radium makes things grow


A lot of people are taking a jaundiced look at their lawns these days and seeing there a fantasia of flower and vegetable beds instead. We gardeners are such optimists -- and it's a good thing, too, because ripping off the sod is just part of the job.
The real crunch comes when you deal with the dirt.
You know how it is. That's when you discover the shifting sand pit and the first of many rocks, and the ceramic whatsis and the broken shampoo bottle. But it's only after your shovel shudders against a layer of hardpan that you pause and wonder how you will ever grow the $150 worth of plants assembled at your feet.
Will I ever pick armloads of Baby's Breath? you ask. The divine Gladiolus tristis, with the scent that drives moths wild - - will that ever be mine?
You had hoped to kick back in the shade soon, and dream of luscious flowers and vegetables so fresh they squeak. Now it looks like you'll have to get down and dirty, and amend the soil like that professional said.
So you hie back to the nursery where you're sold packets of peat, decomposed granite, lime, ground wood, perlite and polymers and various shades of fertilizers. And though you don't enjoy lining the pockets of the lawn and gardening industry, whose sales surpassed $37 billion in 2001, you assume, at least, that by amending your soil, you're doing the right thing. Right?
Not necessarily.
A few examples will give you an idea. The use of some organic amendments (like raw wood shavings) will actually rob existing nitrogen from your soil, while others have been fortified chemically to avoid the potential problem. Peat moss as an amendment doesn't make sense in most climates, as it tends to shed water unless kept constantly moist. Cow manure is heavy in salts and who knows what other residues. As for those polymers (polyacrylamides), supposed to absorb and retain several hundred times their weight in water, researchers at the University of California have found that their drought-busting effectiveness is greatly reduced in the presence of fertilizers, and salts and minerals found in many soils and tap water.
They say the polymers are perfectly safe. With a little distance, maybe we'll know. Like the distance we enjoy now from the year 1915, when advertisements in garden magazines were touting their very latest soil fix.
That's right. Radium Brand Fertilizer was said to increase yields, even improve the edible properties of vegetables. Plus, "it has been discovered that where Radium Brand Fertilizer (R.A.F.) was used, plants suffered less from soil parasites, especially cut worms."
The fact is, you've got to wonder about the origin and processing of all commercial amendments. Even today there is evidence of radioactive contamination of fertilizer and compost recycled from sewage sludge, not to mention tainting from dioxin, lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury, asbestos, and most recently, clopyralid, a deadly herbicide. But the most persuasive arguments against all these products is that: one, digging them in is hard on your soil, and two, you don't even need them.

Even ground that seems totally impoverished will usually hold air pockets essential to healthy soil. But the more you dig, the more you destroy your soil's structure. And when air pockets collapse, then drainage becomes a problem. Ever noticed how water collects on the grounds of a construction site? We're talking major compaction here, but you don't need to be a developer to treat your soil like dirt. You can do the same to your soil by walking on it while it's wet, or digging it to hell and gone.
But if it doesn't pay to fight nature, then, how else are you supposed to improve your soil?
You can let nature do it.
You can lay down a thick layer of mulch, as Ruth Stout advises in her classic Gardening without Work. The benefits of mulching are many: the enrichment of top soil, the suppression of weeds, the moderation of soil temperature, the reduced need for watering and fertilizing. Stout advocates a layer of hay eight inches thick to build up your soil fast, but any plant material, in any amount, that covers the soil will help.
Of course you won't turn a bed of hardpan into a bed of roses overnight. But patience is a virtue all gardeners must cultivate (that, plus humility -- and a streak of masochism won't hurt). And nothing prevents you from planting your nursery purchases in the meanwhile. They'll benefit from the mulch right from the start.
Another expedient is to leave left-over roots in your soil. After your bachelor buttons have finished blooming, when your tomato plants are kaput, simply cut off their stems at slightly above soil level. Their roots will continue to provide aeration and drainage, like water spouts passing through the soil, and as they slowly decompose, they'll rebuild the soil's fertility and depth. As a side benefit (remember the Dust Bowl?), the stubble and roots will keep your top soil from being whisked away during irrigation or storms. It's no wonder a group of break-away farmers in Iowa stopped plowing their fields in the early 80's and use this no-till method instead. Come spring, they just slice through the decomposing residue of the previous fall crop and drop in their seeds. They claim they've reduced soil erosion by 70 to 80 percent.
You can improve your soil with green manure, too, to take nitrogen from the air and fix it in your soil. But that doesn't mean you have to plant clover and vetch. All members of the pea family (Leguminosae) have this capacity, so you can take your pick of over 600 genera, including some of the most ornamental plants, trees and shrubs around. Like acacias, cassias, wisterias and lupins. Or you can grow fava beans in the cooler months and build your soil, eat trendy vegetables and improve your sex life all at the same time.*
If none of the above methods appeals to you, you can try the most controversial route to nutrient-rich soil. I call it Weed Power, and you better have sympathetic neighbors. Weeds are widely maligned, of course, except by those who tolerate weeds as part and parcel of the universe. But you don't have to be a romantic to allow weeds in your garden. You just have to be practical.
If the soil beneath your sod is seriously depleted, there's nothing like weeds to improve it. For one thing, they'll probably be the only plants willing to colonize the patch. These pioneers will put down their roots, aerating and stabilizing the soil, so that other, more "civilized" groups of plants can follow. Another admirable trait of weeds is that, with their sturdy and often deep root system, they can penetrate to the subsoil and bring up all those juicy minerals and nutrients your garden-variety plants can't touch. Weeds are a powerful draw to beneficial insects, too. And then some of them taste so fine. Take wild chicory and arugula, for instance. Weeds or gourmet fare? It's just your point of view.

All of the above suggestions, alone or in conjunction with the others, will eventually work wonders, slowly but surely transforming the most barren clay or sandy soil to a state of transcendence, otherwise knows as humus, which is as dark, crumbly and rich as a slice of Devil's Food Cake. This is the real paydirt, alive with the kind of angleworms you used to dig at your Grandpa's, able to absorb and retain water, to support strong, healthy, dreamy plants without the need for pesticides or even fertilizers. This is soil so pure and natural, even a child could eat it.**
But as inviting as the above scenario is, a case can also be made for not improving your soil at all. Of course, your selection of plants will be more limited, so it's not every gardener who's willing to Let It Be.
If you're such a purist, or want to be, take a close look not only at your soil, but also your climate, site and exposition, then plant those species whose origins suggest adaptability to your local habitat. Native plants are an obvious choice, but if you can search them out among the better suppliers, you'll find many highly ornamental plants and herbs from all over the world whose growing conditions so closely resemble yours that they can be plunked in your soil as is.
Marlon Brando, it would appear, is a disciple of the Let It Be school. Yes, Marlon Brando. He's reported to have sponsored a global environmental project with Saudi Arabia whose objective was to develop halophytes, or plants that grow naturally in soil impregnated with salts. Given the precarious state of California's Central Valley soil and other similar spots across the nation, the USDA might be advised to get on the phone with Marlon, too.
Well ok, I hear you say: that's all well and good for shrubs and such. But what if I want to carve out a vegetable plot?
True, a vegetable garden is one place it pays to build soil aggressively. Mulch heavily, leave roots in, grow green manure -- do the works. Still, if you insist, you can leave the soil unimproved in your vegetable garden, too. If your soil's on the poor side, you can always grow lentils, chick peas and pigweed, also known as purslane (Portulaca oleracea, a relative of the familiar moss rose, P. grandiflora) for salads, stir-fries and soups. Or you can introduce your friends and families to thrilling Native American recipes, made with your very own Tarahumara Carpinteros beans, for example, and seasoned with Tohono O'odham shallots. You'll be quite the avant-gardener.

If you haven't gathered by now, none of the above recommendations will lead to conventionally pretty garden beds. It's not for everyone, the pile of leaves strewn on the soil, the dead flower stalks poised to re-seed. I like to call it the Country Look, but some people call it otherwise, at least behind my back. Still, I should think these approaches to soil would appeal to a broad range of gardeners: the over-extended, sloths, those with temporary cash-flow problems, environmentalists, anarchists, even those whose only m.o. is reason and common sense.
Yet there may be a few of you out there who actually want a pretty garden border, featuring all those New and Improved, hybrid flowers and vegetables you see in glossy catalogs. After all, you're only human. You'll probably want to go with a conventionally amended plot, then, because those plants have been bred to excell in artifice, as long as they're coddled and fed industrial doses of chemicals and water. I confess I started out long ago with an amended bed, too. So go ahead. Dig in. Gardening is, above all, a distillation of personal experience and observation. We've all got to learn from our own mistakes.

* Fava beans, also known as broad beans, are reputed as aphrodisiacs. One look at a mature pod in your garden, and you'll see how they got their reputation.
** Note to the litigious: I'm not advocating the act. I'm just saying kids will be kids.


(c) copyright Elizabeth Stromme. All rights reserved.