Soil That is Too Good?

 I don’t expect to elicit much sympathy from moaning about the problem with my soil here on the farmden; the problem is that it’s too good. Wait! Don’t roll your eyes or, worse, stop reading. Allow me to present my case.
Aerial view of farmden
The setting: A valley cut through with a small river (the Wallkill River) in New York’s Hudson Valley. River bottom soil, specifically young alluvial soil, rich in nutrients, a silty clay loam with perfect drainage. Also naturally rich in nutrients. No rocks.

So what’s the problem? One problem is too much growth from plants that I’m not cultivating — weeds, everything from stilt grass and garlic mustard to wild blackberries and poison ivy to ash and cherry trees. Every minute of every day they are making the most of this rich ground and trying to insinuate themselves into my plantings. They creep into the edges of the vegetable gardens, settling in especially well right at the bottom of any fencing, where they are hard to weed out. 

My land is backed by forest running up to hills, then mountains, with soil that’s pretty much the opposite of what I have down here in the valley. It feels like that forest is just waiting for me to let up weeding and mowing, ready to spring down here and engulf my plantings.

That feeling is pretty much borne out in the one-third of an acre meadow to the south. Once a year mowing keeps the meadow a meadow. Yet even in the few months of each growing season, joe-pye-weed and ragweed stand almost 9 feet high and goldenrod, monarda, and grasses grow densely.

Looking at the herbage more closely I see multiflora rose, staghorn sumac, grapevines, and other woody plants elbowing their ways in here and there. And cherry, red maple, red oak, and poplar trees keep trying to introduce their progeny into the meadow to morph it into forest. Which isn’t a bad thing except that I scythe parts of that meadow for harvesting the herbage, not woody plants, to feed my compost, and grow apples, kiwis, pawpaws, hazelnuts, and other fruits and nuts that I cultivate in and around the meadow.

Errant and Robust

Even some cultivated plants grow a bit too well here.

Crocosmia, for example.  Towards the end of summer, this South African, summer-flowering bulb sprouts a tall, thin flower shoot about four feet high. The shoot curves over and then fire-engine red flowers open sequentially along the upper portion of the curve.
Crocosmia up close
Many years ago I planted crocosmia here and, as directed, dug the corms up at the end of the season for winter storage, just as I would do for dahlias. Those first few seasons, the plants hardly bloomed before frost killed the tops.

Long story short is that the original planting, which has since grown to a clump of plants, now blooms reliably each August, and does so without my having to ever dig the corms up for winter. Good so far, except that the plant evidently also now ripens seeds, and these seeds find their way elsewhere on the property. That would not be so bad except that in this rich soil one little seedling soon multiplies into a clump of vigorous plants that can threaten the existence of other plants.
My tack in reining in crocosmia is lopping off all spent flower heads wherever I spot them with a hedge shears, and digging out seedlings where they are not wanted.

This summer I even noticed a crocosmia seedling in the meadow. Hmmm. I recently saw, in a video documentary about color in the natural world (Life in Color with David Attenborough, highly recommended), a field of crocosmia in its native habitat, the flowers hovering over the field like a red mist. Do I want that in my meadow? Should I transplant some corms there? Would my rich soil and the apparent footloose habit of crocosmia create a future nightmare? If so, could I awaken from that nightmare with one whole season of mowing that portion of the field? Grasses are pretty much the only plants that tolerate repeated mowing.

Permaculture Ideals

All this is part of the reason I wince when I’m accused of practicing permaculture (although my agricultural perspective and much of what I do does happen to align with those of permies). Permaculture’s origins are in the poor soils and dry climate of Australia. Plant a tree there, give it water, nutrients, mulch, and you’re not inviting half the plant world in as too-close neighbors. But try this here on my farmden — or in any other place with hot summers and sufficient natural rainfall — and those “neighbors” will be at the door.

Even among cultivated plants grown cheek to jowl in the various “guilds,” growth eventually becomes so rampant that it’s a major job to keep growth among plants balanced so each plant gets what it needs in terms of light and air.

Most permaculture sites outside of climates such as Australia, our Southwest, and the Mediterranean, that I have seen mingle plants nicely on paper and look good when first planted. After a few years, though, they become a tangled mess of plants with low yields of poor-quality fruits and vegetables.

Permaculture seems to encompass a broad philosophy, broad enough so a well-known local permaculturalist once told me, contrary to my opinion, that I was practicing permaculture. I asked him, “Ok, then; what isn’t permaculture?” He replied, “Everything is permaculture! (Except commercial agriculture).”

All this is not to say that I don’t side with permaculturalists in certain key practices. Like them, I minimize soil disturbance. I also practice interplanting, such as the blackcurrants and pawpaws, favor pest resistant species, such as hardy kiwifruit and gooseberries, and let my ducks have almost free rein here. I also have my requisite shiitake logs, fire wood pile, and solar cells.

Of Crocs and Glads

No-Dig Crocs

Plants grow and multiply, which sometimes causes trouble. Such trouble was highlighted this week as I was digging up my crocosmia bulbs.

Crocosmia up closeBackpedaling perhaps 20 years, you would have found me ordering crocosmia bulbs from a mail-order catalog. I’d seen the plants blooming in a friend’s garden in New Jersey and marveled at the graceful flower stems that arched up and out from clumps of sword-shaped leaves. Lined up near the ends of each flower stalk were pairs of tubular, hot scarlet blossoms.

Crocosmia isn’t supposed to be cold-hardy outdoors where winter temperatures drop below minus 10 degrees F. (hardiness zone 5), so the first couple of autumns, as instructed, I dug up the bulbs for winter storage. Each spring following, the plants would get off to a slow start, finally blooming late in the season or not at all.

In disappointment or laziness, I stopped digging the bulbs up each fall. I was surprised to see them appear in spring anyway. Not only did they appear in spring; they had some real oomph, growing almost as luxuriantly as the ones in my friend’s garden. To make matters better, they started blooming earlier, in July, and in great profusion, and they have done so reliably year after year with no help at all from me.Crocosmia and daphne

The crocosmias also multiplied, and they did so with such enthusiasm that there became just too many of them at the original location. So I started digging. And I uncovered bulb after bulb after bulb, ready to bloom and multiply next year. Now I have to decide what to do with all those bulbs. Plant them? Give them away? Compost them? I would have never thought I could have had too many crocosmias.

Glads Won’t Die

Does anybody around here still dig up their gladiolas each fall? I don’t, but to no avail. Left outside, they still survive every winter. Yuk. (Gladiolus “bulbs” are, like crocosmia “bulbs,” actually bulb like structured called “corms.”)

I don’t like gladiolas. Perhaps it’s because they are the most popular flower for funerals.

At any rate, I did, for some reason, plant some glads over 30 years go, glads whose beautiful salmon, pink color I subsequently felt was wasted on glad flowers. The nice color couldn’t outweigh the funereal associations, so after a couple of years of digging them up for storage each fall, I decided to sacrifice them to winter cold.Gladiolus

Unfortunately, they reappeared each year, and have continued to do so annually. I have to chuckle whenever I read instructions such as: “Corms should be dug after foliage has matured and started turning brown. Lift corms carefully with a spade or spading fork, taking care not to cut into the corm. Cut the tops off 1inch above the corm and dry for 2 to 4 weeks in a warm location (70-80 degrees Fahrenheit) with good air circulation. Remove the old corm which is beneath the new corm. Discard any rotted or damaged corms. Cut stems back to within an eighth of an inch of the corm. Place the corms in an onion sack or old nylon panty hose. Hang from a wall or ceiling. Ideal storage temperatures are between 35 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Hah! Doing nothing at all has, unfortunately, worked fine for me. At least the gladiolas haven’t multiplied as fast as the crocosmias.

Cold Air, Not So Cold Soil

The whole concept of winter hardiness for a plant only whose roots (or corms, in the case of crocosmia and gladiola) need to survive winter is hazy. After all, three feet down in the soil almost everywhere, temperatures hover around 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lay some mulch on top of any soil and penetration of winter cold can’t reach as deeply as through bare soil or lawn. Bare soil doesn’t peek out anywhere in my garden. Whatever is not lawn has been mulched year after year for many years with leaves, wood chips, sawdust, compost, hay, or whatever other organic materials I can get my hands on. (No, my garden isn’t three feet higher than it was when I started because those organic mulches decompose, enriching the soil as they do so.)

Nonetheless, the ground that the crocosmias and glads call home is well-insulated from winter cold. Warmer winters for the past few years have also helped these “nonhardy” bulbs survive outdoors, especially the less cold-hardy gladiolus.


In the wee hours of the night of October 12th, temperatures here plummeted to 24°F, and it’s about time. Not that some garden plants wouldn’t have enjoyed a few more weeks of frost-free weather, but in the recent past, that depth of cold would typically arrive on the scene a couple of weeks or more earlier.
So I had plenty of time to prepare everything for the frigid night. Drip irrigation timers, filters, and pressure reducers are safely stowed away in the basement until next April. Frost-tender houseplants are lounging near sunny windows. The extra vents on the greenhouse have been sealed shut for winter. And the near-final cleanup is well underway.
Tidying up the garden is a very satisfying job, especially in a no-till garden like mine. (I detail the benefits of no-till to plants and humans in my book Weedless Gardening, whose title hints at one of those benefits.)
Take the okra bed, for instance, the ground strewn with old leaves above which rose stalky plants capped with a few leaves and an occasional flower or pod. Or the pepper bed. Yesterday it was a jumble of flopped over, old plants still coughing forth a few peppers here and there. Peeking out between the overlapping leaves of the double row of pepper plants was a row of golden beets, planted in spring before the peppers went into the ground.
We cleared the beds by digging around at the base of each plant with a hori-hori knife, a most useful tool that results from the mating of a trowel with a garden knife. With roots cut, the plant is yanked out of the soil and tossed into the garden cart for composting. The comes the finer work. Starting at one end of the bed, we pull each and every weed, roots and all, and pick up every leaf.
What’s left, then, is a smooth expanse of ground, 3 feet wide by 10 or 20 feet long, in the case of my garden beds. The pepper bed is not yet a smooth expanse. Up its center runs that row of golden orbs, each with a dark green, leafy topknot; the spring-planted beets are quite cold-hardy and can remain in place longer.
The thorough cleanup is for more than just aesthetics. Some pests overwinter in old plant debris. Crop rotation, that is, not planting a crop or its kin where it’s been grown for the past 3 years, is one way to move that particular crop away from next year’s potential source of the pest problem (for immobile pests). Thorough cleanup is another way. I opt for both ways.
Cleaning up my bed of crocosmia, a plant with sword-like leaves though which rises an arching stalk of traffic-stopping, orange-red flowers, is for tidiness and for more flowers. Crocosmia was once deemed not hardy here; it was a “summer bulb” planted in spring, flowering in late summer, then dug up a stored until the following spring.
I stopped digging it up each autumn years ago, and these days the plant flowers profusely as early as July. Global warming.
I’ve been digging up crocosmia this week because it grows — and multiplies — too well. The bulbs (actually “corms,” which are underground, thickened stems) have crowded so much that the plants are taking over a corner of the garden. Flowering has suffered. The plants grow mostly leaves.
So I’m digging up every crocosmia corm I can find for replanting somewhere new. I am sure I’ll have missed enough corms so that crocosmia will also appear again in its present location.
The garden looks neater every day. Quoting and agreeing with Charles Dudley Warner, writing in 1898 in My Summer in a Garden, “The closing scenes are not necessarily funereal. A garden should be got ready for winter as well as for summer. When one goes into winter-quarters he wants everything neat and trim . . . so that its last days shall not present a scene of  melancholy ruin and decay.”