The lowdown on loam

October 9, 2015

Garden soil can have a texture that is somewhat sandy or basically like clay, or it can be ideal: a fertile, well-drained combination of sand, clay, and silt known as loam.  Read on to learn more about the importance of loam in your garden.

The lowdown on loam

1. The basics

Sandy soil is made up of large mineral particles.

  • The loose, crumbly texture of sandy soil is easy to dig, so it drains quickly, discouraging fungal root rot, but plant nutrients are quickly leached from the soil with each rain. Whereas clay particles are much smaller, giving the soil a heavier, water-holding texture.
  • Clay soil retains nutrients, but drains poorly and is hard to till. Either type of soil can be transformed into fertile loam with generous additions of organic matter.
  • Compost is the finest form of organic matter to work into soil to improve its texture and fertility, but any material derived from decomposed plants, such as rotted hay, grass clippings, shredded leaves, peat moss, or rotted sawdust, will improve soil by boosting its organic content.

Because the transformation from less-than-perfect soil to fertile loam involves billions of microscopic soil-borne life forms, which slowly break down organic material into water-soluble nutrients that plants can absorb through their roots, this process takes time. You can make improvements in your soil by digging in a 10-centimetre-thick (four-inch-thick) layer of compost, but it's better to allow two years for this to take place.

  • Before starting a new bed, dig and amend your soil. The first season, plant it with annuals, which will be pulled up at the end of the season.
  • Dig it again in fall, incorporating more organic matter, and by the second spring you will have soil that is the envy of gardeners everywhere.

2. Plants for good soil

For most plants a garden that offers rich, loamy soil and full sun is the best of all possible worlds. Nearly everything you plant will thrive in this situation with little additional care, but to capitalize on the situation, consider growing care-free plants that have multiple endearing traits.

  • For example, lavender and dianthus boast beautiful flowers and intoxicating fragrance. And their grey-green foliage lets them and other silver-leaved plants, such as artemisia and dusty miller, combine well with any other plants.
  • Silver-leaved plants can be paired with bright blooming perennials and shrubs, employed as a sunny sidewalk, or cut and woven into indoor container bouquets.
  • Snapdragons, hollyhocks, larkspur, fragrant sweet peas, and other upright-growing flowering plants bring excitement to the garden with their vertical shapes and are best used to create a colourful backdrop for small bulbs or any shorter, dainty plants.
  • If red is your passion, you can indulge in Oriental lilies, red-leaved Japanese maples, or all types of roses.
  • If you want a green, velveteen lawn to showcase your collection of garden plants, this sunny situation will support your ambitions there, too.

3. Knitting the garden together

  1. Unplanted earth is an invitation to weeds, so pay close attention to spacing plants in the garden.
  2. Space large plants by one and a half times their mature width.
  3. Fill the gaps between young upright plants with smaller, spreading companions like hardy geraniums or creeping veronica.
  4. In spring, the spaces between late-blooming perennials, such as coreopsis and rudbeckia, can be filled with earlyflowering bulbs like snowdrops and daffodils.
  5. At the front of the bed, use low, spreading annuals like ageratum or bugleweed to visually tie clumps of plants together and shade out weeds. As the big plants mature and spread, you can easily dig up the filler plants and move them to a sunnier home.
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