It more than just occasionally feels as if the act of gardening amounts to not much more than shifting a lot of dirt around. Then shifting a lot more. Then shifting it all back again. Dig, shift, dig, shift, dig, shift, dig…
I’ve done a lot of digging and shifting this week. Digging and shifting with a spade is, quantitatively speaking, one kind of thing – but digging and shifting with your own hands is, qualitatively speaking, a different kind of thing entirely. And in hand-scraping out the bases of seven large new planting holes, the dirt and I have started getting to know each other rather more intimately. This friable earth feels very different to the more ‘heavy duty’ soil I’ve previously been used to. My instinct, rightly or wrongly, is to heavily bulk it up.
So into each planting hole went an ethically questionable mix of horticultural grit, peat-free multi-purpose compost, John Innes Number 3, bone meal and mycorrhizal fungi. Each planted, filled and watered hole was then mulched with a generous layer of shredded bark. And each hole was generally faffed over in various other ways too because I want my trees to feel snug, at home and happy. The first two trees I placed into the ground are a pair of twenty year old Pinus sylvestris ‘Wintergolds’ that, till now, have spent their entire lives in pots. They are especially lovely at this time of year in their welcome evergreen fuzziness.
In a different area of the garden, I planted three multi-stems at various ages and stages of growth: a very young Cornus kousa ‘Milky Way’, a two to three-year old Betula nigra ‘Black Star’ and a slightly older Amelanchier canadensis/lamarckii. They are geometrically arranged, along with a young Prunus Tai-haku at the centre and a seven-year old, small and slow-growing Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’, in a stretched out version of the configuration of dots that represent number five on the face of a die. In their Winter bareness they each look more twig than tree.
The log roll that surrounds each of the five deciduous trees serves several immediate purposes. Firstly, it made an easy-to-shape template for cutting a convincing circle with a straight spade blade! More importantly, the soil level inside each circle is raised significantly higher than the soil level of the surrounding lawn (I use the term ‘lawn’ very loosely) to allow for the inevitable sinking down into the ground of each plant according to its own weight and compost compaction. And also to funnel water directly towards the roots without losing too much run-off. Because the ‘lawn’ itself will require lots of remedial attention over the coming year (or two or more) the logs further function as protective barriers for me to work around. In a couple of years I might remove the log rolls altogether and fill the circular valleys left behind with rings of Spring bulbs like crocuses or fritillaries, like I did in my previous garden.
None of the trees I’ve planted so far are particularly choosy about soil type, though one or two might err more towards the acidic side of neutral if given the choice. I haven’t tested the soil’s pH here but I’d hazard a vaguely scientific guess that it’s at least slightly acidic for several reasons. When we first viewed this house in early Summer last year I remember seeing a single blue hydrangea mop-head over on the Sunniest boundary. The garden also contains a lot of leaf fall from the neighbouring woodland trees. Both factors are objectively indicative of likely acidic conditions. My own subjective observation is worm related.
The soil in our old garden was slightly alkaline (unsurprising given the house’s proximity to a limestone gorge) but I always kept one ericaceous bed in the top corner in which I grew dwarf azaleas and heathers beneath a ‘Black Tulip’ magnolia. What always struck me about the ericaceous bed was its conspicuous lack of worms, relative to the rest of the garden, irrespective of how many I ‘imported’ into it. They always seemed to wriggle their way back out again. I concluded, very unscientifically, that worms didn’t much care for any pH below 7 and as I have (so far) come across far fewer worms per square foot in this garden than I did in the last, I have further concluded, even more unscientifically, that the soil’s pH here must indeed be lower than 7. Though I should probably chemically confirm that hypothesis before I start planting rhododendrons everywhere!
It’s unlikely that I’ll plant anything with an aversion to lime this year as I haven’t installed a single water-butt anywhere yet and any large-scale ericaceous planting will demand several rain water reservoirs. Shrub selection counts as second phase (or second layer) planting in the woodland edge habitat I’m attempting to create and, as it stands, I’m still four birch trees (my pièces de résistance) shy of completing the primary layer. Trees of their maturity and stature will demand full-on five-star hospitality. I’d better get on with making their beds!