The garden is only as good as its soil


The question of the hour is, do I try to repeat last year’s (failed) attempt to grow robust red cabbages? The variety Red Express, above, did well, until summer’s heat arrived. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)
Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist January 8

The presence of a few winter vegetables is a given — garlic and shallot bulbs planted in October, stands of kale, some carrots started from seed in September — but an adventure with other cool-season veggies is a bet that the gardener would have lost this winter.

Recent mild winters caused hibernal souls like me to go wild with such things as fall-sown fava beans, the most hardy varieties of lettuce, spinach and even artichokes. The idea — still sound — is that they will develop in the cold and then grow robustly and early in the spring, before the heat arrives.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

This winter has come back to bite us, as if someone up there in Canada had left the cosmic fridge door open.

My fall-planted fava beans emerged from their leaf-downy bed only to get zapped by recent freezes. I’ll sow some more in about six weeks, when spring is in the air.

In hindsight, I’m glad that a friend dispelled my buoyant need in November to build a cold frame or construct some hoop-and-row cover setup to get the beans and some hardy greens through the winter. She argued, correctly, that the investment of materials and time wouldn’t have merited the benefits, and that I’d just spend the winter fretting about the plants.

It is better to roll with an oddly harsh winter, like the ones we used to get, abandon active plant cultivation and get back to the healthier vexation of planning for the spring.

The question of the hour is, do I try to repeat last year’s (failed) attempt to grow robust red cabbages? The spring was cool and wet — cabbage weather — and by Memorial Day some of them were looking really good, if only halfway along. Of the four varieties, Red Express seemed the most promising. It had formed a head and was displaying beautiful leaves of a deep purple with an agreeably silver bloom on them. And then the heat set in, and the cabbages stalled and lost their bloom. Even I wasn’t daft enough to try to eat them.

I had willed them through the summer because my image of a cabbage is one of large, thick leaves enveloping a head the size of a bowling ball. I had discounted the reality that in our climate, cabbages are best grown rapidly in spring for an early summer harvest and then planted out afresh in early August for a more leisurely fall crop.

I am determined to grow them by the book this time. This means starting them indoors in two weeks so that I have healthy transplants by mid-March. It also means attending more closely to feeding and watering them so that they mature by June.

Another reason the cabbages fared poorly was that they were in a bed where the air tends to stagnate and the soil grows dense under its own weight. Although there is a lot of organic matter in the bed — it is 20 feet by 4 feet — and it is raised a little, there is no internal bulk to it. No amount of soil stirring seems to keep it inflated, in part because rainwater migrates to that side of the garden. My plan is to fix this bed’s ills with sand. Grit might be better, but sand will do the trick. A 50-pound bag occupies about half a cubic foot. If I start with 20 bags and dig the contents in with the existing enriched soil, I might get the bed elevation and porosity that I need. And if not, I can add more sand in early March, after things have settled. That is the beauty of attending to growing beds in winter, as the weather permits. Such work in April is always more frantic and urgent.

Sand is not always a panacea, as tempting as it is to use it to temper heavy, sticky clay soil. You can dig planting holes in clay, install your shrub or herb, backfill with a sandy material, and all you have achieved is to build a little clay-lined pond for each plant. Typically, the roots drown.

But in a bed such as mine, which was created from scratch, the added sand is integrated into an already heavily amended area. Play sand tends to have smaller particles than builder’s or all-purpose — I prefer the coarser quality of the latter, which is also cheaper.

The value of a sandy soil is that it warms up sooner in the spring and drains more freely. Or in the words of an old encyclopedia on my shelf: “For many crops, what is known as a sandy loam cannot be surpassed.” The disadvantage is that sand doesn’t hold nutrients well and dries out quickly once the heat arrives. Both of those problems can be lessened by adding humus and some organic fertilizers and minerals, and by keeping a hosepipe or watering can handy. A light mulch is perhaps best avoided for its capacity in a wet spring to harbor slugs.

When I amend a bed with sand, I tend to add bags of compost and limestone, and sometimes organic nutrients such as bone meal, greensand and iron. Occasionally, I imagine living in one of those rocky coastal places like Maine or Ireland where you could wait for a storm to present loads of bladder wrack and kelp and harvest the mineral-rich seaweed from the beaches at low tide. I’d leave the beach sand alone — it would be far too salty for plant cultivation.

I’m glad that my ornamental garden is on the clay side, but the veggie garden is small — 500 square feet — and lends itself to the exploration of gardening in a sandier loam.

I also use the cabbage bed for onions and leeks. They, too, had a poor year in 2013, because of the same soil compaction, and perhaps because of a little shade from a rosemary bush that has grown large over three years.

Given the depths of the mercury this winter, the rosemary may well croak, but my newfound sanguinity tells me that’s okay. This is the winter to attend to the soil and to let the plants go. The soil, after all, is the fundamental biosphere, the place most in need of the gardener’s attention and the place from which all other life springs. When it’s not frozen.

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