Jettison the Jargon (Part 1)

loamI've always thought of myself as a fairy independent, self-reliant sort of person (I suspect my friends may say this is an understatement!) so I tend to get rather cross when jargon of any sort stands in my way of understanding. Although I don't have an academic science background, I'm super-interested in all things scientific, and place high value on good science-communicators – the kind of people who are able to share with the layperson complex scientific concepts in ways that makes them easily digestible. Perhaps that's why I get resent gardening books and internet sites where it seems that the "expert" is going out of their way to make difficult what is actually very simple. Garden jargon and uncessarily scientific language doesn't help anyone, especially beginner gardeners, so I've decided, this week, to demystify a few horticultural terms which, for a long time, stopped me picking up a spade. Here's part one of my list. I'm sure you have your own.

Sharp sand: this mysterious ingredient used in home made potting mix is nothing more than the fine grit you get when you put some builder's mix through your kitchen sieve (builder's mix is the gravelly stuff you mix with cement to make concrete paths – you can get it from any building supply yard). Sharp sand doesn't hold water so it helps moisture drain out of soil and therefore stops your potting mix getting too gluggy and rotting the roots of your little seedlings. Sharp sand can also be found in fast-running stream beds. Scoop some up, dry it out and put it through the sieve. What sharp sand is not, is sand from off the beach.

Loam: garden experts love to throw this term around but, frustratingly, they never tell you what it actually is. Loamy soil is what's found in most established vegetable gardens. It's a mix of a bit of clay, a bit of sand, and some composty material (rotted down leaves, bits of plants, some animal manure, bits of dried straw). If you squeeze a ball of loamy soil in your hand, it won't be hard and tight like a ball of clay, and it won't slip, through your fingers, like sand. Instead, it's more likely to be crumbly and little bit sticky. If you don't have loamy soil in your intended garden spot, set about creating it by digging in some of the ingredients mentioned above. Do this every year, and your garden will get more healthy as time goes by.

Acid soils and 'lime your bed': If ever there were two terms designed to put off beginner gardeners, these are them. The science is coming up but let me first say that, in New Zealand, we don't need to think too much about these terms because most NZ soil is on the acidic side (not that I've actually gone around tasting it, you understand). Acid is just another word for 'sour', as in vinegar-sour) and, as you can imagine, most veges aren't too keen to grow in vinegar. So, to make the soil less sour and more sweet, we add lime or 'lime the bed'. Lime is a white rock in powdered form available from garden centres. If you live in the country, you can probably trade a chocolate cake for a whole sack of the stuff by visiting your local agricultural trucking depot at morning tea time.

Pedantic garden experts love lime because it enables them to get into figures, charts, and tables as they let us know exactly how much lime we do or don't need – it's all terribly tedious! Instead of complex calculations, I suggest you Google a list of lime-loathing plants and don't put lime near them. Next, on the rest of your garden, scatter one handful of lime for every square metre of soil. How much is a square metre? Easy! Step out a big square 1 long pace long and one long pace wide – and that's a good enough square metre for me – and your veges!

Next week, I'll be back to demystify more garden jargon and scientific gobbledegook that we can all happily live without!

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