The Arch City Gardener

Journeys In St. Louis Gardening and Beyond


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Gardening: It’s a Dirt(y) Business

I have written a little about the clay soil that is prevalent here in Arch City. If you are going to garden, you are going to encounter this very dense, hard to break-through soil that seems as hard as concrete during a hot, dry spell (translation: summer in St. Louis). How do you identify clay soil? Easy. If it sticks to your shoes, attaches itself in clods to your shovel and you have to throw a clump of it across the yard to break it up, you’ve got clay. Clearly, this has not deterred the hardy souls in the area who have the vision and fortitude to overcome this stuff. My strolls in my neighborhood and beyond are testimony to that.

And so is my soil. In my fourth year of amending, amending, amending, I am starting to see the difference. More accurately put, I am starting to feel the difference. Arch City-ites know what I am talking about. When I place the shovel or spade into the ground, the resistance isn’t quite as fierce. In fact, when I was digging into the patio bed to put in “Crazy Blue,” a new, compact Russian sage (perovskia atriplicifolia) my favorite nursery is featuring, the soil actually gave way with minimal effort. I consider this a major break-through.

After three years of adding lots of compost to my clay soil, the structure is finally improving

After three years of adding lots of compost to my clay soil, the structure is finally improving. Digging into the soil is no longer at backbreaking, shovel bending experience–at least in this part of the garden.

Can you spot the clay soil in this sample? Hint: It's the stuff that looks like meatballs.

Can you spot the clay soil in this sample? Hint: It’s the stuff that looks like meatballs.

There are several shrubs and perennials that will bust through this tough, mineral dense soil and there are things clay habitues need to know, such as:

1. This soil is dense, and the roots of many annuals, perennials, and vegetables struggle to make their way through. Many spring bulbs tend to rot over the winter in clay soils discouraging gardeners who must deal with this soil type. However, all is not lost–as long as you improve the soil structure. By that the experts will tell you to add 6-8 inches of organic matter throughout the bed, not just where you are placing your new specimen (yes, I have taken that short cut).

Of course, I continue to add the good stuff to the soil when I layer on mulch on top of all this. And my plants have thanked me for it. I’ve been pleased with the new emergence each spring and have become committed to amending my soil EVERY year.

2. Clay soil is slow draining. In addition to improving the soil structure of the garden beds, I want to improve the lawn where after a heavy rain the water has a tendency to sort of just sit there. I’m not talking about the low areas of the lawn, I’m talking about the slope areas where you’d think the water would be flowing down. Not so much. I do have areas where the water ponds. Those spots will get shrubs that tolerate ponding such as winterberry (ilex verticilatta), ligularia or river birch.

3. It can heave in the winter. Thankfully I have not experienced this with my plants, but I do have a gate that won’t open when the temperatures drop. In fact, I had to move my trash and recycle bins this winter because I could not get them through the gate.

4. There are lots of perennial “clay buster” choices available that thrive in this soil type. Black-eyes Susans, goldenrod, Russian sage, daylily (hemerocallis), purple coneflower, yarrow and canna are among the hardy perennials that can thrive in clay soil.

As I stated more than once, I am about the sizzle. I wasn’t really excited about concepts such as soil structure and amendments. My goal was to plant beautiful flowering annual, perennials and shrubs. I am glad I slowed down and have taken the time to prepare the soil. This annual chore has become a right of passage into spring and it’s paying off.

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Landscape Fabric, A Gardening Do or Don’t?

Making a garden bed in St. Louis requires one to dig in hard, dense, clay soil. Not really my idea of a good time, if you know what I mean.  (And if you have clay soil you know what I’m talking about.)  In fact, the idea of digging up the lawn on a large space running the length of the patio, left me less than motivated. As I have shared, when I began my adventure in backyard gardening, I was not one to really enjoy getting dirt beneath my nails, much less the back pain associated with lots of digging. I wanted quick gratification so I could enjoy my chardonnay while basking at the delights of my hard work.

I know, I know, as the saying goes, no pain, no gain. I am learning.

Installing a Japanese maple.

Installing a Japanese maple.

But I did look for a shortcut … in the form of landscape fabric. I simply covered the space in the stuff, cut into the areas where I placed my foundation plants, amended the soil where plants were put in and covered the whole thing with lots of mulch.

The bed is doing beautifully. This photo was taken last summer,  the second season the garden was in place. I continue to add to it each year.

The bed is doing beautifully. This photo was taken last summer, the second season the garden was in place. I continue to add to it each year.

I am not sure I would take that shortcut again. Yes, the garden bed is doing beautifully, but I am weighing my options as I consider installing more gardens into the yard.

The pros: I have had very few weeds; it was easy to install; it saved my back the aches and pains of all that digging; I avoided using chemical application to kill the grass, which I was contemplating. And, the bed is doing beautifully. Each year I add to it with the vision of a cottage garden spilling forth with flowering plants and shrubs. I hand weed, mulch and this spring  amended the soil with a bit of compost.

The cons: I don’t think I have done my soiI any great favors (should have probably put a hefty layer of compost down along the whole bed–rookie mistake peppered with a healthy dose of inpatience);  every time I add to the bed, I am having to cut into the fabric and then dig into the hard, hard clay; my senses are awakening to the concept of “sustainability” and I am not sure these types of fabrics are a good idea. Also, I wonder if the fabric will inhibit growth of the plant. Does anyone have any knowledge of that?

I will be getting out the ibuprofen as I plan to start on a bed along one of the fence lines this spring and will avoid some of the shortcuts I took. What’s your take on landscape fabric? Any advice on starting a garden bed from scratch?