Transforming Garden Soil: A Journey Towards Sustainability at Natchez Glen House

Transforming Garden Soil: A Journey Towards Sustainability at Natchez Glen House

This morning, during an Instagram Live session, I delved into a conversation about soil. My philosophy has always prioritized healthy soil over the use of fertilizers. Seventeen years ago, I found myself standing atop a mound of shredded wood chips and leaf litter, and remarkably, I find myself in the same position today. This approach to soil management has been a cornerstone of Natchez Glen House’s success. Currently, I’m focusing on the front garden, the one nearest to the road that runs in front of the gardens. Back in 2018, I dedicated much of this space to dahlias, requiring the rental of a quality tiller to prepare the soil. At that time, I was aware of my aversion to tillers, but for a flower farm, using one seemed the most efficient method for a single person to loosen the soil and create furrows for dahlia tubers. This method proved effective for cultivating beautiful dahlias—a success you can easily verify online.

However, over the past four years, as I’ve transitioned these gardens to perennial setups akin to those I design for clients, I’ve observed that the soil has suffered from tilling rather than benefited. A major challenge with soil health is ensuring adequate aeration, and heavy tilling actually compacts the soil, much like a deflated balloon, adversely affecting soil structure and composition. The misconception is that tilling introduces air, but it actually compacts the soil beneath the initial loosened layer, disturbing the vital organic matter layer and compacting the topsoil where plant roots thrive.

As I engage in the less glamorous aspects of my job, like weeding thousands of tiny ranunculus avens seedlings, I reflect on my choices. I wish I had been gentler with the tiller in 2018. The preferable method, which I’ve applied in other gardens, involves clearing the area of weeds and adding two to three inches of organic matter—ideally, a mix of wood chips and leaf litter—and allowing it to integrate over the course of a year. This approach has resulted in gardens with less weed pressure and easier weeding.

In healthy soil, enriched with organic matter and undisturbed, weeds pull out effortlessly, making gardening a joyous activity. Through my experiences, both in my own gardens and those of clients, I’ve encountered a spectrum of soil conditions. My strategy remains consistent: eschew fertilizers in favor of organic matter, patience, and selecting the right plants. This philosophy has been key to my success and can be equally transformative for others.
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