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Gardening terminology explained

When I first started gardening in earnest, I took it for granted that I knew the exact meanings of the words gardeners use. Now I wish I had taken the time to understand the lingo. It would have made some things easier and maybe saved me some time and money. For example, soil, compost and humus…..I just assumed they were all pretty much the same substance, but as it turns out, they aren’t.

Soil; is that brown stuff we sometimes call dirt. It turns into mud in the winter and can become hard and unyielding in the summer. Soil ranges from peat to sand to silt to clay. A loamy soil is considered to be the best type of soil. You can have a sandy loam or a clay loam.

Clay soils; are heavy, sticky and difficult to work. They are nutrient rich but become water-logged in the winter. Often too cold for early spring crops, they need liberal applications of humus, benefit from sand or grit and annual applications of lime.

Sandy soils; lose their moisture rapidly which is a pain when there is a drought but they warm up early making them suitable for spring crops. They benefit from an application of humus to make them retain moisture more readily and to increase fertility.

Peat soils; are composed of the dead and decaying roots, stems and leaves of plants. This makes the soil very sour and unsuitable for production without draining and adding old soil and lime.

Volcanic soils; can be compared to sandy soils, and are composed mainly of scoria in varying degrees of composition. These soils can be very fertile particularly with the addition of humus.?

Loam; is a free working soil with a good component of humus. This makes the ideal soil; free-working, well-drained but also able to hold moisture and nutrient dense.

Top-soil; refers to the layer of soil in which most plant life grows, certainly our veges, herbs and perennials. It varies in depth from between 6 to 12 inches depending on the soil type. This is where the beneficial bacteria live and work.

Sub-soil; is the soil directly below the top-soil. In it are contained much of the mineral forms of plant food and less of the organic forms (bacteria can’t live and work without air). It retains moisture and holds elemental forms of plant nutrition. When the moisture rises it brings with it minerals to the topsoil. The uppermost surface of sub-soil gradually changes into top-soil.

Soil pH; measures how acidic or how alkaline your soil is. It’s measured on a scale ranging from 1 to 14 (7 being neutral). Acidic soil measures below 7 and alkaline measures above 7. It is helpful to know the pH of your soil as different plants prefer a different pH level. Camellias, azaleas and rhododendrons all prefer an acidic soil. Lime ?brings the soil into a more alkaline state.?

Humus; is obtained from decayed vegetable and other organic material of a fibrous nature, which becomes incorporated in and part of good garden soil. It can be made from rotted animal manure or decomposing vegetable matter from green crops, weeds or other plant growth dug into the soil. Soils which lack humus are unproductive because they contain no helpful bacteria (which aid in the releasing of plant foods to the roots). Humus acts like a sponge in the soil, increasing water retention.

Compost; is the decomposing remains of plants and is humus rich and full of bacteria though low in nutrients.

Nutrients; these are the 13 essential minerals and trace elements in the soil that all plants need to grow; nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulphur, iron, manganese, boron, zinc, copper, molybdenum and chlorine.

Liquid fertilizer; is fertilizer made by adding water to an organic material and letting it sit and ferment for a specified time. It is then diluted and applied usually as a foliar feed. Sometimes also called ‘tea’ and can be made from comfrey, seaweed, clivers or fish scraps.?

Green manure; is a fast growing leafy crop sown solely to add nitrogen to the soil. It is cut down and dug into the soil before it flowers and before the stalks have become woody. Most commonly used are blue lupins, oats, mustard and red clover. The dug in material takes about 6 weeks to decompose, assisted by the addition of lime.

Animal manure; should be well-rotted before added to the garden. Most commonly used is chicken, cow, horse or sheep poo.

Lime; the fertility of the soil depends largely on the amount of lime it contains. Lime sets free other plant foods such as potash and corrects acidity, ‘sweetening’ the soil and the compost heap. Autumn is the traditional time to be adding lime and it is desirable to apply fertilizer some months afterwards.

Mulch; is anything that you lay over the soil, to prevent weed growth. You can use straw, leaf litter, grass clippings, bark, pebbles, cardboard or newspaper. Mulching also helps keep water in the soil and the roots of plants cool in the summer.

Raised beds; drain freely and absorb the sun’s heat more than flat beds. They are sometimes necessary when you are gardening in heavy clay soil. They can be simply built up earth or they can be framed with untreated timber or other non-toxic materials.

Earthing up; is building up the soil around a plant to increase yield. Potatoes and leeks both benefit from this.

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