Improving the quality of your soil is a time-consuming labour of love, and compost is a rotten way to go about it. By Helen Razer.

Dirty deeds of soil health

Good soil takes time, but worms can prove a useful ally.
Good soil takes time, but worms can prove a useful ally.

Gardening is a series of crushing disasters interrupted by the occasional plant. This was my view, at least, of the yard in its first tended season. Now that I have grown as a caretaker at a rate roughly equivalent to that of my rambling rose (read: not a lot), I know that gardening is so much more. It is a series of disasters made milder by good garden or pot soil.

Soil condition. Yes, I know. It’s a topic for inquiry every bit as thrilling and as sexy as an afternoon with Ron Jeremy. But, as they might very well say in the adult film industry, if you haven’t got the dirt right, you might as well throw out your seed.

Like most Australians, I live on a foundation of terrible soil. Mine is sandy. Yours may be clayey. Or, clayey, choked with lantana and home to an army of mice that grow fat and angry on the industrial toxins that lay waste to your every botanical attempt. You have to work with the dirt where necessary and against it where possible. (As they also might say in the adult film industry.)

Testing the consistency of your dirt requires equipment no more complex than a fist. (As they also might say… oh, forget it.) Grab some. If it sticks together in a big dumb lump, it is clayey. If it falls in bits through your fingers like yesterday’s Tinder search, it is sandy. You can begin, like my obsessive self, to slowly amend the quality of the soil with the addition of organic materials. Or, for now, you can just grow plants that will be happy in crap.

Sandy soils will sustain the stout cheer of Livingstone daisies (Dorotheanthus bellidiformis). If these stubborn little succulents bring to mind the regret of coastal holidays, you might try the half-hardy cosmos instead. Start from seed under cover right now and see their big, daft donkey petals woo helpful predators from late spring. Sand loves Sydney’s soft native, the flannel flower. Clay loves lilies; especially the elegant white canna, also known as arum. Be careful with this funereal beauty, though. What starts as a sombre procession can end as an invasive death march.

There are some beds or even pots so full of poor soil that their improvement may take more time than you have this season. The soil of my neighbour Iris, now worked for decades, has a pH and texture as even as her marriage. When I stopped by earlier in the week to ask questions about her soil, she told me about her knee replacement surgery last October. “I can kneel and walk again,” said Iris. “The only thing is, I find it difficult and painful to stand for too long.”

This was my cue to leave.

Before being sent on my way, though, she reminded me that time and the experimentation time affords are the key weapons in her war on poor soil. Through instinct, crop rotation and manure sourced from an unnamed horse farmer, she has beaten local conditions as surely as she has beaten her knee replacement. All these things take time. And time takes all the good work you do in the garden and roots it there for decades.

It won’t happen overnight. Nor will it necessarily happen thanks to compost. Ugh. Compost.

Let me tell what compost isn’t: an easy organic solution to all your gaily scattered kitchen excess. Let me tell you what it is: a backbreaking evil heap of no less than one cubic metre that must be regularly turned, maintained at even moisture and contain a 30:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen, both of which must be combined at the same instant. If these conditions are not met, then the pile will not heat to the 70 degrees required to break down pathogens and seeds and you will end up with what I have: a rat buffet that grows a lot of nasturtiums.

Horticulturalists remind us of the need for good garden-bed or potting medium. Some of them tell me how “easy” and “rewarding” it is to build a “simple” compost pile. Liars. They stink of lies and improperly decayed compost.

Think very carefully before you commit to the compost cult. Please. Obviously a large amount of compost dragged through your soil will improve it instantly. But, it may attract vermin. It will certainly produce friction.

I have conquered this alchemy only once. It was in the third year of my life as a gardener and what would be the last month of a 14-year relationship that I perfected hot compost. Like true love, true composting isn’t easy, and I would recommend its pursuit only to those in relationships capable of withstanding a partner obsessed with her carbon-to-nitrogen ratio.

While it is certainly true that the compost I produced transformed my vegetable patch from a lethal sand wasteland, home only to suicidal bok choy, it is also true that I could have (a) had the same volume of mushroom compost and mulch delivered for 50 bucks – many soil merchants will deliver or sell you large bags of extraordinary earth for your small space garden – and b) I was out at five in the morning testing the core temperature of my pile with a thermometer.

“Look. Sometimes there can just be too much science in gardening.” When a horticulturalist tells you this, you know you’ve got problems.

Frances Jackson, manager of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, who is soon to take a sabbatical to complete her master’s in horticulture, has turned industrial-sized piles of hot compost with a backhoe. But she doesn’t use it at home.

She recommends leaf mould; and there is no better time to start this green-and-easy soil improvement technique than right now. “Gather up all those marvellous autumn leaves,” she says. You can pop them in a pile, forget about them and wait for them to break down into gardener’s gold in a year or two. Wetting them and popping in a bin or a plastic bag on your balcony or under a tarp in your backyard will speed up the process of fungal rot. Shred them if you can be bothered. Use the rich, humic mess of the future to top dress plants and condition soil.

“I am also a worm-vangelist,” says Jackson. Buy a good, well-insulated worm farm and keep it out of the sun then “give it all your kitchen scraps, save for meat”. Follow the instructions on the box and you’ll find that, once established, the worm population holds steady and produces powerful cast that you can sprinkle on your plants.

Iris does not have a compost pile. Instead, she has a small Esky her husband Ray found in hard garbage, which is full of worms that eat her green kitchen waste. Vermicompost – or worm-farming – is an adventure on which I am about to embark. I am assured by sane people that this is a much more manageable practice than proper hot composting, which experience has led me to regard as a time- and space-consuming vortex of evil. A permaculture advocate I know tells me she puts her hair in her vermifarm. “It’s like crack for worms.”

The lesson here is that good soil takes time. And that it tends to happen quite naturally as you feed and tend the garden. Tackle it, as Iris has, one plant or plant bed at a time. If you can’t grow oriental poppies (I’m currently preoccupied with these soup-bowl sized perennial treats) in your bad soil, buy a pot of good soil. In the meantime, fill your flower beds with the surprisingly tough sweet pea, whose seeds you can soak and germinate now, and these will enrich your soil with nitrogen. Or lupins – germinate right now. As Frances tells me, the Royal Botanic has just planted a legume army in the trenches of its sustainable gardens to keep its soil victorious.

You’ll do a little blood and bone here. A little seaweed wash there. One day, you might make a little weed tea. Some diluted coffee grounds in the flower beds but, please, never just food scraps or they will only rot your plot – I don’t care what your aunty tells you. Vegetables directly on the soil will turn your garden bed into a compost pile that will start to smell like the remnants of my last relationship.

Now. Plant your sweet peas. Assemble your leaves and build your worm colony. And when you’re pulling hair from your brush into a big plastic tub, remember that gardening is a series of mild disasters made palatable by our shared insanity.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 31, 2014 as "Dirty deeds".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on July 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.