around trees and shrubs. You can repair bare spots in the lawn by lightly digging in this mixture to make a place where grass will want to grow again. Use it in new beds, old beds and when planting or transplanting. It is hard to overdo this.
Now is the time to take a soil sample to the office of the Beaufort County Extension agent, Laura Lee Rose (in the old library building on #278, across the road from The Bargain Box at First Presbyterian Church). Laura Lee holds office hours on Wednesdays from 9:30 a.m-12 p.m. but samples may be dropped off any time during normal working hours to be forwarded to the Clemson lab for evaluation. Telephone: (843) 470-3655, Ext. 117.
Using a plastic bag, mix three or four trowels of soil from various locations in your garden at four to six inches depth, and indicate what type plants you plan to grow. You will receive a print-out report of your soil’s condition regarding pH (acidity versus alkalinity), plus the presence or absence of vital micro nutrients. You may have to enlist help to interpret the report, as it is couched in soil biology techno-speak.
If enthusiasm lags, take heart from Bertrand Russell, philosopher, mathematician and author (1872-1970), who wrote, “I’ve made an odd discovery Every time I talk to a savant I feel quite sure that happiness is no longer a possibility. Yet when I talk with my gardener, I’m convinced of the opposite.”