Soil Foundation For House Plants
( Originally Published 1923 )
Good soil is an absolute necessity to success with plants and there is only one way to get it —by mixing. A workable soil may be made from loam, sand, and manure, but it will be much better if it has an addition of leafmould, peat, or well-weathered muck.
When it is impracticable to make a compost heap, any good garden loam may be used and it is not absolutely necessary to prepare it any length of time beforehand.
PASTURE LOAM FOR COMPOST
The best loam to use in a potting soil is well decayed sod taken from a pasture. The best time to secure it is in the fall after the grass has been killed by hard frosts; it can, however, be secured in the spring before the grass starts to grow. Cut the sod three or four inches deep and place it in a pile, the grass side down. For convenience make the pile about four feet wide and high, and as long as necessary, and have the top hollowed out a little so that it will catch the rains and so keep the pile moist. Many people when making up the sod pile compost manure with it. If you prefer to do it this way add one part fresh cow manure to each three parts of sod, if done in the fall.
When the compost is made in the spring the manure must be well-rotted, and horse manure is preferable to cow manure.
The compost pile must be thoroughly mixed two or three times by chopping it down with a spade and throwing it up into a new pile.
A spring-made compost heap will be ready to use in the fall, but the soil is apt to be rather coarse. The fall-made compost is sure to give much better satisfaction.
In my practice I have always found well-decayed horse manure better than cowmanure; the latter can be used, however, but it tends to make the soil cold and clammy. Well-decayed horse manure may usually be purchased in the suburbs and smaller towns from the livery or other stables. If you cannot purchase rotted horse manure and you have a convenient place in any out-of-the-way corner in the backyard where fresh droppings can be stored, well and good. They will require several months to rot properly. Protect it from the rain and turn it over frequently to prevent burning. If the manure gets too dry sprinkle it with water when turning.
Sheep, hen, pigeon, and other manures may be used in mixing potting soils, but very sparingly, for they are so strong that if a large amount is used the roots of the plants will be burned.
LEAFMOULD, PEAT, AND MUCK
Added to the potting soil, either leafmould, peat or muck makes it much more friable, increases its water-holding capacity, eases the circulation of the air through it, and induces a better growth of roots. In no case is there actual fertilizing value. In raising from seed such plants as cyclamens, cinerarias, Chinese primroses and begonias, leafmould is a necessity. Where manure is not obtainable one of these three forms of vegetable mould must be used to supply the necessary humus; the plant food can then be added in the form of a complete fertilizer which may be bought from any seedsman.
Peat is very scarce in this country, and so is quite expensive; but it can be bought from nearly all the dealers in seeds or bulbs.
Leafmould and muck are much easier to obtain, and usually cost nothing outside of the labour necessary to collect them. When the foliage is falling, late in September or in October, is the best time to lay in a stock of next year's leafmould.
If there is no hardwood timber land nearby, where you can get clean leaves, then rake up the leaves which have fallen in the street. Maple leaves are best, but those of the elm and oak will do. Some-times an arrangement can be made with the city employees to dump in the back yard all the leaves they gather in cleaning the streets. In this way, and at no cost, an abundant supply of leafmould can be had in suburban districts.
In the winter the leaves may be used for banking coldframes and pits, to keep out the frost, or for mulching the bulb beds. In the spring, when the pits are empty, throw all the leaves into a pit, wet them thoroughly, and allow them to rot. By fall they are in good condition to use. If this way of rotting them is followed, you will probably need to wet them several times during the summer. Another good way to handle the leaves is to dig as large a hole in the ground as you can fill with leaves. Pack in the leaves as tightly as possible, wetting them as they are being thrown in. A good time to do this is on a rainy day, for then it saves the necessity of handling water. If you have a hose' you can do the work at any time.
If neither of these ways can be followed the leaves may be put in a heap on the ground, thoroughly moistened, and tramped down. When treated thus, it will be necessary to water them oftener, because the pile presents more surface frOm which the moisture can evaporate. Turn the heap of leaves occasionally, and in two years the leaf-mould will be in usable condition.
Never bury leaves in your garden where you intend to grow plants next year. The heat caused by the fermentation will injure the roots of the growing plants.
VALUE OF MUCK
Muck from either a fresh water or salt water marsh is equally good as leafmould, but it must be dug at least one winter before using. After digging, place it on the upland, away from the tides and floods, in triangular-shaped piles about three feet wide, three feet high, and as long as necessary. By putting it in such small piles the frost and air have a much better chance to work through it than if it is in larger piles. Under ordinary circumstances, exposure to the weather for one winter will sweeten it. But if not, add a little lime; this will quickly neutralize any acidity.
One of the most important things to provide for in a soil is drainage. This is best secured by adding sand. Use a clean, sharp sand such as a mason would use for making mortar. If you cannot secure this from a nearby sand bank, you can buy bird sand, if only small quantities are needed, from the grocer. It comes put up in small packages. If sand from the seashore is used, get it from the shore side of the sand hills, and wash it thoroughly before using in order to remove any salt. Although I have never done it myself, I have seen coal ashes successfully used as a substitute for sand. They were, of course, screened to remove the coarse matter. On heavy soils coal ashes sometimes are a positive detriment, however, by making the clay into a sort of cement. Where better drainage is wanted than can be given by simply adding sand, add charcoal. If the plants are to stay for a year or so in single pots without repotting (as is the case with palms), the charcoal is a distinct advantage, not only because of the better drain-age it affords, but also because it prevents the soil from souring. Charcoal is cheap, and a little of it goes a long way.
It is very important to have on hand at all times the ingredients necessary to make up a good potting soil, so in an out-building away from the weather, or in the cellar, have bins in which a six months' (if not a year's) supply, of the articles just mentioned may be stored. You will find this a very decided advantage, especially in the winter when the ground is frozen. Even the manure may be stored in the cellar, if it is well decayed, without the least inconvenience.
No hard and fast rule can be laid down for the amounts of the different ingredients of a potting soil. They will vary with the character of the soil in your locality. I have found that a soil composed of equal parts of rotted sod, manure, leafmould, and sand will give excellent results with plants ordinarily grown in the house. If the rotted sod has been composted then it will be necessary to add only sand and leafmould.
Mix the soil thoroughly before planting. The best way to do this is to get the component parts together in layers, and then throwing the mass over to making a new pile. Always shovel from the bottom of the pile, and always throw the added mat-ter on the apex of the new pile so that the soil can roll down the sides. If this is done, and the pile turned three or four times, the soil will be thoroughly mixed.
Before mixing the soil determine whether it is sufficiently moist. This may be told by taking a handful of the soil and pressing it firmly in the hand. If water can be squeezed out the soil is too damp, and ought not to be worked over until enough dry soil has been added to take up the surplus moisture.
If, after having been pressed in the hand, the soil remains together, but will break upon being lightly touched, it contains the proper amount of moisture. If it will not remain in a lump but breaks up immediately the pressure is released, it needs more water. Add it by means of a watering pot; the amount necessary can be judged better from experience than by any rules which may be laid down.