Amend to That
by Alec McCarter May 2003
Here is a thought. My wife and I spent our gardening lives coast to coast in Canada coping with the aftermath of the last Ice Age. Perhaps all Canadian gardeners do. Our first experience of this was obtained in 1946 at Deep River, near Petawawa on the Ottawa River. Underlying a jack-pine forest, on the Ontario side of the river, are eighty feet or more of sand deposited by massive flooding from the emptying of prehistoric lakes, formed when the great glaciers melted. After ten thousand years, the living soil is still very scanty supporting growth of acid-loving plants like jack pine, bracken, sheep laurel, and sweet fern, all in a thin layer of decaying pine needles. A few lovely things like Moccasin flower (Cypripedium acaule), Fringed polygala and Pipsissewa can be found and blueberries are plentiful in open spaces. It is a beautiful countryside, with Laurentian mountains and fast flowing rivers on the Quebec side of the river; rolling, low forested hills and a few open fields on the other. And on that side, underneath, is pure sand – unretentive of moisture and leached of nutrients.
Around our house in the town, because of the quantity of sand that would have to be amended, we grew petunias in manageable containers, and marigolds in beds small enough to allow improved soil to be used. A mixture of the sand with peat moss served very well. A large community victory garden made in a cultivated field was successful, provided the ground was kept well-watered. Drainage was not a problem! Black flies and mosquitoes were insufferable. We were there for three years before we moved to Halifax.
More than fifty years ago, my wife and I bought our first house in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, high, overlooking the harbour and the city in the distance. This area was a wasteland left by the glaciers when they retreated; a barren land scraped clean and now only scantily covered by poor soil and scrub – blue berries, bracken, mosses and lichens. A scattering of boulders, erratics, carried here from who knows where and left when the ice melted, had not moved since then. Except for a nearby drumlin that was made the basis of a golf course, most of the immediately surrounding country was similarly barren although here and there the soil was deeper and trees had established – alders, birches, red maples (Acer rubrum) and balsam fir. Some of the trees were able to grow to a good size.
We hoped our lot would have good soil, but what we had was crushed slate rock, crushed not only by the ice that had covered and bruised it, but by blasting out the basement and by the bulldozer that the developer had brought in to level the area and ready it for housing. It was described to me by someone who knew as podzol, a type of soil of low fertility, high acidity, and little organic matter leached to the colour grey. Our soil was a mixture of powdered rock and pieces that varied in size from a few millimetres to large flat stones a metre on each side and perhaps half a metre thick. Obviously, it was going to be a challenge to make a garden there, but I set to work with pick, shovel and wheelbarrow working evenings and weekends.
The bigger pieces were dug out and placed to one side while the remainder was laboriously put through a half-inch mesh wire screen, shovel full by shovel full. I don’t remember now whether it was months, or years that were required to make enough earth for gardens. The largest rocks, being of slate were easily split into flat slabs using a pick-axe. It is very satisfying to stand on such a rock and strike it in exactly the right place – to feel it give way - then to pry off a slab suitable for a stepping stone or a stair. Interestingly, these stones often contained inclusions of crystals of iron sulfide – Fool’s Gold – and many were the times when I stood leaning on my pick and thought “Am I the fool?’ Well, it doesn’t matter now. It happened long ago and I wish I could do it again.
There was plenty of material for rock paths, walls, rock gardens, to fill around the foundations of nearby houses being built and much to spread on the unfinished, muddy street. It happened that our lot was somewhat higher than the surrounding ones so that the removal of so much rock lessened some of the disparity.
Since the neighborhood was of new families, there were many young children. When I went in to lunch, it was necessary to hide the tools to prevent small workers from injuring themselves or others – heavy tools that in the wrong hands could be deadly. “Whasa dooint Daddy?” was a FAQ immediately followed by “diggnshubbo” from one of the others. Occasionally, I still hear this – especially when one of our offspring is eating “Shreddies” – some deep psychological connection that I don’t understand.
So the smaller rocks were separated from the larger ones and eventually there was material enough when spread to form a smooth, although thin surface from which a lawn might be built. Gradually we progressed producing piles of sifted material. Then these were distributed using a shovel, a rake and finally, to fill the hollows and bring about a smooth surface, a long, heavy plank to drag over the entire area.
Anticipating the planting, our children dug up and moved a small red maple from the woods across the street to what they thought was a suitable place in the middle of what was to be a lawn. That evening, when I returned from work, I saw the monstrosity – a tree with every branch covered with a wet potato sack (to keep it from drying out), and tied to sturdy pegs to keep it upright. My wife tried to deflect my dismay by saying that the children had great fun doing it – and she suggested that I not be a spoilsport. I had no doubt they did, and that I was, but still – . About a week later, I finally asked the children if they would mind taking it down? To my surprise, they readily agreed – they were using it as a marker for buried treasure – a leather bag full of marbles!
Thus, the basic structure of the garden was established and it was with considerable pleasure that we looked on it, imagining it fleshed out with carefully chosen plants; lawn here, rock garden there, shrubs over there and – and then our friendly neighbour, a gentleman of 84 years who might have grown potatoes, but was obviously not a gardener, came over to view it and said, “That’ll look some nice once you get the rocks painted all different colours”!
After raking in some fertilizer and limestone, we began adding organic matter by growing crops of buckwheat and digging them in as soon as they reached 15 cm or so in height. The next spring we sowed a mixture of seed of grass and Alsike clover. A blush of green was followed by a scanty growth of poor grass and patches of healthy clover. The first gentle trimming with the new push lawn mower was a milestone. We let the clippings stay to provide a mulch and to improve the organic content of the upper layer of soil. Eventually, a lawn of sorts was created.
The flower and shrub borders were similarly prepared by sifting the little rocks from the bigger ones. Then we added animal manure, and peat moss. We bought several loads of so-called topsoil, light brown in colour, relatively free of rocks, but extremely rich in weeds, especially yellow-flowered mustard. It was favoured as a place to build roads for Dinky toys, and townsites – the original ‘Sim City’. I had to be careful not to eradicate a civilization. Eventually we were able to start a compost heap. From then on, we did not look back.
For that garden Peggy chose a dark red Hawthorn at one corner of the backyard, and a lovely pink-flowering crab apple at the other. In between there were Deutzias, lilacs, Weigela, Phlox paniculata, Siberian iris, Bearded iris, Forsythias, a Cornus florida, a hedge of flowering quince (Chaenomales) and some annuals. A rock garden contained Sedum acre, Snow in summer (Cerastium), moss phlox, thyme, bulbs of various sorts, Johnny jump ups, pinks and a few plants including Arabis, Iberis and, Aubrietia – I have forgotten others. On the south side of the house and about ten feet from it there was a trellis on which six Paul’s Scarlet climbing roses grew in hot red profusion.
During the ten years that we lived there, a fine garden was produced. Looking back, I realize that it was largely because we had added organic material to the soil. Where we wanted something to thrive, we put our compost and garden waste. We dug a small pit, then as the fruit rinds and peelings were placed in it, they were covered with a little soil so that it never looked unsightly, nor did it smell. A few branches on top prevented animals from digging it up; a few underneath allowed air to get at the bottom of the rotting material and help in its decay. The branches themselves quickly decayed as well, adding bacteria and organic matter to the soil and another pile was then built in another place
We moved to London Ontario where the soil was of clay that baked hard in the sun – but it was limey soil and fairly easy to build into a nutritious medium in which to grow trees, shrubs and a great variety of plants, although not so great a variety as we grow here. We started a compost heap in one corner of the property behind an elderberry bush, using the branch-base technique. There, as in Dartmouth, the compost was a welcome addition to the soil because in sufficient quantity, it loosened the clay and made it porous to air and water and easier to dig. The soil did not clump as it had prior to the addition of compost, and the garden thrived. Portulaca bloomed in the hottest sunny place. Under a pink-flowered crabapple, a blue garden of Pulmonaria, Myosotis, Mertensia virginica, and Jacob’s ladder flourished; and in one place, striped snapdragons were a unique feature that appeared without our planting them. In another place, a healthy Indian hemp made a mysterious appearance – but was banished to the compost when we identified it – not so mysterious actually, because at that time, hemp seed was often used in wild bird feed.
One of the differences that exist between Nova Scotia, Western Ontario and Victoria is that at the eastern localities, precipitation of water occurs throughout the year, whereas here it occurs mainly in the winter months. Compost applied to the soil here seems not to last as long – it has to be replaced much more frequently. Here, we keep three large boxes going all the time. I should have said, ‘kept’ because since my wife became ill, I have not been able to make compost as I used to do.
What could be more lowly than the compost box – that place for rotting such varied items as grass, prunings, weeds, leaves, branches, potato peelings, orange skins, tea leaves and coffee grounds. Yet what could be more essential in the garden, for it permits the disposal of waste and conversion of it to rich soil? It accomplishes an almost magical conversion with minimal need of expenditure of energy, and as little of money or as much as one feels necessary. For some years I had chipper-shredders to reduce everything organic to fine particles that decayed quickly.
The pile technique that served us well for years gave way to neat boxes made of wood. Cages of wire, or plastic, brick or concrete also work as structures in which the rotting material can be placed. There it can be watered, fertilized, and dug-over or turned, thus hastening the process of rotting. Alternatively, barrels of wood or plastic are sometimes used – and these are sometimes suspended on an axle to allow them to be turned to mix and even to sift the contents.
But however it is done, the process allows living organisms to use the organic materials and minerals released as food for their reproduction and survival. We use the partially degraded material, or the waste products of these organisms; worms, beetles, moulds, bacteria and more to modify the qualities possessed by the soil in which we grow our plants, to provide food for the microorganisms that inhabit it, and to improve the aeration of a compact soil or the water-holding capacity of a sandy, loose one. A continuous supply of rotting plant or animal tissues, or well-rotted organic matter is essential for the production and maintenance of a garden. Truly, it brings even inhospitable soil alive and continues to let it live and nourish all else.