Gardening

What on earth are you growing?

Understanding your soil type can make successful gardening so much easier

Chalk, peat, clay, loam, sand or silt? Knowing your soil type is a one of the keys to garden health and should be a primary driver of your planting scheme. Choose the wrong plants for your soil type and you will literally be battling nature, making it hard work to keep them happy while often having to make the effort to add extra nutrients that are lacking in the natural composition of the soil.

Here we take a look at the four most common soil types in the United Kingdom, giving an overview of each and providing some useful tips on planting that will work in harmony with your soil plus how you can make the most of the earth you’ve been given, giving nature a helping hand. 

Clay is number one for nutrients

We are all familiar with the reputation that clay soil has for being difficult to work, taking extra effort to dig over borders or needing the help of a cultivator. They also tend to ‘bake hard’ in summer, take their time to warm up and can be become easily waterlogged as we experience a wetter climate and concentrated bursts of rainfall. However, if you live in area of clay then it is not all bad news. Clay soils are full of nutrients that adhere to the fine clay particles and the fact that they retain moisture can be a positive for trees such as apple, pear and magnolia that we wouldn’t normally ‘water’ like a flower bed.

It’s also important to remember that using organic matter such as compost, leaf mould or even bark chippings in Spring can help to break down the clay and aid better drainage, as can adding grit if water-logging is a constant issue. Try tackling your clay beds in the Autumn before it gets too wet (never when they’re waterlogged or frozen) and then let the winter frosts break it up further. Specialist products such as a Clay Buster from Sarah Raven are also a great idea as they aid drainage, improve structure and release nutrients held within the clay, while being sustainably produced from bracken and manure.

Plants that thrive on a clay soil include Hydrangeas, Buddleia and climbers such as Common Honeysuckle or Lonicera Periclymenum. Perennial choices for clay are extensive, embracing Hostas, Helibores, Asters, Anemones, Rudbekia and even Geraniums will all live happily on clay. Roses thrive on it too. We particularly like the Shrub Roses from David Austin which are bred for health and hardiness, including the Emily Bronte and Dame Judi Dench. Shrubs are a good idea if you don’t want to dig over the heavier soil including Deutzia, Philadelphus, Weigela and Forsythia.

Giving your sand a helping hand

It’s hardly surprising that sandy soils will usually hold little water and drain well. They also heat up quickly and will be warm enough in Spring for early sowing, while also proving easy to cultivate as they tend to be lighter for digging. However, sandy soil can also be dry and lower in nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium so the best idea is to work with these characteristics and plan a scheme of acid-loving plants (also known as ericaceous plants) that thrive on a PH value of around 4-5 (with 7 as neutral and above this being alkaline). 

Lots of organic matter such as manure, compost or leaf mould will of course improve sandy soils, plus mulch or bark helps to reduce the ever-present challenge of moisture loss and the need for watering. Furthermore, digging over in late Winter or early Spring and then adding a slow release fertiliser such as Osmocote will give you a soil that is able to nourish plants for longer. If you want to minimise the expense and effort of constant soil improvement though, choose plants such as Lavender, Buddleia, Choisya, Verbenas and our personal favourite, Agapanthus. Climber-wise then look for varieties of Hedera, Jasmine and Lonicera While wisteria will also thrive. Japonica and Berberis are solid choices of shrubs on sandy soils as are Cortaderia varieties if you want grasses within your garden scheme.     

Chalking up success on alkaline soil    

Chalky soils are alkaline in nature with a PH value of greater than 7 and are sometimes known as ‘lime rich’ due to their high calcium carbonate content. They can be dry, shallow, low in nutrients and often contain flint which can be a pain when digging. While varying in type, from lighter and more peaty forms to ones that have a heavier clay content, their commonality is their free-draining properties and inability to hold water.  Adding plenty of moisture-holding organic matter or even importing top soil will be a regular pastime if you live in places such as The Chiltern Hills or on the South Downs, as will breaking up larger pieces of chalk so plants have more of a chance to establish a root system.  

While it is often not easy gardening on a very chalky soil, there are some plus points including excellent structure which means that they make very good ‘no-dig’ gardens. Chalk is also particularly well-suited to the more organic gardener as wildflowers naturally thrive on nutrient-poor chalk. Herbs including bay, thyme, marjoram, rosemary, sage and fennel will also be happy additions to a fragrant chalk garden.       

Your chalk-loving plants will obviously need to be chosen with care. Hardy annuals such as Californian Poppies create a natural looking display of colour on even the poorest soils, and if you leave the seed heads after flowering, they will pop up again next year with renewed vigour.  Peonies and wallflowers also tend to do well as do Hostas, Doronicum, Rudbeckia and Dianthus. Shrubs recommended for chalk include blue-flowering Ceanothus, Hydrangea,Ooleander, Deutzia and Lilacs. Plus we musn’t forget that the prettiest annuals donlt object to chalk, with Cornflowers, Calendula and Sweet Peas all happily at home on it.   

You’re on to a winner with loam

If you have loam in your garden then frankly, you have won the soil lottery. Loams are the ideal balance of three soils including sand, silt and clay with particle size reducing with each type. This is important as a mixture of sizes means that the soil is aerated, with oxygen easily passing through it. Loam also pulls off the master stroke of being able to retain water to keep plants hydrated, while also draining easily so their roots do not sit in wet soil and rot. Finally, the clay content means that nutrients cling to the soil particles, keeping plants healthy and well-fed throughout the year.

While occurring naturally in only a few lucky spots, it is possible to create your own more ‘loamy’ soil. Rather than just importing it by the bagful or even lorry load, it can be built over time using organic material that attracts living organisms that will break down leaves, bark and all sorts of manure if applied to a depth of a couple of inches in the Autumn and then dug over the following Spring.

Leave the peat in its natural home...

One word of caution is to avoid buying peat-based compost to add to your soil beds. Not only does it release carbon dioxide when added to your garden and compound the greenhouse effect, but the delicate biodiversity of peat bogs is being radpidly eroded by its commercial use. We are not big fans of it at The Green Reaper. If you do want to give your soil an extra boost, why not try Earth Cycle’s Peat Free PAS100 Compost Soil Conditioner, made form dense organic matter which both aerates clay soil and improves the structure and sandy soils while aiding moisture retention.

We hope that you’ve found this quick soil summary useful and it will inspire you to find out more about what lies beneath your favourite plants and shrubs. Our soil really is the unique life force that deserves to be looked after by us all.           

How green is your grass?

The eco-friendly guide to a lawn that you and nature will love

From Pimm’s on the lawn after a lazy Summer afternoon, to the hum of the mower and smell of freshly cut grass, there’s nothing like a lush green space as the centrepiece of your garden. These days though, we increasingly appreciate that good gardening is also about the husbandry of native insects and minimising our carbon footprint. So can we still define the ‘perfect’ lawn as neatly manicured stripes, reminiscent of a Wimbledon court, which often takes chemicals to maintain?  Lawn care has now entered a new era, and at The Green Reaper, we’ve got some easy and eco-friendly ways to keep your grass green in every sense of the word.

Lawns can have a positive environmental impact

Although they’ve sometimes had a bit of a bad rap environmentally, a lawn is a positive on many counts. For example, unlike paving or hard surfaces, grass actually absorbs both carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide while producing oxygen as ‘clean’ air with an average-sized lawn providing enough for a family. It also reduces erosion from storm water runoff and traps harmful dust and particles. Urban areas with lots of trees and grass also tend to be cooler as well as reducing noise and benefitting our well-being.

To mow or not to mow?

There can be no doubt that mowing less is a good idea for a number of eco reasons. By letting your grass grow a little longer, the blade will be bigger and the photosynthesis that takes place and feeds the roots will be increased. Secondly, the shade of longer blades both protects the soil underneath from drying out and means that ever-present weeds are not exposed to sunlight that helps them grow. And even if you can’t resist your weekly mow, just make sure that you keep your height adjustment at a reasonable level so as not to ‘shave’ the grass which will then be desperate to grow back and use up valuable nutrients from the roots to do so.

Another great idea is to support insects in Spring and Summer is to join the re-wilding revolution and create a section of the lawn which you don’t mow at all. This still allows you to have practical areas for child-play or pure aesthetics, while creating your own mini-meadow of wildflowers which often grow naturally in patches left to their own devices. Daises, speedwell, buttercups, clover and even cowslips are just some of the delightful possibilities when we change to a less controlling approach. At the end of Summer, ideally in September, just cut the wild patches down to a few centimetres and remove the debris or clippings so that tough wild grasses don’t take over.

Feeding, weeding and watering

Perhaps one of the simplest but most significant ways to make your lawn care more eco-friendly is the kind of feed and weed killer you choose. We are huge fans of the Viano range which is totally organic and available from The Green Reaper as a slow-release fertiliser and moss killer called Mo Bacter which improves the soil as well as feeding the grass. Endorsed by the RHS, it doesn’t leave the black debris of dead moss (as this eaten by the bacteria within the product), is animal-safe, will not harm borders or stain patios and even eliminates the need for scarifying post-treatment.   

As our summers seem to get hotter, another concern is often the amount of water required to keep a lawn looking green. If you want to maintain your regular watering routine, why not invest in a water butt which now come in a more pleasing designs and will actually be a feature in your garden. Our favourites are from Owl Hall and include ones with modern styling as well as a more traditional barrel effect with a 250 or 500 litre capacity. Buying a water butt pump will enables you to water the grass more easily and Hozelock do a sturdy and cost-effective range.     

Equally though, there is the simple option of not watering as much on the basis that brown grass is simply dormant and will come back to life with the inevitable arrival of rain. Even watering deeply once a week is, in fact, far more beneficial for your grass than a blitz with the sprinkler every day, as it gets moisture deep into the roots, especially if done in the early morning when temperatures are lower.        

Push mowing for a cleaner cut

Now let’s turn our attention to choosing a mower with greener credentials. There’s actually a good range of more environmentally-friendly options these days. If you have a small to medium lawn, then there’s always the option of a hand-propelled push mower which have come a long way since your Dad walked one up and down the garden in his drainpipes. Now lighter and often with stay-sharp titanium blades, they cut the grass cleanly and save on fuel as well as being free from maintenance such as oil or spark plug changes. Plus you’ll be keeping fit while mowing in noise-free peace, listening to the birds early on a Sunday morning rather than upsetting the neighbours with the roar of a rotary. Some push mowers, such as the classically shaped Webb, have a grass collection box while others just distribute the clippings back on to the lawn where they act as a mulch, restoring nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium back into the lawn. And if stripes are still all-important, just choose one with a cylinder.           

Charge of the battery brigade 

Cordless and lithium battery-operated mowers offer another alternative to fossil-fuelled machines, especially for medium or even larger gardens. While batteries still need charging, the latest lithium-ion ones last much longer and the electricity we all use to charge them is increasingly coming from more renewable sources such as wind. Because model range is so extensive, a good rule of thumb is to choose one with a battery running time that covers how long it takes you to mow the grass. For example, if takes under 15 minutes to mow your small lawn, opt for one with battery power of 2.5Ah (amp hours), while average lawns that take around 30 mins to mow need a 4 or 5Ah battery. Finally, a big lawn space that takes you over 45 mins to cut, ideally needs a 7.5Ah version. A great all-round mower that we recommend is the zero emissions GreenWorks 48V Push Cordless Lawn Mower that comes with two on board 2Ah batteries that double the power, a twin charger and extra environmental credentials by having a mulching option as well as a bag, so you can redistribute clippings and add nutrients back in into the lawn.

Minimise your carbon footprint

Even major players in the petrol mower market such as Hyundai are starting to take their carbon footprint seriously, planting a young sapling with every power product bought in 2020, towards their overall target of 100,000 trees. There’s no reason why all of us can’t put something back environmentally and planting trees is one of the easiest ways of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and releasing oxygen back into the air. So with your more eco-friendly lawn, why not create an area shaded from the Summer sun, sitting under some newly-planted native alders, bird cherry, crab apple or dogwoods with a mowed path between your trees and wildflower patches. Sounds absolutely idyllic doesn’t it?  

There are so many options to create a more eco-friendly lawn that the grass really is greener if we make even a small effort. As no less a figure than Francis Bacon, the English statesman and philosopher, once said ‘nothing is more pleasant to the eye than green grass kept finely shorn’. There is indeed a unique beauty to a lawn and looked after with a little more thought means it will not only look just as lovely but you’ll be caring for the environment too.       

Are you getting the natural high?

Why gardening is good for mind, body & soul

As our horizons shrank with the pandemic, and our constant appetite for new experiences was curtailed, so we were forced to slow down and look around us again, even just from the kitchen window, and wonder at the sheer magic of nature. A heightened awareness of the seasons was only part of our lockdown story though; it was participating in the natural cycle of growth that reconnected many of us to a fundamental pleasure. We delighted in gardening again.  

So exactly why do we get such a feel good factor from our green spaces? Besides the sheer physicality of gardening, with every activity from pruning to planting increasing our heart rate, it also releases endorphins, the feel good hormone. The ability of gardening to alleviate depression, anxiety and stress is well-documented by many, including Monty Don, who describes gardening as a ‘healing’ process that allows him to work through problems, “I’m physically engaged, using all my concentration, but in a fairly mindless way. I’m not thinking about what I’m doing, I’m just doing it”. Because gardening is about being in the present and living in the moment, it has the ability to lift us out of ourselves, raising our spirits with every snip of the secateurs or turn of the fork.    
 
There is also no doubt that a timely benefit of gardening is how it can press the reset button on modern life. In a world that is just too fast, and where digital-living demands instant results, gardening reminds us that Mother Nature embraces patience and growth takes time. Increasingly, many of us now seek to turn the dial down on technology and enjoy a more natural pace that’s in sync with the rhythm of the seasons. In hectic lives, gardening is quiet, gentle and unhurried.      
  
Gardening also lets us know that nature is bigger than us in a positive way. As social media puts pressure on us to curate and share ‘the perfect life’ so gardening is a reminder that despite our best efforts, we cannot be in charge of it. We all know the feeling when a carefully-pruned climber refuses to flower, or a well-tended lawn becomes full of moss, but these challenges are actually life-affirming. There is a comfort in the acceptance that we can’t possibly always be in control; we just need to do our best and then let nature run its course. Usually the rewards are delightful, but sometimes it just doesn’t matter if they are not.   

The feeling of well-being from giving plants a green-fingered hand can even be life-changing. As Sue Stuart-Smith, a psychiatrist and avid gardener, explores in ‘The Well Gardened Mind’, there are many examples of how gardening rescues us, from helping with her Grandfather’s trauma post WW1, to progressive prisoner programmes that create a sense of self-esteem for the first time. For others, gardening can be a creative, sensorial and even spiritual outlet, allowing them to plan their plots, play with planting ideas and express themselves through the colour and shape of flowers, trees and bushes, almost like painting a canvas.      

While being part of the cycle of birth and decay that gardening embraces is often a highly personal experience, it is equally a communal one. Organisations such as Thrive help the isolated to connect with others through gardening, while the growth in community gardening, especially in cities such as London where charity Urban Growth has over 30 green spaces, proves that the communal pull of nature unifies ages, backgrounds and culture.           

Gardening really has got it all. Whether we’re working a huge patch or looking after a window box, it’s the tending of grass, shrubs and flowers that feeds our souls. The next time you're out in the garden, just stop for a moment and think how lucky we are to have this unique pastime. As the beautiful and wise gardener, Audrey Hepburn once said, “to plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”.

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