Good Soil Is Job #1

Whether you're a seasoned gardener or just a beginner, one simple truth remains--the better your soil, the better your garden.
Steve Bender

It's true. Good soil absolutely means lusher growth, less fertilizing, fewer pests, and stronger plants.

My neighbor, Chris McDaniel, found this out when he decided to redo the foundation planting in front of his house. His kindly builder had stripped away every ounce of original topsoil, then generously applied a compacted layer of red clay subsoil over the entire yard. Plastic plants might have done okay in that stuff, but it's safe to say the living ones wouldn't be living for long.

Chris wanted to yank out all the old, scraggly plants and start over that summer. I convinced him to wait until fall. It is an ideal time for planting in most of the South, because while plants stop growing up top, down below they're still working on roots. By the time next spring rolls around, they have a head start on trees and shrubs planted in spring.

When starting out with awful soil, you have three options--dig out and replace the original soil (which can be both time-consuming and expensive); build raised beds filled with new soil atop the original soil; or improve the original soil. Chris and I chose the last option.

Chris's front beds extend out about 20 feet on either side of the steps. Our first order of business was bringing in a pickup truck full of good topsoil and spreading half on each side. A tip for beginners--know the source of the topsoil and/or inspect it before you order it. You want good, clean, loose, dark earth--not clay, rocks, branches, and trash. Never substitute uncomposted cow or horse manure, unless you want seedlings of everything the animal ate coming up in your yard.

Topsoil isn't enough by itself. It usually lacks the organic matter that most plants crave. So Chris added sphagnum peat moss--about 1 (4-cubic-foot) bale for every 30 square feet of bed. Composted manure is an acceptable alternative. Some folks substitute pine bark, but I don't like using it up against the house. Wood attracts termites, and I'd just as soon they schedule their picnic at somebody else's place.

After using a hard rake to spread the peat moss, Chris added the final ingredient--sand. He spread 3 to 4 (40-pound) bags on each side of the steps. Though sand is inert, it loosens soil and aids aeration and drainage, as does organic matter. And when dealing with clay soil, good aeration and drainage are just what the gardener ordered.

Now it was time to mix together the topsoil, peat moss, and sand. Chris rented a heavy-duty power tiller for the job. These machines can be a handful to control, but Chris is a big, very macho guy. (Just ask him.) However, smaller tillers, weighing as little as 25 pounds, are readily available and more easily operated.

Blessed with practically perfect soil, Chris was now ready to plant trees and shrubs--and not a single one was plastic.

"Good Soil is Job #1" is from the November 2001 issue of Southern Living.