Start with the Soil
Good soil is the foundation of any garden. It might not be as "sexy" as some parts of gardening; but if you don't get the soil right: plants don't grow well, and structures you build don't sit firm in the ground.
There are two ways you can get good soil: one is to improve your existing soil (which can be a slow process); the other is to buy in good soil.
What is Soil?
Basically, besides gas pockets, soil has three ingredients:
- Small particles of rock (sand, clay, silt)
- Organic material (rotting leaves, pieces of bark, etc)
- Micro-organisms (worms, fungi, small insects, etc)
The ideal soil contains a mixture of rock particles, plenty of organic matter and a healthy population of micro-organisms. However, not all soils contain all these components. When this happens you need to add the missing ingredients.
When to buy in soil?
- Where rock is close to or coming through the surface.
- Where real estate developers have removed the natural topsoil leaving poor quality subsoil exposed.
- Where the soil is too sandy to hold water and nutrients.
- Where the soil is too rocky or clayey for water, nutrients, or even roots to penetrate.
- When you are laying a lawn.
- When you are building raised beds.
- When you are doing a cut and fill.
- If you need to establish a quality garden fast, buy in good quality soil rather than persevering with poor soil.
It can be expensive to buy in top quality soil. Another problem may be availability – the type of bulk soil available in a locality will be restricted by what exists naturally in the region. Sometimes the type of soil you want simply won’t be available in your area.
Don’t let this put you off buying soil. You may have to compromise and buy whatever is available and then improve it yourself. Adding organic matter will make a big difference to lesser quality soil – just make sure it’s well mixed in and that you add the right amount (too much and the soil will be ‘fluffy’ and won’t retain water; too little and you won’t be improving it). Also be aware that not all organic matter is suitable – mixing fresh sawdust into the soil, for example, will temporarily reduce the amount of nitrogen available to plants. Aged or composted sawdust will not cause this problem.
How Much Soil Do You Need?
The amount of soil you need depends on the area you are covering and the type of plants you want to grow.
For a lawn, you need around 20 cm depth of top soil; shrubs and trees need more - around 60cm depth will work for most species.
If you have a garden that requires you to buy in soil, you can save money by choosing to use plants that have shallower root systems – such as palms.
What is Clay Soil?
Clay soil has very small particles. It contains some plant nutrients, but is both hard to get wet and does not dry out easily once it gets waterlogged. It can be difficult for some plants to get their roots into clay soil.
What is Sandy Soil?
Sandy soil has comparatively large particles. It drains easily, but contains few nutrients and is hard to keep wet.
What is Loamy Soil?
With a high level of organic matter, loam soil contains high levels of nutrients. It is ideal for growing most plants and provides plenty of food for micro-organisms.
What is Topsoil?
Soil is made up of layers – the upper layer is called topsoil; all layers below this are called the subsoil. The topsoil is the zone where plant roots grow; hence its properties are extremely important for plant growth.
For good plant health, the topsoil needs to have good structure and fertility. It should contain organic matter (humus), organisms (earthworms and micro-organisms), oxygen, water and minerals.
What Type of Soil do you Need?
You need to match your soil needs with the type of plants you are growing; and to some extent, the amount of care and attention you can give the garden.
Lawns undoubtedly grow best in a sandy topsoil, this type of soil dries out fast and looses nutrients by leaching. If you’re not going to attend to watering and fertilizing, you are better growing a second rate lawn on a soil containing more clay and organic matter. Perhaps buy an organic loam, and mix it with your natural soil below.
Vegetable and flower gardens are different. If your natural soil is clayey, buy in enough sandy soil to cover 5 to 10 cm; and enough compost or organic soil to cover another 5-10cm. Mix this together and with the top few centimetres of the clay soil below.
If your natural soil is very sandy: buy enough organic soil or compost to cover 5-15 cm and mix with the top 5cm of the sandy loam.
Many garden centres make up their own soil mix for use in your garden. This means they can ensure the quality of the soil and add beneficial ingredients that do not occur naturally in the soil. Some garden centres even make more than one soil blend, eg. a sandy loam for turf areas and a heavier soil for garden beds.
Soil blends will usually mix sand and composted wood chips with soil from the quarry. Additional ingredients will vary between different garden centres: gypsum to help break down clay, water crystals to improve the water holding capacity and animal manures for extra nutrients.
Ask your local garden supplier what they have included in their soil blend.
How Clean is the Soil?
Some soils carry weed seeds, or worse still: disease or pest organisms.
If you buy from a reputable company (eg. A member of the Nursery Industry Association; supplies soils that meet Standards Association standards); these problems are unlikely. If the mix is a potting mix that does not contain soil (eg. A mix of composted bark and sand) it will be free of such problems. Cheap soils from soil yards that look dirty are always suspicious.
It’s always good to inspect what you buy before buying.
Pick up a handful of soil and look at it. Weed seeds can often be seen if they are a problem. If the soil is “soggy” and has a stagnant smell; the likelihood of disease will be higher.
Look for Even Texture
Any good soil will have an even texture throughout (ie. It does not contain lumps).
Smell Before Buying
Many soil mixes contain composted material, or manure.
If these materials are too fresh (ie. Have not been fully composted); they will have a strong smell, and be more likely to burn the roots of tender plants.
How to Use Soil
Problem: When you lay good soil over the top of bad soil, you will have a zone between the two where conditions change dramatically. For example, water moves through the good soil fast, then slows or stops when it hits the underlying ground. It then builds up, and creates a waterlogged zone.
Solution: Lay 25% of the bought soil over the surface and dig it in. Then lay the remainder on top. This creates a transition zone.
Why does Soil Cost so Much?
A major part of the cost of the soil is the cost of moving it from the quarry or soil pit, to the garden centre or soil yard. Costs are usually based on the distance it is carried…so soil brought in from further away can cost a great deal more; even if it is not as good as soil brought in from nearby.
The best soils are usually processed (eg. screened, composted, mixed, etc). They may even have fertilizer or other things added to improve them. All of these things cost time and money
THE ACS TEAM APPROACH
ACS was founded by John Mason in 1979 as Australian Horticultural Correspondence School.
Right from these very early times, we've always believed that the best education only comes when the student is learning from the experience of a whole range of industry experts (rather than just a single teacher).
Every ACS course is a work in progress, continually evolving, with new information being added and old information being updated by our team of internationally renowned professional horticulturists.
Over the decades more than 100 horticulture experts from across the world have contributed to these courses, bringing their individual knowledge and experiences from as wide afield as England and Spain to Australia and America.
While may colleges and universities focus on providing courses that relate only to the country where they are based, ACS has always strived to make it's courses relevant to all parts of the world; any climate, economic or cultural situation. This has been achieved by involving a large number of professionals in the course development.
When it comes to tutoring, marking papers and mentoring students, the team approach is just as strong as with our writing. ACS students have the ability to obtain advice and support from staff across the world, with horticulture tutors located in the UK, Australia (both the north and south) and New Zealand.
The ACS team approach and global focus to both course content and student support, ensures our graduates have a unique and "real world" skills set. This unique approach is highly regarded by our colleagues in horticulture.
Contributors to ACS Courses over the years have included:
John Mason -is a founding board member of the Australian Garden Council, a former parks director (Melton, Essendon and Heidelberg), Landscape Designer (Playgrounds and recreation Association of Victoria), Nurseryman, President Australian Institute of Horticulture (Victoria), Committee International Year of the Child (Australia), Author over over 150 books, Editor Home Grown Magazine, Editor Garden Guide Magazine, Editor Your Backyard Magazine.
Maggi Brown - Education officer, Henry Doubleday Research Association (UK), gold medal winner Chelsea Flower Show, Garden consultant.
Adriana Fraser - Horticultural Consultant, TAFE Lecturer, Project Manager - Parks and Gardens, Horticultural writer.
Iain Harrison -Garden Manager Fibremakers, Garden Consultant, Lecturer Swinburn TAFE
Katie Freeth - Manager Commonwealth War Graves (France), Horticultural Consultant (France & UK), Board member Institute of Horticulture, and International Federation Parks & Recreation Administration
Tony Bundock -Horticulture Businessman, Consultant, Head of Horticulture Dept. TAFE
Jim Davis -Horticulture Businessman, Lecturer TAFE (NSW), Principal VCAH Burnley College
Dr Lyn Morgan -author and internationally renowned hydroponics consultant (New Zealand)
Dr Valeria Astorga -horticultural consultant, lecturer (Spain, Peru, Australia)
Alison Bundock -Editor (Kangaroo Press; Southern Cross University), Technical Writer (APM), Consultant
Rosemary Davies -Horticultural concultant, journalist, media personality (Victoria)
Becoming a Garden Designer
This course is an excellent place to start. It gives you a foundation. Through these studies you will understand and practice the process of garden design, expand your awareness, and develop a realistic understanding of your own potential . Some people go on from these studies to establish a very successful practice as a garden designer, others find employment with a landscaper, nurseryman or garden manager, where they are able to continue developing their skills and knowledge of garden design to a higher level.
If you have an interest and passion for gardens, this course can be an excellent entry point for you into the landscape industry.
WILL THIS COURSE GET ME WORK?
The vast majority of garden design graduates will run their own business – but some do work for other designers, landscapers, landscape architects or work in retail nurseries as advisors.
To answer the above question though – no a course will not guarantee you work. There are many things that will contribute to that:
Finding the right course: to be a really good garden designer you need to develop a range of skills, all too many courses in garden design focus on design alone and the student never really learns about plant knowledge and landscape construction skills – these aspects are as important to functional garden design as is drawing up a design. Dreaming up pretty gardens is one thing but making sure that they have the right drainage system, that the retaining walls are structurally sound, that paving is laid correctly (even if you are sub-contracting this work), that the plant choices suit the local environment, that the soils suit the plants you choose and so on are all crucial to a design being dysfunctional, barely functional, functional or great!
Be a great communicator: no matter what industry you work in you need great communication skills and garden design is no exception. It is easy for a designer to be carried away with their brilliance and become uncompromising. Remember that the client is paying for your work. If you are not flexible you won’t get further recommendations. On the other hand you need to develop communication skills and communicating includes listening. One of the most important aspects of a garden design process is listening to a client’s needs and wants. If you know that their ‘wants’ will not work, given the nature of their garden, then you need to be able to gently lead your clients to your points of view. You need to be confident in your approach and know that your suggestions are based on sound knowledge and theirs may not work given the nature of their garden. The only way you can get this confidence is through knowledge and experience.
Be proficient in the use of technology: almost all clients will expect you to be able to use computer skills to produce designs. If you like to produce hand drawn plans this is also completely acceptable but they must be drawn to scale and be professional in appearance. You should be able to generate contracts, emails and letters that are also equally professional and well-written.
Be well presented: this is as important as great communication skills – when you face clients or are looking for work in this industry your appearance i.e. dress and grooming will be the first thing that you communicate to the person you are facing. A well-groomed person will always instill more confidence than a scruffy one!