This section is from the book "The Gardener V3", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
WE recently commented on the water-supply of gardens, and now we propose to offer a few remarks on the very important question of the soil-supply of gardens. It need not be said that these twin elements rank of the very first and highest importance in nearly all the operations of the horticulturist. Destitute of them, he might give up his occupation; inadequately supplied with them, he is almost as badly off as the Egyptians when called up to render their tale of bricks without a supply of straw. It is on the plentiful supply of water, and soil of certain qualities, more than anything else, that the character of garden produce depends. At least all other appliances, however correctly handled, cannot insure success in the absence of good water and soils.
Gardeners have in numerous instances to put up with much that is most trying and unreasonable connected with their supply of soils for potting and other purposes. It would be as reasonable to expect the farm-steward to send prime sirloins to the larder for at oxen to a cattle-show without supplying him with plenty of proper food to feed them with, as it is to expect the gardener to produce first-rate plants and fruits without a proper supply of soil. Fortunately for the farmer, he can manufacture or grow the greater portion of what his oxen require, but gardeners cannot manufacture "turfy loam" and "fibry peat." No nobleman or gentleman ever expects the farm to produce prize animals on dry bents or chaff, and yet such an expectation would only equal in absurdity the expectation that fine Pine-Apples and other pot-plants can be reared on road-scrapings, or clay, or any other composts equally unsuitable to the best cultural results. That policy which compels gardeners just to take any sort of soil that they can get, and prohibits them from taking a supply of that which is proper, is not only an unreasonable but a shortsighted policy on the part of employers.
We have known gardeners connected with large landed estates obliged to take road-scrapings to pot with, and to pot their pines in clay mixed with chopped straw and leaves, while plenty of good loam could be had in the nearest meadows. Not only is this a stupid policy, but the apprehensions which lead proprietors thus to refuse proper soil are entirely delusive and without foundation. They will not allow the gardener to break into the meadow, because they fear that by so doing their lands will be sadly and permanently deteriorated. Even if he offers to replace it with a richer and better grass-producing soil, the offer is seldom reassuring, and in some cases not entertained for a moment. We are not now supposing cases for the sake of a purpose. Indeed, we venture to assume that a large proportion of gardeners can endorse from their own experience what we are stating.
We once held a situation where we were driven, as the saying is, "to our wits' end" for want of soil to pot with. At last, after a sort of special pleading, and a controversion of the ideas of the proprietor - and always, in this battle, his lieutenant the farm-bailif - permission was obtained to test our statements in the corner of an old meadow. Of course, it was not expected of us that we could substantiate the assertion that the produce, and consequently the value, of the patch would be increased instead of deteriorated. On the contrary, the performance was regarded as a piece of impudent robbery, more especially as gardeners are not expected to know anything of farming or meadows. How can they? However, our success was complete. The yield of hay was nearly doubled, and in the autumn the grass was green and sweet, resorted to by cattle and sheep in preference to any other part of the meadow. The issue was that a regular supply was granted so long as the bargain was implemented in the same way. And what was the process 1 Simply first to mow as closely as possible the grass, then to skin off the turf as thinly as it would hang together and bear handling.
Then the 3 inches of soil lying immediately underneath the thin skin, and which contained the roots of the grass, was taken for the garden. The space was filled up with old rich soil, such as is not very difficult to procure about most garden establishments; at least most gardeners will be glad to provide such, by hook or by crook, to exchange for maiden loam. The surface was rolled down firmly, turfed over with the same turf, and well rolled again.
The soil exchanged, being much richer than the loam, yielded not only better but earlier grass, while it was utterly unfit for the potting-bench. The result was, a grant of as much soil yearly as was required. Of course, it would have been much better, and quite as harmless, to have taken the turf; but we ran no risk of committing ourselves; and every gardener knows what a boon it is to get even that which lies immediately below the thin skin of turf, instead of being compelled to work with any rubbish he could otherwise scrape together. By this method not even a season's sward is sacrificed; but if the turf be taken, and the ground properly laid down firmly, and sown thickly with permanent grasses, and fenced round for a few months, it is difficult at the close of the season, except by close inspection, to know where the turf has been removed, unless it be by the rich verdure of the spot.
This question is one of vast moment to successful culture; and we feel confident that if many who, under an absurd dream, deny such a supply, were to submit to one trial, there would not in the end be any objections to taking the requisite amount each season. And we are certain that many a just complaint from the gardener would be avoided, and the produce of the garden vastly improved.
"While we thus point out the groundlessness of the idea that gardeners would deteriorate the value of grass-land by the process we have described, it is but right on the part of gardeners to be as sparing and economical with soil so obtained as possible, and not to break into fields more extensively than is absolutely necessary; for we admit the process does create an eyesore and disturbance for a short time. We have known the loam shaken from old Pine-plants, French Bean-pots, from Melon and Cucumber pits, made no further use of, but either wheeled into an open quarter of the garden or to the waste-heap, while it might perfectly well have been made use of for many purposes - such as mixing up for potting and boxing flower-garden plants. Heaps of good soil are often collected with other rubbish under pot-ting-benches, and then taken to the waste-heap. All such ought to be sifted, and the good soil separated from the other matter, and a place set apart for forming all soil collected in this way into a heap that can be profitably used in many ways, with which all gardeners are conversant.
Hundreds would be glad to use what some refuse, and in refusing, and drawing too greedily and injudiciously on fresh supplies, are to some extent perpetuating the tenacity with which so many owners of land refuse their gardeners fresh supplies.