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August 2011

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In search of perfect loam

Rachel Darlington writes about how everybody aspires to good garden soil

I have yet to meet a garden owner who does not complain about their soil. Either it is too wet, too stony, too clay, too sandy or too alkaline. Never have I heard anyone prefix their tale of horticultural achievement with a remark about having been blessed with perfect loam. I wonder is that because no-one has the good stuff, or could it be that we gardeners are fussy devils?

We have all read accounts in books and magazines, describing how accomplished gardens were built. They usually contain painstaking descriptions of how lorry loads of bad soil or stones had to be replaced with the same volume of top soil or manure. There will always be at least one paragraph given over to explaining the extraordinary lengths some unfortunate gardener had to go to in order for their soil to be even workable. I yawn at these accounts. I mean, come on!

If every garden has dud earth to start with then what is so exceptional about having to replace it? And what's more, I feel, there is often a sort of exaggerated bravado in such soil-improving accounts. I become suspicious that the author is digressing, seeking sympathy, rather than getting on with the real story.

But it is also true that the grass is, noticeably, greener on the other side of the hill. Being a restless bunch, we are known to yearn for the type of conditions and soil that their garden does not naturally have. He, or she, with alkaline soil, nurses a deep yearning for rhododendron and blue hydrangea. While, in another area, the gardener with moist shade longs to grow foxtail lilies and pulsatilla. And me, with my stony, exposed site? It is obvious that my heart must desire woodland plants above all else.

It is also extraordinary the lengths to which we will go to accommodate our desired plants. Some people dig out pits, filling them with ericaceous compost for azalea and pieris. Others create bogs with plastic membrane for skunk cabbage and rodgersia, or create raised beds for their Mediterranean succulents.

Some people don't bother with elaborate preparations but just give unsuitable plants a bash anyway. We have often heard it said that failure to plan means planning to fail. And, unfortunately, this is what happens to those who plant veratrum in full sun or rhodohypoxis in poorly drained soil. Dead plants tell no tales, or do they?

 

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