Did you know that there’s an Instagram hashtag used over 45,000 times? It’s #plantkiller and while some of the captions are hilarious, we think it’s time to dispel some myths about how ‘hard’ it is to keep plants alive and thriving. Let’s put that hashtag to bed with a little secret that’s not really much of a secret at all: improve your soil, and your plants will thrive.
Plants aren’t necessarily fickle or precocious. They put up a good fight and can thrive only to the extent to which their soil is healthy. Not unlike baking a gorgeous cake that’s light, fluffy and delicious, soil needs a certain composition for health. Imagine baking a sponge cake without eggs that have had the spirit beaten out of them -rather than a sponge as good as your Nan’s, you’ll have a sodden lump that could double as a brick. So too soil.
It Starts with Digging
Imagine the typical residential or commercial project. The ground has been scraped back, dug up and covered with concrete and no doubt quite a bit of Big M packaging. It’s had machinery, tradies and trucks compacting it down as they go about their business, constructing. It’s basically stripped of the air that comes from loose layers, the ecosystem of organisms are gone and because of the compaction, water pools on the surface of the ground, unable to penetrate to any depth.
As landscape architects, nothing breaks our collective hearts here at Orterra HQ like driving past a new development and seeing plants being dumped into construction soil. Sure, it looks good in the (very!) short term, but without giving the soil some TLC, the lifespan of the greenery will not be long. What a waste across all measures!
We then Geek Out
Our process, regardless of where we enter a project stage, is to start with the soil. We want to mitigate all of the issues that come with urban soil to set up all future plantings for the upmost success.
Yes, yes, we know what you’re thinking. Here goes Orterra getting all geeky on soil science. Yes, but no. We’ll save our geekery for our colleagues. While it can be incredibly complex (and we love that), at the heart of things, improving soil is really quite simple. Leave the soil testing pH tests to us!
Air is critical to healthy soil. As we shared above, ‘blank slate’ spaces on construction sites have very little air in their structure. This is because the top soil has often been removed, leaving the builder’s clay exposed. Add to this the natural compaction that comes with a building site, and any gaps in the soil just compress. Developing a decent topsoil layer is key to improving soil health over time.
So What is Good Soil?
So, what is a good soil? It has a ton of air, because it needs an ecosystem of organisms with macro and micro nutrients which in turn need wriggle room, quite literally in the case of worms. We want a diverse system of biological creatures with room to move and breed and feed. Adding organic matter is a great way to build air as well as a fast injection of nutrients and organisms.
Claggy, clay soil can’t absorb nutrients or water. Other than organic matter, another way to break up cloddy soil is to gently break it up. We’re not talking turning it over with a shovel, in fact that can do more harm than good, but by using a garden fork to basically create vertical tunnels through the soil. This will ease the passageway for microbes and will also mean both water and nutrients are better placed to be taken up by the soil, in turn feeding your plants.
We’ve all seen those heartbreaking images of fields stripped of their topsoil, with the resultant dust storms darkening the skies. It sounds counterintuitive, but soil needs to be grounded. This is the role of plant roots – as they extend and grow, they give the soil a scaffold, a structure to hang on to which means when the winds pick up, the soil remains in place. You can also cover soil with mulch. This serves double duty of providing weight as well as nutrients to continue to build the health of the soil over time.
Plants are not an insignificant expense in the context of a project – it makes economic and aesthetic sense to set them up for as much success as possible. If your plants aren’t thriving, start by looking at your soil and add strategies to improve it. Soil care is a science, and one we’re highly proficient in, so don’t go it alone – we have a range of ways to provide support to leave you with a landscape you love. Let’s have a chat about your project and how we can help – contact us here and we’ll get the ball rolling.