28 Jun 2022

Kilkenny People Gardening Column

Gardening with Shirley Lanigan

Kilkenny People Gardening Column

Don’t forget to feed

For some reason, too many of us do not realise that plants are living things. And as living things, rather like us, they need to be fed. They do not simply survive without. They need sun and water and food from the soil. In their natural environment, they manage untended by human hand. This is because, being in the environment where the living requirements they need are present, they are already being served – as well as, in their turn, serving their surroundings

Generally, that native ground, will be fed by an annual blanket of fallen and decomposed leaves, or by the sort of fertility found in flood plains and river valleys. Plants that need lots of food, will hail from places where the blanket is a thick and deep one, from rain forest to woodland edge, flooding rivers or the like. Plants that do not, will be found in more arid places like rocky, hungry hillsides and wind-blasted coastal areas.

When we bring plants to our gardens, we often plant them in borders, made up of the sort of soil they are not necessarily suited to. We might then leave them to their own devices, apart from sweeping up the fallen leaves annually, and uprooting or spraying and removing weeds. Doing this, we consider ourselves to be taking care of the garden. What we are doing however is preventing the plants from obtaining any more food or nutrition than was in the – possibly unsuitable and possibly already deficient - soil into which we planted them.

Depending on how hungry a plant is, it will run through the available food in a year or two or three. Eventually, however, the limited supply of food will run out. It is therefore up to us to feed the ground and feed the plant artificially, in order to keep it going. Gardening is, after all, not a natural business.  We are interfering in nature. The least we should do is interfere appropriately.

If I plant a hungry rose in my garden I should know that it is a hungry rose and I should as a consequence, plan on feeding  it every year in order to keep it happy and flowering.  Otherwise I should just take up walking and admire the roses in other people’s gardens.

I regularly visit gardens where a lot of money has been spent, usually a few years previously, on plants. Weeding and watering have subsequently been carried out, so the place has generally not become over-run with weeds. But living under such a regime, plants will invariably look a bit miserable. There will often be lots of gaps between the plants, which will not have spread sufficiently out to meet each other. The owner will often wonder why all is not going well.  The answer is that we will have been standing in the middle of a hungry garden.

The difference a season of feeding can make is a remarkable one. Add a few more seasons of plenty, and what was a rather mean offering will take on the appearance of a lush jungle.

If the picture painted above reminds you of your garden, your ground is hungry, so get to work now. Locate the amount of farmyard manure you need. Alternatives are horse manure or garden compost.  Seek out a riding school or stud farm. If you live near the sea, seaweed is great stuff. Spent mushroom compost is a glorious ground conditioner too.  Try whatever mix of these you can get your hands on.

If the ground has been starved for a long time, really pile it on.  About 10 cms or 4” might seem like a lot of compost but the needs of hungry ground are many.

For the best results, pile the compost on recently watered ground. Wait until after a good splash of rain. This way, as well as feeding the ground, you will speed up the rate at which the compost will be incorporated. Those magical wonders of creation, the earth worms, will find it easier to pull the rotting material down into the soil, mixing it with the parched hungry ground, feeding and enriching it as they do.

If the ground is wet, the blanket of compost also helps to keep that vital moisture in. It stops it from evaporating away on the – hopefully – dry and warm summer days ahead of us.

If you can only obtain enough compost to cover one area of your garden, do that and while you are busy sourcing more, you will begin to see the difference in growth between the tended and untended areas. Seeing the difference in your own scientific experiment will be enough to convert you forever to the ranks of gardeners, from those of mere owners.  

In the meantime you could issue an organic  feed to the untended areas, as a stop gap.

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