Gettin’ Dirty: A Master Gardener’s Perspective

Till, Fertilize or Mulch: what to do?

hand holding healthy soil
Gettin’ Dirty: A Master Gardener’s Perspective
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About the Author

Sean James

Sean James

Sean James is a horticultural instructor at Mohawk College and President of Fern Ridge Landscaping. He is a graduate of Niagara Parks School of Horticulture. He is Chair of Landscape Ontario's Environmental Stewardship Committee and Co-founder of the Halton-Peel BioDiversity Network. He sits on the Perennial Plant Association's Environmental Committee.

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This is the UN Year of Soil so let’s talk about how we can treat it better…and why. We’re learning so much, so quickly and ‘best practices’ are changing month by month. To till, or not to till? When or even IF to fertilize? What kind of mulch to use…if any? These are all important questions!

Tilling/turning of the soil is now a no-no. The whole soil micro-ecosystem is incredibly important to plant health. When we use cultivators or rototillers we kill millions of beneficial bacteria and chop up the micorrhizal fungi which help plants absorb water. The better alternative is to just mulch with organic matter such as Composted Pine Mulch (CPM) and let the worms and insects work it into the soil naturally. It’s easier! Not turning the soil also helps reduce erosion, protecting our waterways.

We think a lot about fertilizing lawns and gardens but this leads to runoff and pollution of our rivers and lakes. Adding CPM is, again, a better alternative since it provides all nutrients, not just nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Compost also helps out the fungi and bacteria. Promoting bacterial growth through composting actually releases the phosphorous that already exists in the soil, and there’s plenty of it.

Composted mulches, or even just compost, is better than wood chip or bark mulch since it feeds the soil and the creatures that live in it. Straight wood mulch actually deprives the soil of nitrogen since the bacteria that break it down need nitrogen to survive, and wood is all carbon. Alternatively, just mulch up leaves in the fall and spread them directly on the garden and the same goes for the perennials that you cut down in the spring – far better than bagging them up for the city to deal with!

Finally, old gardening text books usually start with a chapter on amending the soil. This was recommended so we could plant whatever we wanted. Modern wisdom revolves around planting the right plants for your existing soil type. If you feel challenged by sandy soil, or clay soil or even wet soil, there’s an amazing list of plants for each of those situations. Many plants love clay. For example, roses, coneflowers and ornamental grasses thrive in clay. For sandy soil, take a trip to High Park in Toronto (be sure to see the Sassafras!) or to any beach area to see what does well there naturally. Use Mother Nature as a guide! She’s being doing it longer than we have. Working with existing soil takes a bit of learning but saves work.

When customers approach us for landscaping, the first issue brought up is ‘low maintenance’! The methods mentioned above to protect soil are less work. Protecting the soil protects our watersheds, helps plant health and even preserves our food security. It’s been said that it takes 100 years to make an inch of soil so it’s worth looking after. Once, we took it for granted but we are finally waking up to how to work with soil. Now, go have fun in the garden and learn all about what plants like your soil.


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