“Your garden’s so pretty! How do you do that?” my neighbor gushed. She: stylishly walking her dog; me: wet and muddy squatting down pruning broken limbs recently revealed by melting snow.
I was about to explain I enjoy tending my garden and with a little effort her garden could be attractive, too. But a neighborly spirit moved me and I mumbled something about it was easy as putting the right plant in the right place.
When a gardener says, “It’s just putting the right plant in the right place,” that’s the gardening equivalent of saying, “Bless your heart.” It translates to, “There’s just too much to tell you. So let’s just leave it at selecting the right plant for your location and all will be well.”
Sometimes I visualize the wrong plant inhabiting the right spot in my garden and sometimes I get the assessment of the site wrong. It’s actually too hot, too dry, too cold, or just not as perfect as I had imagined it being. Wrong plant, wrong place.
The best thing I can do to make my garden locations ever more ‘the right place’ is to take care of my soil. I use compost and mulch and make my own vermicompost — more about that another time. All this is in an effort to amend my soil. I’m working towards that magical combination of loose, well-drained soil that also retains moisture during dry periods.
One of the best things we can do for our soil is to be more gentle. Every time we dig, chop, and break up the soil we damage the mycorrhizal fungi network that supports our plants. These fungi live on and around plant roots and help their plant partners take up nutrients, fight off pathogens, and improve their ability to take up moisture in the soil.
These microscopic fungi sometimes link together to form structures, which are visible as white threads or webs in the soil. These structures help create the soil food web without which plants would not likely survive.
One of my guides in learning about the vast and fascinating world beneath our feet is Jeff Lowenfels. The author of a trilogy of books exploring the relationship among nutrients, microbes, fungi and plants, his work introduces the reader to a world unseen.
In his latest book, Teaming with Fungi, Lowenfels writes that an estimated 80-95% of all terrestrial plants have a symbiotic relationship with fungi. He makes a compelling case for caring for the the microscopic world inhabiting the soil.
Reading his book has changed my gardening practices in two ways. First, while I’m not one to use synthetic chemicals in my garden I have used organic fertilizers. Now I’ve switched to using only vermicompost as a top-dressing fertilizer. I don’t dig it into the soil, but rather apply it to the soil surface and then cover with mulch.
My second change is I’m now loath to dig deep and break up my garden soil. While I don’t have the upper body strength to dig vast holes for new plants, I did a fair amount of digging to loosen and amend the soil surrounding my new introductions. All this digging disrupts the mycorrhizal fungi in my garden beds. So now I just open up the smallest space necessary to tuck a new plant into its home.
So far these modifications seem to be producing better results. My plants fared well during last summer’s hot, dry period with minimal supplemental irrigation.
Good gardening isn’t about outsmarting nature with chemicals and fancy practices. It’s about minimizing our impact on the land. If we can get out of her way, Mother Nature will take care of herself; and us too.
Lise Jenkins and Kit Flynn are contributing columnists. Absent from their gardens, they enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of innovation and horticulture. More on Twitter @AbsenteGardener or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.