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Improving Soil Against All The Odds

December 4, 2015

The friends we stayed with in Ireland a month or so ago had delightful borders full of thriving herbaceous plants. Yet Lucy, an excellent garden designer and gardener, discovered after buying the house a few years back that the ground was pretty near solid rock. Pickaxes were needed to break up the rocks and layer upon layer of horse manure, garden compost and imported top soil was needed to transform the ground into good enough earth to grow an abundance of plants. She succeeded against all odds and the deep borders were full of healthy plants many of them in flower in October.


I was reminded of this when I read a fascinating book review: The Hidden Half of Nature by Anne Bikle and David R Montgomery. The book explores the power of microbes in the soil and is based on the authors speedy transformation of the seriously rocky soil in their own garden in Seattle.  Layers of coffee grounds, leaf mould, animal manure and wood chip were added to the beds which in turn cultivated beneficial microbes and created fertile soil soon teaming with worms and living organisms. This rapidly re-built the soil fertility and the most inauspicious ground was transformed into healthy beds which in turn supported healthy plants. These beneficial microbes interacting with plant roots exchange a vast array of essential compounds. When Bikle was diagnosed with cancer they discover startling insights into the similarities between plant roots and the human gut. They say ‘We are not what we eat. We are all, for better or for worse, the product of what our microbes in the gut eat’. This chimed with my blog last week on keeping the gut healthy through diet. And thinking about Lucy’s garden in Ireland and the experience of the writers of this book with effort any ground can be turned into a decent growing medium.

I looked out at the garden this morning and felt my heart sink since there was very little in flower. But venturing outside the lovely Chaenomeles speciosa was blooming against the shelter of a stone wall.


And outside the kitchen door the deliciously scented Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ is in flower. It’s a deciduous shrub so the blossom sits on bare branches but it’s likely to flower through till spring. And whatever the weather the soft pink flowers scent the air and are in my view one of the best things about winter.


The spent flowers of the golden hop Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus’ are looking very pretty draped over the rusty arbour and may last till Christmas to add to the decorations.


And there was more Calamintha with its lovely scented leaves to pick with a white Vinca (periwinkle) and Arum italicum ‘ Marmoratum’ plus Lamium ‘Lambrook Silver’.



10 Comments leave one →
  1. December 4, 2015 6:46 pm

    It is lovely to stroll passed V. ‘Dawn’ at this time of year. Such a wonderful smell. The mention of your book review reminded me that Starbucks used to bag up their spent coffee grounds and give it away to the public. They seemed to stop doing it a while ago, but it was brilliant added to my borders too. Your vase looks very fresh and lovely 🙂

    • December 5, 2015 10:48 am

      Yes someone on the allotment regularly rounds up coffee grounds from a local cafe and I shall now start using them. The pretty green glass vase was a present and suits those fresh green leaves and flowers brilliantly.

  2. December 5, 2015 9:30 am

    What a star your calamintha is, it looks so pretty and fresh with the lamium leaves for contrast. Lucy’s border sounds and looks fab, what an inspiring story.

  3. December 5, 2015 10:45 am

    It was such an inspiring garden. I recently saw photographs of her husband breaking up the soil when they started the garden-an awesome challenge. Just goes to show with a lot of effort and the right ingredients the ground can be transformed..

  4. Lucy moore permalink
    December 5, 2015 11:18 am

    Thank you Sue, a lovely endorsement. I wish my chaenomeles would do its thing! Such a gorgeous plant. Do you find the hops hard to manage? Lucy x

  5. December 5, 2015 11:42 am

    I fed my chaenomeles a big dose of 6x last spring-seems it paid off. The hop is manageable but only make it up one vertical rebar (3 m) and then 30 cm along the horizontal rebar before getting lost in the rose.

  6. December 7, 2015 10:32 am

    Building garden soil–yes!

  7. December 7, 2015 1:09 pm

    And it’s relatively easy and it’s very satisfying and it gets results.

  8. Sarah permalink
    December 11, 2015 10:04 am

    At West Dean gardens in W. Sussex they turned a tarmacked road into productive land by methods such as you describe. Amazing! Shows the restorative power of Nature, and it didn’t take very long, just a couple of years I believe.

    • December 11, 2015 3:41 pm

      And Beth Chatto built much of her amazing garden on an old car park area or was it a tennis court?. Yes ain’t nature wonderful!

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