Spring arrived so abruptly this year, with typical unsettled, windy, changeable weather. The early morning is cold, with sunny days at times then followed by frost and cold winds reminiscent of winter’s depths. It is Spring, and as long as one remains flexible to the moods of nature and mindful to wear layered clothing, it is a welcome change. Spring has every weather element: dry and dusty winds, sun filled days, foggy mornings with occasional days of frost and muggy, humid afternoons that bring storms. The rain recently was just enough to dampen the mulch I’ve started laying down and provided a moisture top-up for the local crops, so it’s a win-win.
Working through the end of winter tasks has given me great satisfaction, mainly because I did not rely on outside help for all the heavy work. So even in those areas of deep weeds amongst thorny roses in spots one would love to ignore, I’ve tackled the challenges of rose growing at the end of winter, when there is so much to do in a short time. I’m still putting off and waiting for that burst of energy needed to complete the new stone path, but it will happen soon. So, today’s title quote is close to my heart and perfectly describes my current sentiment. It is gratifying to know the garden is manageable, and I’m eagerly preparing for a spectacular Spring, knowing that all the effort will quickly bring results and abundant growth is a certainty.
Water retention is essential in the days ahead, so it is time to focus on the soil, mulching and preparation for the possibility of an intense summer. According to the weather experts, we are in for another El Niño event that may intensify heat waves and cause less rainfall and drought. I certainly hope not, but it is better to be ready than in a last-minute disaster.
The old adage ‘feed the soil, not the plants’ is a subtle shift in mindset where instead of focusing only on fertilising, consider conditioning the soil. Roses are hungry plants that require loads of nutrients to thrive and flourish with rose blooms, especially the repeat bloomers. By improving soil health, it is possible to assist the plants to uptake nutrients from the soil, help with water retention, and pull water from the soil. Generally, the regular application of well-rotted manure, seaweed, compost, or blood and bone is perfect.
After several years of adding aged manures and compost to the garden’s dry, heavy clay soil, the soil is much more has become more friable, crumbly and darker in colour, and it retains moisture fairly well now. However, there are sections that are still hydrophobic, dusty and difficult to water because the water will not soak in and run off the surface. These soils require more building up to provide the type of soil that gives plants the ability to draw the nutrients out.
The secret is humus, the dark witches’ brew of organic material in the soil, made by decomposed vegetable or animal matter that houses thousands of organic compounds. Humus is essential for the fertility of the earth, and the garden cannot get too much of it. The word humus is a late 18th century Latin word meaning ‘soil’. Humus has many benefits, including improving air circulation that allows oxygen to reach the plant roots and improving soil structure so the more crumbly soil will allow water to come in and drain well. Also, humus acts as a pool of nutrients in the garden. It releases them gradually over an extended time, improving the soil fertility due to the worms and other microorganisms that will also naturally protect plants from diseases and other pests. If there are many worms in the garden when you dig, there’s a good chance the soil has a healthy layer of humus.
Water is the best fertiliser for plants, and water that soaks into the soil rather than running off. When plants are watered, the ideal is that the space in the soil becomes half-filled with water and half with air. It is by capillary pull that the water from rain is drawn into the ground, not gravity, and also pulled sideways, so when placing irrigation points in the garden, it is not necessary to place them right next to the plants. To further aid the absorption of water, use mulch with organic material like straw, old leaves, and compost; this will soften the impact of rainfall and increase the amount that enters the soil.
If all else fails, store-bought wetting agents can be added to the soil to help maintain moisture and stop water running off. A simple way to reverse hydrophobic soil is to water with grey water or just soapy water. Or mix powdered agar or kelp to make the soil less water-repellant.
Water Retention Home Remedy – Dissolve 2 tablespoons of powdered agar agar into 2 cups of hot water and mix into a runny paste. Add 250 ml to 5 litres of water and water it over the garden.
Another element to improve dry clay or heavily compacted clay soil is the naturally occurring mineral Gypsum- the chemical is calcium sulphate dihydrate ( CaSO4·2H2O). Gypsum will help break down clay soil, so it can be used as a soil improver by spreading the heavy powder across the garden and lawn or spraying from a prepackaged nozzle pack for the hose. It is however not a fertiliser, nor does it have other nutrients to add to the garden. Gypsum has a neutral pH, so it will not change acidity like dolomite or lime. It is used extensively in agriculture to help the soil absorb water and reduce erosion. In the garden, I add gypsum to the planting hole, which will open up the clay for the roots to grow and develop.
Spring and the warm weather last week have brought out lovely red, green and bronze foliage on the roses. The growth seems slow, but a few roses with buds are about to open. The first spring rose bloom race is between the tried and true Iceberg roses, Princess Claire of Belgium and the usual first-to-open Gold Bunny Rose.
Princess Claire of Belgium is a Grandiflora Hybrid Tea rose with a pink cupped bloom form and a mild fragrance that will grow up to 120 cm tall. It was bred by Martin Vissers in Belgium in 2005. Jan Spek Rozen BV introduced it in the Netherlands in 2013 as ‘Princesse Claire de Belgique’, and in 2020, it was introduced to Australia by Wagner’s Rose Nursery as ‘Princess Claire of Belgium’. The two Princess Claire of Belgium roses growing in the garden are in pots in the morning sun and look almost ready to open.
New buds heralding Spring blooms
Content Di Baker 2023
Images Di Baker or as cited.
The header image is by Austrian painter Hugo Charlemont.
The title quote by W H Davies.