Jennifer StackhouseRare earth

Now I’ve being reading about rare earths. In the financial pages they are metals found deep in the earth that are used in our modern technical world to help manufacture smart phones, hybrid cars and even wind turbines and lasers.

They are some of those unpronounceable minerals listed well down on the periodic table.

To gardeners though rare earths are the stuff of dreams: that wonderful deep loam that almost purrs as you sink in the spade. It is the type of soil that allows water to soak in but not too fast and has a deep earthy colour and smell. Everything you plant leaps into growth.

But that kind of soil is hard to find in the average garden. Most of us deal with common earth. It’s either too sandy or too clayey – or too something else. Some garden soils are water repellent and others impossible to dig.

We had dreadful soil when we first moved to our garden at Kurrajong. To plant a much-needed wind and privacy screen between us and the road, we reached not for the spade but, for an auger to make the holes. Luckily we were only planting tube stock.

To make the garden proper we set out raised beds, which we filled with a good quality organic garden mix. However that’s an expensive option – even using recycled stone and the sleepers we had to hand to build the beds.

In other areas we simply cleared weeds and put down sugar cane mulch. The earthworms did the rest turning our awful shale into reasonable soil. We still had to remove lots of stones, but at least we could dig a hole to plant. Soon we had roses and perennials and shrubs and trees growing along with a thriving vegie patch with fruit trees around the chook shed.

Of course, once we’d been in the garden for a while, we also had plenty of compost and the litter from the chook shed to add to the soil. With the addition of this garden gold, the garden soil became more forgiving and plants started to grow.

There are 17 rare earth minerals – none of which are of much value to plants – but for gardeners keen to create a better garden soil, it isn’t just the mineral content of the soil that’s important.

What helps make our soils a better place to grow plants are the millions, if not billions of organisms, most of which are too small to be seen. Soils are home to minute insects, animals, bacteria and fungi. These micro-organisms as they are known, help plants to grow and soils to stay healthy.

As well as the earthworms that helped turn my Kurrajong shale into a good garden soil, lots of other things were at work, taking the organic matter we added and using it to enrich our soil. Not only did the soil become more friable, it had that balance between good aeration and water holding capacity that made it a great place for plant roots to grow.

So my tip to turn your garden soil into your own rare earth, is to always care for the soil micro-organisms and let them to their best to turn dirt into loam.

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Jennifer Stackhouse

About Jennifer Stackhouse

Recently Jennifer Stackhouse made the big move from Kurmond in NSW to a Federation house in the little village of Barrington tucked beneath Mt Roland in northwest Tasmania. With high rainfall, rich, red deep soil and a mild climate she reckons she's won the gardening lottery. She's taken on an acre garden that's been lovingly planted and tended for the past 28 years by a pair of keen gardeners so she is discovering a garden full of horticultural treasures. Jennifer is the author of several gardening books including 'Garden', which won a Book Laurel for 2013, as well as ‘The Organic Guide to Edible Gardens’, ‘Planting Techniques’ and ‘My Gardening Year’, which she wrote with her mother Shirley. She was editor of ABC 'Gardening Australia' magazine and now edits the trade journal 'Greenworld' magazine and writes regularly for the Saturday magazine in 'The Mercury'. She is often heard on radio and at garden shows answering garden queries.

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