From Beach Sand to Clay Pots

Sandy soil at the top of the world

Sandy soil at the top of our world

Our first home and garden was set on top of one of the highest hills on Long Island. It sat in pine barrens more than 100 feet above sea level, and the breeze was lovely. In 25 years we never saw a puddle. Floods appeared only in isolated news reports, and we wondered why people would choose to live so near water.

The soil was so sandy, a little boy asked if he could bring his pail and shovel and play on our beach. Sure, we said, not yet understanding the challenges of gardening where drainage is sharp and the grass crunches when you walk on it after a rainstorm.

Ten years ago the canoe platform was  visible; today it is below water

Twenty years ago, as you can see, the canoe platform was visible; today it is below water

Our current garden is maybe about eight feet above sea level on a canal off Albemarle Sound. Lately we have learned that it is part of a much larger land mass that geologists say is subsiding, or sinking, even as sea level rises. In the past two decades, we’ve sloshed through pond-sized puddles and sympathized with Noah more than once as floodwaters surged during hurricanes. (So much for tsk tsking about living in flood zones.) Sometimes groundwater is so high we can’t dig a dry hole.

The soil is modeling clay, smooth and slabby, and we can mold crude bowls from it. When it rains toads and frogs it turns into slime that sucks us in and mucks our shoes. During droughty times it cracks, and then we imagine that we are in the Sierra Nevada desert with Bogart and banditos.

Crayfish mounds of clay are not much different from our early clods

Crayfish castles of clay are not much different from our early clods

Poles apart, these gardening experiences. But we knew none of this when we began clearing concrete construction debris. After a while, we began to suspect that all lumps were not concrete. So we hurled the strange gray rocky clods at pine trees to see if they would break up. If they did, they stayed with the land. If not, they were tossed in the concrete pile. We have always wondered how much actual concrete we threw out.

It never occurred to us that the combination of impervious clay and a high water table would create the perfect storm in our garden. Happily, we dug nice wide deep holes for our hopeful, mail-ordered fruit trees (which were not appropriate varieties for our area, but that’s another story). We filled our textbook holes with good stuff that came in bags and we sat back and tasted the fruit.

We naively thought that adding potting soil (left) or compost (right) to planting holes would solve our problems

We naively thought that adding potting soil (left) or compost (right) to planting holes would solve our problems

Instead, the fruit trees began to die off. Ah yes, our Cooperative Extension agent told us, clay takes a long time to drain. You’ve created soup bowls in the clay. With so much water taking the place of air in the soil, plant roots drown.

That was not such good news. Local nurserymen who knew the lay of our land sympathized, suggested creating raised planting beds, a practice that was gaining popularity in the eighties. Alternatively, we could set single plants on top of the ground and mound soil around them. The thought of a garden with berms and mounds was not visually appealing.

Isn’t there supposed to be something called “top soil” here? I whined. Apparently not. Needles from our spindly 15-year-old pine trees were not inclined to decompose with any speed. Instead they lay in thin, stiff mats on top of the clay. (The good part? We had no weeds. Fifteen years would go by before we had a single dandelion.)

We've hunted up organic matter from wherever we could find it -- including from  under uprooted trees

We’ve hunted up organic matter from wherever we could find it — including from under uprooted trees

Never mind, we said with the dizzying optimism of the unschooled. We’ll make that dirt good. We brought in so many bales of Canadian peat moss for an 8 x 25-foot bed in front of our house that I began to feel guilty about tearing up northern bogs. (Not that guilty.) We borrowed a rototiller and blenderized the peat with the muck until we created a raised bed. Boy, were we proud.

We sent the goop away for a soil test and it came back listed as mineral soil. No organics, after all that Canadian bog-robbing. And the raised bed was really a mirage. The fluffed-up soil settled down after a few rains.

A survivor, twenty years later

Our crabapple, a  survivor, twenty-five years later

We planted in it anyway. Dogwoods died, cherry trees died, azaleas died. Most everything we planted died. The scrawnies that struggled were more embarrassing than the stuff that was dead and gone. We had created one colossal soup bowl.

We bought farmer’s soil and heaped that on. We had no idea what farmer’s soil was, but people said it was good. It grew lots of weeds, which gave us hope. Descendants of those buttercups still appear each spring. And it tested organic. Adding organic matter, we were told, was the only way to improve drainage, so we thought that was progress.

Do I really have to grind all this?

Do I really have to grind all this?

We became owners of a rototiller and a chipper-shredder, and we kept them in action. Every bit of garden waste went into the chipper-shredder and back on the land. Then we discovered we were recycling weeds from the farmer’s soil. So we sorted before shredding, kind of like sorting laundry.

We added manure from bags, from chickens, horses and sheep. People told us that alfalfa pellets would hurry composting along and gypsum would loosen the clay. We brought in pickup truckloads of “cotton dirt,” fertile leavings from cotton milling, known for giving plants a temporary shot. Sometimes we added sand, chancy because sand can turn clay into concrete unless you add generous heapings of organic matter.

Hurricane debris would have done wonders for our garden, but it was just too much of a good thing

Grinding hurricane debris would have done wonders for soil, but it was just too much. . .

Occasionally we paid for topsoil of questionable quality, until one day the driver of a large truckload announced he couldn’t put it where we wanted because “This truck don’t dump so good.” We switched to potting media produced locally. Our reliable ’92 Ford Ranger trundled it into our garden by the cubic yard and this seemed heaven-sent.

We wheedled piles of grindings from tree-trimmers doing work for the power company. We thought about chipping hurricane debris but the volume overwhelmed us, though the combination of leaves, bark and branches makes delicious mulch.

Peanut hulls look sharp on paths, are good soil conditioners

Peanut hulls look sharp on paths, are good soil conditioners

When we finally established paths, we topped them with peanut hulls carted from a distant peanut processor. They decomposed so nicely in damp soil we figured we were missing the boat and began using them on beds. In the fall we piled leaves on beds and let them decompose in place. If we were ambitious and wanted neatness, we shredded them first.

Our most successful venture turned out to be a sand-compost mixture we experimented with for a deep raised bed. Except — without clay, it drained and dried too quickly. Well, we had the perfect remedy: chopped-up clods vigorously incorporated. Heavens to Betsy, after a smashing rainfall, the clods melted and floated to the top and created cement icing. We sighed and scuffed them back in again and hoped they would behave. And yes, eventually the clay became one with the original mixture.

In our quest to raise beds we became brick layers

In our quest to raise beds we became brick layers

A second reasonably successful bed was planted where an old compost pile had been worked. Should’ve planned on moveable compost piles right away. Oh, and, incidentally, we added builder’s sand to that bed also, and to others along the way.

Still, no matter what we did, for a long time it was pretty common for heavy rains to float clay to the top of a bed and mire us in muck. Early on we planted a grouping of three toddler-size Burkwood viburnum. Soon we began calling them Papa, Mama, and Baby. Papa was growing big and healthy, Mama was holding her own, and Baby was languishing. Why? Papa was planted a couple of inches higher than Mama, who was planted a couple of inches higher than Baby, whose roots were probably in the muck. So little difference in height made so much difference in survival.

They're actually growing!

Plants actually like our soil and are growing!

Most of what we added seemed to vanish under relentless heat and dry weather. Or, the bits and pieces that remained would be glued into slabs of hard dry clay and tangled plant roots, or cemented into layers that we had to chop through.

If we cut down trees, we were left with quagmires where once their roots had moderated moisture in the soil. And yet, doggone it, when we pulled beautiful, healthy weeds from beds with motley soil combinations, their roots chose to cling to clods of clay.

You may get the feeling we were clutching at straws, and you would be right. One day I was digging up a flower bed in daughter Susan’s New Hampshire garden. The soil was dusty and flyaway, very different from our stolid clay. Terrible, I said. You’ll never get anything to grow in this. (Do you think this might be the pot calling the kettle black?)

The firs year our brick bed produced a hollyhock that climbed to upper-story windows

The first year our brick bed produced a hollyhock that climbed to upper-story windows

Son Steven, who is a soil and drainage expert, told me that the unruly dust was silt. Silt is an important ingredient in loam, he explained, that precious combination of sand, silt and clay that plants thrive in. I had never seen silt in our gardens, but when I saw how Susan’s garden grew, I coveted that dust that reminded me of velvet when my fingers played with it.

We would never have velvet soil. But a funny thing was happening during all these years. That gooey, pasty, concrete clay eventually began to crumble. And one day, twenty-five years after throwing those clods around, we looked at that dirt and said, “This is good soil. This is really good soil.

“We were pleased and quietly proud.

Fungi like these mushrooms play a big role in breaking down organics into nutrients that plants can use

Fungi like these mushrooms play a big role in breaking down organics into nutrients that plants can use

But, as they say on Awards Night, we couldn’t have done it without lots of help. From changing seasons — heat, sun, rain and snow. From little underground beasties, growing, eating, tunneling, pooping, dying and decomposing. From plant roots breaking through, and from their dead, shed leaves breaking down. And from a quarter century of time. The clay and compost and sand had homogenized, molecule by molecule until they merged seamlessly.

This doesn’t mean we can take a vacation.

Snow in April? No, even fallen petals from our crabapple will help improve our soil in their small way

Snow in April? No, even fallen petals from our crabapple will help improve soil in their small way

And it doesn’t mean that the basic character of our soil or drainage has changed. It hasn’t and it won’t. In many places, the clods are simply smaller and blacker, and good soil is only a few inches deep and planting holes still fill with water. But that’s fine. We accept what we have. We work with it, plant the willing and cull the weak.

We have learned that some things, like building soil, you just can’t rush. You have to trust and be humble and patient and respectful.

Aw shucks, ain’t that nice, and it’s the truth.

But next time we’ll grow our garden on an abandoned horse farm with loamy soil and we’ll nuke the weeds with black plastic in hot sun and hire a nursery man to put down store-bought mulch and our plants will be happy as larks right away. Maybe.

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