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Moist, Well-Drained Soil

Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 6 July 2001. Note in brackets was not in paper.

When I’m attracted to a new plant, I want to know “Can it survive with just rain, or do I have to water it?" I consult my plant encyclopedia, but all too often it simply says to provide “moist, well-drained soil.”

I used to think this was a myth. How can soil be both moist and well-drained? The soil in my yard started out mostly sand, so I’ve got the drainage part okay, but after twenty years of adding compost — the way to improve water retention in sandy soils — it still isn’t what I’d call moist.

Then I discovered the compost made by Mass Natural Fertilizer, in Westminster (978/ 874-0744). They combine agricultural wastes like cranberries that didn’t get retailed, apple mash from cider, fish wastes from fish hatcheries, pulped wood that never got made into paper — materials that are not organic, but have no chemicals added after harvesting.

This compost is extremely fine-particled, due I imagine to mechanical pulverizing and mixing of ingredients. This results in a heaviness much like clay’s: it forms hard lumps when dry, and makes puddles on the surface in rain. But it is also extremely moisture-retentive (as well as rich in humus, which nourishes the soil’s ecology).

I’ve grown increasingly fond of that mositure-retentiveness. I use the stuff along with my own compost, which has a better crumb texture, and loosens up the Mass Natural, providing drainage and the aeration also needed by soil microorganisms. But I wouldn’t be without the Mass Natural either, now that I’ve seen how my plants love it. (To be fair, I should admit I’ve tried other commercial composts, but can’t really compare them to this product, because they’re so much more expensive to buy by the bag. I get Mass Natural by the truckload, and so have much more experience with it.)

With the combination of my own compost, the Mass Natural, and the sand that was here to begin with, I have the closest I think it’s possible to come to that ideal, “moist, well-drained soil” without watering (a bother I avoid.)

However, I still think that when a book says a plant wants “moist, well-drained soil” it’s a cop-out. I want books that will admit when a plant will tolerate less than ideal conditions, and warn me when they’re finicky.

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[There's more information on Mass Natural in my page on humus.]

© Copyright 2001 Catherine Holmes Clark