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When is a Garden not a Garden?

compostWe’ve all heard of ‘dead waterways’: streams, channels or rivers where life no longer exists. Fish, snails, frogs and insect life have vanished. No healthy plants grow to bring oxygen to the water; instead, light is shut out by smothering weeds. Sometimes, even trees alongside the waterway are dead or dying. It’s a horrible sight and it takes a great deal of planning and hard work to return such a ‘dead’ water body to its original ‘living’ status.

This week, much the same sort of ‘dead’ view met my own eyes, but in the context of a garden rather than a waterway. It was a truly disturbing sight and the reason it occurred was because, in very early spring, being away from my home for a period, I had entrusted this particular garden bed to another. My stand-in, who lacked the gardening experience I thought they possessed, had prepared the bed (after a fashion) and sown it out in spinach.

Two months later, the spinach was stunted and yellowing. The weather had been wet and cold for weeks and I had had no opportunity to work outside so the garden was full of weeds which, astonishingly, were equally stunted. When finally the sun emerged, I went outside to see what could be done and realised the garden was completely ‘dead’.

When I say ‘dead’, I mean lifeless. The spinach was obviously lacking in phosphorous and nitrogen and was desperately trying to run to seed to produce a new generation before it died.

Likewise, the weeds were looking in bad shape. Also desperate to produce another generation before they died, they too, were popping seeds in all directions. I scratched around in the soil. It was grey, dry, compacted and, when I dug out a clump, I found it uniformly solid and untextured.

I asked my stand-in gardener how they had prepared the bed. They assured me they had dug in plenty of animal manure and seaweed. But when I checked on the addition of compost, they recalled they hadn’t added any to the garden. And therein, lies the reason for the garden being ‘dead’.

Most of us are familiar with the basics of compost and what it does for the soil; its texture breaks up the ground, allowing air to circulate around plants’ roots, and moisture to seep in to the ground and be retained (just a 5% increase in organic material quadruples soil’s water holding capacity). Compost reduces runoff and therefore helps the soil retain nutrients. When well constructed, a compost pile heats up sufficiently to kill off weeds, weed seeds and some disease. However, there is a lot more going on within compost that we are generally unaware of and it is this ‘secret business’ which is perhaps the most important of all when it comes to plant health and creating a ‘living’ garden.

Compost contains essential elements such as phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and sulphur (and also micronutrients). And because it has the ability to deliver these elements to the soil over many years, there is never a danger that it will ‘burn’ plants – a problem faced by those using artificial fertilizer. But even better, compost can help make trace elements such as manganese, iron, zinc, copper more available to plants through a process called ‘chelating’. Chelating converts these trace metals into a soluble form which can be taken up by the plant’s roots. Compost also introduces to the soil tiny living organisms called ‘microorganisms’ which produce ‘cementing agents’. These cementing agents (which include gels, gums and slimes) help hold the particles of soil together; something which was clearly not happening in my ‘dead’ garden or it would not have looked as dry and dusty as it did.

So, all in all, it seems that what my dying garden required to bring it back to life was a healthy dose of good, old fashioned compost. It has it now and I am sure that the microorganisms are throwing a party to celebrate!