To know your soil is to know your garden

IF trial and error is a reflection of having an inquiring mind, when it comes to one’s garden, Dr Liz Lakin is all for it.

With a background in both education and environmental sciences, it means that the University of Dundee senior lecturer has an interest in not just what we do in our garden, but the way we learn how to do it.

And the good news is that the ‘academic lead’ for the university’s Living Lab project – “exploring… a shared platform of education for sustainability, nature connectiveness and sustainable land use” – is perfectly okay with the fact that many of us learn about our gardens in quite a random way.

Whether it’s a passing conversation with a neighbour, or the disappointment of a plant or crop beginning to fail, or even a snippet picked up from a TV gardening show, it’s okay that our understanding of our garden is a patchwork and likely an incomplete one at that.

But she urges: to make this picture more complete, there are some fundamental questions that first require to be asked. And there’s not much in gardening that’s more fundamental than soil.

Dr Lakin is a senior lecturer in Education Studies at the University of Dundee and Living Lab lead of Education and Research at Dundee Botanic Garden.

She begins: “I recently spoke at an event at the Ravenscraig community garden run in Kirkcaldy, by the community organisation, Greener Kirkcaldy. The focus was on climate-friendly gardening.

“It was immediately obvious that soil wasn’t uppermost in most people’s minds – which was completely understandable and fine. Many people garden primarily because it creates a sense of wellbeing. Others garden because they want to grow their own food. 

“Add to the Why do you garden? question another two – How do you manage your garden? and What’s your garden doing for biodiversity? – and you are beginning to fully understand your garden.

“Plants take in and store carbon and so does the soil. Getting to know your garden is essential to getting the most from it, especially in climate terms.”

She continues: “To know your garden requires knowing your soil and that’s why I urge people to test it. At a basic level, you can check what happens to rainwater, whether it’s sitting on top of the soil (in which case, it might be mostly clay-based) or draining quickly away (in which case, it might be mostly a sandy soil).”

Then there is smell and texture. And after that, a pH kit to test how acidic or alkaline the soil is. Extremely acidic soils are not great for worms, while a reading of pH 5 – 6 (still at the acidic end of the scale) is well-suited to azaleas, rhododendrons and heathers. Meanwhile, a level towards the alkaline end is likely to be good for brassicas such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale and turnip. Most soft fruits, other vegetables and flowers favour a neutral pH of around 7.

“You’ll find pH kits being sold in garden centres, and on top of testing the acidity of your soil, you need also to give thought as to how to potentially best conserve water. A water butt connected to a down pipe, from a gutter, is obviously ideal, but, at the very least, you can put out any buckets (partially covered) and watering cans you might have. Be prepared too to cover your soil with a fleece or an old black plastic compost bag (black side down), to reduce evaporation.

“There’s also what are called ‘companion plants’, which are plants that complement each other. For instance, as one plant is extracting nutrients from the soil, its companion might be enhancing it, such as peas and other legumes. So, don’t think about lines of a crop surrounded by soil, think instead a mix of the crop and companion plants, to fill out the space.”

Dr Lakin concludes: “Climate-friendly gardening starts in your head, beginning with why you want to garden and the space you have available, be it a window box or an area of land around your house. 

“Look for the areas of shade and bright sunlight – this may vary during the year – and get to know your soil: protect it, enhance it if necessary but work with it. And finally, think carefully about your watering regime, both its source and evaporation.”

Mike Wilson is a member of the Place Design Scotland team

Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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