Friday, October 9, 2015

Planting a new plants in bad dirt

Some people love a good thrift of garage sale find. They just love the thrill of the hunt or pleasure of the unexpected perfect item or paying a third of retail cost for that expensive designer pair of jeans. I feel that way about the clearance rack at garden stores. Finding a plant that looks like this makes my day.

Because with a sad looking plant comes a sweet price tag.

I hadn't expected to find cocoplums on the clearance rack at lowes, but while I was in there looking for something organic to kill cutworms, I checked out the offerings of fruit plants and the clearance racks. This isn't my usual Lowes but I had time to kill between Drs appointments a couple towns away, so I was super excited to score these guys. And I learned that this lowes has a better selection of natives and zone appropriate fruit trees. I even found rainbow eucalyptus there and I was this. close. to buying one. But I don't have a spot for it. Anyway, first order of business when buying clearance plants is to see if they can be nursed back to health. This was the best of the plants available and you can clearly see all the new branches and green leaf buds along the existing bare stems. New growth = very much alive.

The other plants weren't quite as good looking but they all had plenty of new leaf buds forming along the stems. I was satisfied. Sometimes plants get moved to the clearance section if they are annuals between blooming in need of dead heading or if they are dormant leafless trees of shrubs. In our sub tropic climate, dormant plants don't sell well because consumers are used to the evergreen state of plants here. Even deciduous trees don't completely drop their leaves here as they do up north. So, to check the vitals of a leafless plant, gently bend a twiggy stem and see if it breaks or feels springy. It shouldn't snap very easily and if it does, pass of that plant. If you need to, you may even intentionally snap a very small branch to see if the wood inside is green and alive or brown and dead. This is a good check for plants in your yard too. I had a privet go through transplant shock (my fault) and it was reduced to a mass of grey twigs. But, in spite of it being leafless for months, I didn't give up hope because the wood was still green inside and felt springy. I am happy to report that one day, seemingly overnight, it shot out a thousand new green leaves and stems and looks much more respectable now.

I didn't want to buy tons of good dirt to fill this bed so I compensated for my bad dirt (sand) by using what I had to amend the sand into something useful. I prepared the bed by setting in the bricks where I wanted them and scooping the grey sand close to the edges of the bed to form a large depression in the middle. I dumped all my kitchen scraps from the last few days in, and then I raked up bucketfuls of dry grass clippings and spread them on top. The scraps will feed and draw in earthworms and beneficial bugs as will the grass clippings. Unfinished organic material is king when it comes to improving sand long term. Your goal should be to create good soil, not just feed the plants for a little while with a quick release fertilizer or bags compost that will disappear in a couple weeks. The sand just eats up finished compost. But organic matter breaks down slowly retaining water and creating good tilth and draws in the organisms and microorganisms that will sustain the soil long term. This principle is why permaculture food forests are so successful: feed the soil and it will feed you.

Next I loaded up my cart will two loads of partially composted dirt, leaves, weeds and grass clippings. I've been cooking this pile under a tarp for the last few weeks. I didn't include anything that was still green like a couple shoots of grass I found.

You can see this dirt has a much darker appearance and higher organic matter content even with it being pretty dry. This will continue to break down and help with water retention. It will also give the plant roots a place to live until the underlying layers of organic matter finish breaking down.

Next, plant your plants! I flooded this bed till water sat several inches deep on the surface. Since the grass clippings were very dry, I wanted to give them a chance to absorb some water to hasten the breakdown process. And even with this area being flooded, the water drained completely in just a couple minutes thanks to all the sand.

And mulch heavily. I'll repeat, when working in sand, it is impossible to overdue it with mulch. Especially dry grass clippings which break down very quickly and provide immediate water retention, weed blocking and habitat for earthworms. Last week I pulled back the grass clippings between the banana plants to add some kitchen scraps and I found half a dozen earthworms wriggling right on the soil surface below the thick mat of grass clippings.

Even without watering these banana plants for days, the soil was perfect and evenly moist and you can see the grass clippings already breaking down after being here only two short weeks. Mulch has the amazing ability to prevent soil from drying out from exposure and maintain an even temperature. In winter, mulch traps heat and prevents chill from the air cooling your soil. In summer, it prevents rapid water evaporation and the sun and hot air baking the soil surface to a dry crust that eventually begins to repel water.

This is a great way to make a good new garden bed without having to buy new dirt. I didn't buy any for this bed. And the big bonus is that cocoplums are a very hardy native that thrive in drier sandy soils. Actually, I think over watering and not enough sunlight caused the leaf drop at the store in the first place. The pots were almost waterlogged and bursting with fertilizer and rich pine bark dirt, which isn't this plants native growing conditions. They can be found growing on all sorts of sandy soils, even beach dunes, but not in perfect nursery conditions apparently. They should like this sandy garden bed quite well.




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