How Does Your Garden Grow – The Secrets to What Lies Beneath

Topsoil is everywhere, more or less in the UK and thanks to our rich geological history, the quality of it varies depending on where you live. It’s also very easy to overlook topsoil – given that it is permanently under our noses but it is surprisingly precious stuff. It takes many thousands of years for topsoil to develop and yet it can easily be stripped away by one man (or woman) and a digger. It’s also increasingly vulnerable to erosion and once it’s gone it’s very hard to replace. For gardeners, not only the quality of existing topsoil is crucial but maintaining healthy soil is also a major issue. Given the variety of different types of topsoil in the UK, gardening (despite being a much loved past-time of many of us in the UK) can be challenging. Too sandy, too chalky, too full of clay? These are just some of the challenges facing many gardeners. If you’re creating a garden from scratch – or rejuvenating a much abused one – getting the right topsoil in the right place at the right time will make all the difference.

The Perfect Balance

The top layer of soil is more nutrient rich than other layers, over the many centuries that it has developed it has formed from organic debris. For plants this top layer is crucial and it is where they draw most of their food from. Healthy topsoil needs to act in two ways to maximize the potential for plants – it should drain well but not too quickly to provide water for plants and to avoid washing away nutrients. It should not, however, drain too slowly, leaving plants waterlogged, drowning and with rotting root systems. Heavy soils in clay based areas are prone to water logging, while very sandy soils will drain nutrients and moisture away, leaving plants thirsty and hungry. Acidity is also an issue and a mid-way point is needed for most plants. Depending on the nature of your ‘native’ soil, adding topsoil with appropriate qualities to balance negative issues is normally the best option to create the optimum conditions for your garden. Feeding, composting and adding nutrients to any topsoil from time to time should also be considered to continually maintain the quality of the soil.

Wet Winters and Lack of Drainage

Much of the UK has become waterlogged after the last winter and the water table is at an all-time high, meaning that wherever your garden grows, 2014 is likely to present some problems with excess ground water. However, this is a perennial problem for those with clay based soils. The simplest approach in these conditions is to add a sandy topsoil mix along with high quality compost and organic matter. Very sandy topsoil will drain nutrients too quickly and leave you with struggling flora. Mixing organic matter which contains additional nutrients – good quality purchased compost or the home-grown variety – along with sandy topsoil will help. This should be dug into your lumpy clay covering and will help to make the soil better draining, without becoming too well drained. For very sandy soils the process is the same but substituting clay based topsoil to add water retention qualities. Distributing this type of soil is a harder job, given its thicker, lumpier nature and needs to be done thoroughly. Again, good quality compost should be included in the mix.

Compacted Gardens

Soil is compacted over time and this is especially true in areas where there is a lot of foot traffic. If you’re improving topsoil for a lawn area this needs consideration. Clay quickly and easily compacts so if you’re in a soil area where clay is the main topsoil considering a sandier mix is important; heavy traffic areas will need work from time to time, digging over to aerate and reduce compaction. Even in low traffic areas, beds and borders, natural compaction occurs over time and this is particularly an issue with clay based topsoil. Working the ground over regularly is essential in this type of soil, to ensure compaction is minimized.

Small Solutions and Potted Planting

For pots and containers – either in-situ in a large garden or used to create a small, urban garden, topsoil is not normally an ideal option. Potting soil should be used in most cases, though in the largest of containers topsoil may work well. Potting soil comes in different qualities and the best quality will produce the best results. In reality potting soil is created from organic material and is often created for specific types of plants (specialist soils can be purchased for orchids and a range of more exotic plants). Unlike topsoil, potting soil is designed specifically to perform well (on the feeding and watering fronts) for plants in confined spaces. Water retention can be an issue in pots, hangers and containers, so specially designed potting soil should be used to reduce the need for constant watering. Depending on the amounts of topsoil required there are a number of options for purchasing; local garden centers are ideal for small amounts and it’s possible to buy topsoil online for bulk orders if you are creating (or improving) a garden, lawn or sports pitch.

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