Sand, Loam or Clay?

I have been interested in gardening all of my life but my interest in growing herbs began when my husband and I moved into our 1st country home over 25 years ago. For me, it was a return to the country lifestyle with a big difference. This time, I could plant the yard the way I wanted to and did not have to follow the directions of my parents. I experimented with several types of flowers, vegetables and herbs. My journey really began in earnest, however, when we built our current home in rural Bluffs. This move gave me the opportunity to landscape and plant all of the beds from scratch. No beds that were the previous dream of any landlord or former owner. Just a blank canvas to fill in with whatever plants I chose. Or so I thought…

Even though I had some experience with different soil types growing up in the Illinois River bottoms, (gumbo, sand, loam) I quickly discovered the difference heavy clay soil can make. For those of you who have never gardened in clay, it can be quite a challenge to say the least. And our new home was built right in the middle of the stuff. I ordered several gardens of beautiful flowers from garden catalogs paying close attention to the sun, soil and temperature requirements. Once they arrived, I carefully planted and nurtured them waiting patiently for the blooms to appear that were shown in the catalogs. Some of them lived up to my expectations, but a lot of them did not even make it through the first season. It seems the clay soil claimed them as its own usually as a result of what is commonly called ‘wet feet’. ‘Wet feet’ refers to roots of the plants becoming too wet in the compact clay–as it has a difficult time drying out. Many plants require better air circulation around the roots too. The end result is dead plants. To make matters worse, our yard (like other yards) has different ecosystems in different locations. As a result, if I found a plant that could tolerate (and even thrive) in the conditions present in one area, the same plant may not live in another area of the yard. The growing conditions were different. So they, too, died. Over time, I slowly began to amend the soil with various types of organic matter- especially peat moss and compost- and the growing conditions improved. In addition, I eventually discovered that several types of my beloved herbs actually thrive in heavy soil; Mints, Lemon Balm, Comfrey, and Thyme, just to name a few.

Today, my gardens are alive with over 50 types of herbs, flowers for the butterflies and bees, trees and vegetables. I have discovered the beauty and ease of utilizing raised beds to create better growing conditions and depend upon those plants that do thrive in heavy clay for repeat color in multiple beds. I have learned to respect the clay and have come to realize that it, too, is loaded with nutrients for my plants and herbs. Even though it can be a HUGE challenge in the summer heat (think jack hammer to penetrate it during the drought season : ) and has difficulty draining when the rains return, my gardens are living proof of its usefulness and potential for nurturing beauty. Most important of all, gardening no matter what type of soil one gardens in, is definitely one of life’s greatest pleasures!

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