We get letters!

I received an email responding to a presentation I did recently, and I thought I would share the questions posed with you, dear (lucky) reader.

Greetings, Josh!

I loved your observation that you should work with the soil you have, rather than trying to amend and change it. The difficulty I run into where I live is that the soil is heavy clay, and very tough to work. Even rototillers meet their match on it. I was thinking about having a load of composted soil brought in and just build beds on top. A few inches of compost, and then the plants can dig into the clay themselves. Is this a functional, or non-functional idea?  

I would also like to focus on native plants. Anything in particular in the way of shrubs or perennials you think I should avoid, given my soil type? I really would like to save myself a lot of grief by planting things that will like it here.    

Thanks again,

Jane Doe


There is no such thing as an ideal situation or silver bullet in landcare management, in my book. I must make a series of compromises and tradeoffs all the time. Every soil type has its pros and cons, but if the plants growing there naturally can adapt and work with what they have, so can I. 

The closest thing in gardening to a silver bullet, I would say, is compost. We DO amend our soils here at Wellfield, moving them from the highly degraded state of a grey field to something with robust soil ecology. Humus is what makes soil, soil as opposed to barren ground. Add compost to sandy soils, and they retain moisture and nutrients and cling together more. Add it to clay soils, and it breaks up the clay particles, which allows for greater drainage. 

One of the most important paradigm shifts in my thinking occurred when I began to realize gardens are still ecosystems; altered in most cases beyond their “native” recognition, but ecosystems nonetheless. When I started gardening within an ecological framework, it changed the whole approach to the process. Your focus on what individual plants will do well in your context is good, but you will create a more beautiful (less “worky” garden system) if you go beyond the individual plants (trees and shrubs or perennials) to think about plant communities. Instead of a garden room of individualists whom you must treat and care for individually, create a garden family room. Begin to learn about different habitat structures, like the many layers of a forest (a prairie or pond have layers too), and begin to choose your plants based on the role they play in the garden system (beyond mere aesthetics). The design discipline of permaculture offers a great starting point for this approach (though it, too, has its pros and cons). Your work becomes easier over time when you create a system where the various plants are contributing to the larger picture (i.e. weed suppression, pollinator attractant, green manure). Which coach has an easier time in the long run: the coach of a team of individualists not connecting and working together or the coach of a well-oiled team?

Hope that helps, and good luck! You are off to a good start: observing your surrounding soil and geomorphology. What plants are already growing well around you? Identify and find similar (same family or same habit) and you will be off to the races. 


Josh Steffen, Horticulture and Facilities Manager

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