The Good Earth


Dirt, not love, makes the world go round. There is more to good dirt than meets the eye. Although this is not brain surgery, there is a bit of bio-chemistry involved.

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). Clay soils have small, sticky particles that inhibit the flow of water. The result is water logging and stem rot.

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.

Adding humus can solve problems caused by both clay and sandy soil. Amend the soil with organic matter teeming with living micro-organisms that provide optimum conditions for plants to grow. Good soil has a loose structure that holds moisture but drains well while encouraging roots to grow strong and downward.

Microorganisms including bacteria and fungi break down organic material into a dark, crumbly, earthy-smelling medium called humus. This is 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.


Now is a good time to take a soil sample to be tested by the Clemson Extension service at the Beaufort County Government annex, 539 William Hilton Parkway on Hilton Head Island. Master Gardener volunteers are there on Wednesdays from 9:30 a.m.-noon and samples can only be dropped off then.

Using a plastic bag, mix three or four trowels of soil from various locations in your garden at four to six inches depth, and jot down what type plants you plan to grow. You will receive a report of your soil’s pH and micro nutrients. This is a free service and volunteers can help you interpret scientific terms in the report.

For more information call Clemson Extension agent Laura Lee Rose at 843-470-3655, Ext. 117.

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.

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.”