Will plants that don't make it help amend soil or clay?

adayfromnowApril 5, 2007

My neighbors, bless them, are so thrilled to see me finally try my hand at gardening that they are innundating me with a variety of young plants and seedlings from their gardens. I am doing my best to find the best spots for every plant, including where they will likely survive and what they will "grow up" to be. I keep getting stymied by the fact that our land has somewhat frustrating properties. Where there is sun, there is either clay, or it's too difficult water. Where there is decent soil, there are trees, and shade.

There is one area in particular that I would *love* to beautify. It happens to be mostly clay, and it's where our septic tanks are located. It also happens to be the first thing you see when you drive up to our house. ICK! I would like to be able to properly amend the clay, but at the moment I can't afford to buy any more materials.

So, after all that babbling (sorry, I tend to write "books"), my question is this. If I just put these things in the ground, and they don't make it, will they help improve the clay/soil for the future?

I really need to get these plants in the ground somewhere or they will surely die... soon!


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vetivert8(NI-NZ zone 9a)

The good news is yes, they will help. The bad news is - it's like filling a bucket using a slow drip.

Not sure what sort of view your septic tank cover provides. If it's just the little mushroom vent then something boisterous would probably disguise it.

If your area has a history of needing to have the tank pumped out (sigh) then keep the area accessible. One way might be to use planters and even a pergola or similar, easily moved in case of a back-up in the pipes.

Whatever - I'd avoid any sort of willow in the yard. Those roots can find water - and pipe joins - faster than cats find fridges.

If you're breaking in a sunny clay area - let it happen over about three years. Plant up with baggie loads of compost on the bed and plant out whichever annuals do well in your area. Sweet peas (or even regular eating peas) are brilliant for breaking into clay and also increasing fertility. When they finish you can dig the remains into the soil.

If you don't squeeze the annuals into flowering up to the first frost you can pull them early, add more compost and plant a cover crop, or lay down a mulch for the winter. You'll be glad you did when spring comes.

If you crave bulbs - you might find it more convenient for the first few years to use containers just so you don't have to wait for foliage to die before you add your next lot of compost. However, perhaps a patch of Crinums could be persuaded to settle in a sunny patch where you can leave them undisturbed to flourish.

Hope you have heaps of fun with your plants - and that most of them flourish for you!

    Bookmark   April 7, 2007 at 12:17AM
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Thanks, vetivert. Especially for the tip about the Peas.

Hopefully as the year progresses, I'll be able to do more to expedite the process. I have all of these "gifts" from the neighbors that need to go somewhere, and for some reason, it has become my mission in life to improve the appearance of that end of the house. So I figure I'll try to use a lot of them there.

I guess what I really want to make sure of is, if they don't make it, is it okay to dig any remains into the soil, or are there some that it's better to remove the remains?

The tanks themselves are actually my true Nemesis. It's actually a septic with an aerobic sprinkler system. So, we have not one but two tanks, as well as the piping between them and to the sprinklers AND the wires that run from them to the circuit breaker and controls that are also at that end of the house. GRRRRRR! lol

I've already surrounded the little pipe, cover thing (about 2 ft diameter) with Snapdragons and put a potted Mexican Feather Grass on top. Now, at least that part of the system looks more like true garden art than an ugly pipe sticking out of the ground with a hunk of concrete on top. There are actually a couple trees that want to grow there that we have to cut down every year. And, yes, one of them is a willow! At least I've learned that I can use the baby willow as root stimulant every year!

I'm so new at this, I don't know WHAT I crave (other than a new house perhaps. Kidding... sort of). I'm just dealing with what I have at my disposal now, doing the best I can, and learning as much as possible for the future.

At some point, I'm sure I will be posting requests for suggestions on the Landscape Design forum, but I'm not quite ready to process all of the suggestions I'm sure I would get.

Thanks again for your help.


    Bookmark   April 7, 2007 at 8:05PM
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vetivert8(NI-NZ zone 9a)

If your neighbours gave you the names of the plants - let us know so we can offer info on where to plant - and whether they'd make lovely compost!!!

Seriously, many annuals you can dig in. Personally, I'd be wary of Nasturtiums, unless you don't mind them returning for another show next year. The seeds are really tough and easily survive the winter.

Aside here - that's what annuals are good at. Flowering generously and setting lots of seeds which patiently wait over the winter and then pop up again next time you disturb the earth. The modern hybrids often disappear with the passing of the season but the 'old favourites' got to be that way because they survive. ;-D.

Survivors include Nigella/love-in-a-mist, Myosotis/forget-me-not, Reseda/mignonette, some pelargoniums, geraniums, and some petunias. Don't be surprised by seeing them reappear even years after the last time you remember planting them. The seeds can have a very long dormant time in the soil and still pop up when everything is right for them. You can either think of them as weeds (if they spoil a formal layout), or free plants that add a touch of serendipity to a more relaxed style of garden display. Most of them are easy enough to remove when young. (And are useful on the compost heap...)

If you want to get the best from the landscape forum, or you want to have plants identified, check out how to upload photos. It makes so much difference to the quality if the information you'll get if you can 'show'.

For the gifts - if you were to set aside a biggish patch of ground near to the watering system with reasonable hours of sun - and plant into there. Most plants will let you move them around. Some actually do better if you do.

So long as you can keep them watered, give some protection from wind and hot noon/afternoon sun, you can keep them going until you've worked out where to put them. (This includes shrubs such as roses, or young trees.)

When you've 'had a think' you can transplant them at the end of summer, provided you can give water to settle them, and there's a spell of rain plus warm days before winter sets in. Ask your neighbours whether fall planting is realistic and successful in your area. If it's not, put down a mulch to prevent frost heave and hold on until this time next year. Particularly for any shrubs or perennials you may have been given.

If you use this year to find out what does well in you garden for even a newbie you'll be miles ahead for next year - and save money as well.

Good luck with the Disguise of the Septic Tanks. :-D.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2007 at 12:03AM
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LOL - The thought of our place having a formal garden just cracked me up! I actually do have pictures of the area in question, but I'm too embarassed to post them. It's not as bad as the opposite end of the house, but it's still pretty "redneck".

I do want the "garden" to make some sort of sense, but I guess I shouldn't overthink things so much. The only thing I DON'T really want to plant is something that's really invasive and pretty much can't be killed. (Reminds me, vetivert - What can you tell me about plicranthus ciliatus, drege? About the only info I can find is that it's considered a weed in New Zealand. One man's junk... [I don't know what forum to post that question in, sorry])

Back to the original topic of amending clay. Would humus work? Our property is actually mostly wooded, with a pond (aka "the swamp"). Would using some soil from other parts of the property work like adding compost?

Should I start a new post with the list of plants (if so, which forum?), or just keep going here? (I could probably keep the Name that Plant forum busy for MONTHS).


    Bookmark   April 9, 2007 at 7:43PM
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vetivert8(NI-NZ zone 9a)

Do, do keep your photos of your yard now - and brag later! Before and after...

Plectranthus ciliatus is a South African plant which does awfully well under trees. Awfully. In a lot of our areas it settles down and suppresses native plants with much efficiency. Frost whacks it back but it does recover to go on its way. Zones 9-11 usually, but will probably do its best in a zone 8 microclimate. OK for a patch but you'd have to be desperate to bulk plant it, IMO.

I've not been clear, and I apologise. Humus is ancient compost. When all the bacteria, fungi, bugs, worms and weather have finished with the banana skin you popped into your compost bin humus is what is left - and a thin layer it is, too. That's why gardeners keep adding more of it.

Mulch is the top layer. It can be 'hard mulch' such as gravel or shells. There are some plants which do brilliantly with that kind of mulch - lavender, for example. There's reflected heat for the top and cool feet for the roots. It is also surprisingly good at retaining moisture.

Softer mulch such as bark cambium or nuggets.

Single season mulches such as a layer of newpaper topped with grass clippings or shredded small (ie no fatter than quarter inch diameter) twigs and green leaves.

Always put mulches on when the ground is wet. Know that having the mulch can 'slow down your season' because the soil stays cooler. That can be either a drawback - or a plus if your hot weather comes in with a rush and saddens any flowers you have out.

In the 'middle' of these two - humus and mulch - is compost. And it varies a lot. You can put it on when you can still tell what some of the ingredients were - and use it as mulch. Or you can wait for a couple of years and use it when it has a nice earthy smell, feels delightful to put your hands in, and you'd never know what it was made of. Making compost is a bit like making bread dough. If you can do one - you've a good chance of success with the other. It's all about ingredients and activators, warmth and moisture. It is NOT tricky. Nature does it all the time. Look at what happens to fall leaves...

What you the gardener are trying to do is to increase the thickness of the humus-rich layer on the top - and the depth to which roots can go - plus the worms.

My own personal view as a clay soil gardener is to minimise the amount of digging/rototilling that's done from year to year. The worms set up their runs and burrows and start shifting food particles down to where the roots can make use of the food - and we come and remake the bed! Dig over when you take out plants at the end of a season, add more compost on top and fork it through the top 6-12 inches (it will happen!), then mostly leave it alone - and stay OFF the beds as much as possible.

When fall comes - stash some plastic totes in the vehicle - ignore the stares - and scrounge as many fallen leaves as you legally can. You can either put them directly on bare soil, or into the compost heap. Or, best of all, hold them in a plastic container, add some water so they're damp, and let them rot in their container in a quiet patch in the garden for a couple of years or so to turn into precious leaf mould (aka humus). It's great for adding to containers for growing plants that like a touch of 'soil' in the mix to do well.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2007 at 7:18PM
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Wow, VV! (.. can I call you VV? lol) You've been a great help! Thank you! I am definitely going to refer to this thread...frequently.

Of course I have more questions about some of the topics we've covered here. I would like to follow the suggestion you guys posted/discussed and "Start a new thread". GREAT SUGGESTION!!! Being a newbie, I know how frustrating it is to try to find specific information about something and have to search thru zillions of posts where the subject was only "mentioned" briefly. Don't get me wrong. I LOVE this site. It's just a little exasperating when you know your answer is out there somewhere, and you just can't find it.

I just need some direction on the appropriate forums for some of the subjects, if you don't mind. These are a few...

- Plicranthus ciliatus (is it a tropical?)

- Compost, humus, AND soil etc. I actually did start a second thread on this one already (in this forum) "Major DUH Moment...".

- If I have a list of plants, and want to know if they will be "happy together" should I stick with this forum (New to Gardening), or is there a more appropriate one?

btw - I have TONS of "before" pics. I can't wait to have some "after's" to show off!

- Mari

    Bookmark   April 14, 2007 at 3:25PM
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vetivert8(NI-NZ zone 9a)

I changed Plicranthus to 'Plectranthus' I know. Many of them will grow happily in zones 9b on up so I guess you could call them subtropical at least.

This forum is good for general info but if you should fall passionately in love with a particular plant type (it does happen!!!) then head off to the dedicated forums. Some are very busy and others not so much. In a pinch, though, come back to here.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2007 at 10:31PM
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