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Garden manager Sarchen Bassingthwaighte manages this Constantia garden with natural gardening methods. Picture: Ian Landsberg

Healthy soil seems to be the rallying cry for creating a healthy garden and increasingly we’re being helped by people like Sarchen Bassingthwaighte, pictured, to build our depleted soils by going back to the basics and feeding soil with what it needs.

“A friend said to me you should be able to garden with your hands,” says Bassingthwaighte, who has years of experience in landscaping and managing gardens.

Try that in soil that has no micro-organisms and is toxic from years of being fed fertilisers and herbicide residues. Dead soil has no form, no life and becomes compacted.

After years spent landscaping gardens only to see them fail to thrive when she left, she went into managing gardens.

“And I discovered that what we are taught is wrong. The gardening products in nurseries are not balanced and lead to a toxic build-up in the soil,” she says.

Plants don’t thrive in depleted soil and a weak plant is susceptible to pests, and dies. Bassingthwaighte started researching what does work and developed her natural gardening principles model.

One of the gardens Bassingthwaighte manages in Constantia is Skylands, home of Scott and Sue Low. It’s an old, established garden. When she took over its care two years ago, many of the plants had yellowing leaves and the soil needed some serious work.

She points to a bed where she is building the soil. “Because it is clay, we worked in compost, prepared it with micro-organisms and planted it up. It takes time, at least three to six years, to get soil healthy again, but already these plants are performing well. If I’m starting a bed from scratch, I’ll put a mulch layer down and then plant, pushing the mulch aside.”

The bed is covered with a mauve alyssum, bright blue forget-me-nots, the delicate Geranium incanum, daisy bushes and a crimson dianthus.

The roses are in strong bloom for this time of the year in the area where she has built the soil; a melianthus with its large soft leaves makes a wonderful contrast to the pink roses.

Purple iris make a nice splash of colour against the high hedges.

The Lows’ garden has many “rooms” to it, some formal, others less so. Each has its own microclimate but essentially the treatment is simple and remains the same.

Bassingthwaighte’s gardening model is based on four questions relating to the four elements: earth, fire, water, air. What is the quality of the soil? How much organic content does it have? Is there too much or too little sun? Is it watered correctly? Is the water of good quality? What is the air like – humid, smoggy, dry?

An avenue of lemon trees is striking with its zigzag hedging, but the trees have sooty mould growing on them. This is a classic example of a difficult environment for the plant type, it’s too damp.

“We spray a lot,” she says. I’m taken aback, until she explains that instead of trying to kill the pathogen, she supports the plant with a spray made from flavonoids. This stimulates the plant’s immune system by increasing cell turgidity. “I rely on natural ways to deal with problems,” she says.

“It was through the agricultural sector that I came across natural ways, and started experimenting.”

When she couldn’t find the products she needed, she developed her own.

The flavonoid spray is one, the root-build another, to inoculate the soil with the all-important micro-organisms. One of these is Mycorrhiza, a fungus that cohabits with roots and creates the optimum conditions for root growth and uptake of water and nutrients.

You’ll find thousands of micronutrients in healthy soil, but because most soil is depleted, you have to add them.

Good quality compost is important and Bassingthwaighte uses Reliance. “We’re not making our own compost here, as I find it is often better to buy it. Making balanced compost is a science.”

Depleted soils also need trace elements, and she’s found a source of these for another product she has developed.

It’s a challenge working in an established suburban garden, especially a large one with roses, hedges and and flowers with high nutritional needs. Here aesthetics are important and people often want it to look manicured.

The natural approach doesn’t over-feed or over-water; a plant that grows too quickly is weak and susceptible to the elements and pests. “Meeting the needs of heavy feeders requires a lot of mulch, and we use leaf mould.

“But don’t just use any material for mulch,” she advises. “If it’s good quality, such as hedge or shrub cuttings mixed with leaves, it will not only protect the soil but also feed it, as it is high in nutrients.”

There’s also a lot of lawn, another challenge for the natural approach. “I apply my four elements approach; I’ve allowed grass clippings to stay after cutting, and I’m watching the watering. Clover is often removed, yet I’ve discovered it’s a nitrogen fixer, so I’m leaving it.”

Bassingthwaighte loves what she’s doing. Working with nature rather than against it is soulful. “If you’re connecting with nature, you’re happy,” she says.

l Bassingthwaighte has video tutorials online. Go to www.naturalgardeningprinciples.co.za

Laying the groundwork:

l No tilling – soil is a living organism and digging it up destroys its structure and the fine balance of micro-organisms, especially the all- important Mycorrhiza.

l Do not use fertilisers, herbicides or pesticides – these just kill all the living micro-organisms and, in any case, build toxic residues in the soil so you end up with sterile soil.

l Use good quality compost – you can make your own, but it may be better to get a well-balanced compost from a reliable source who tests their compost.

l Feed the soil what it needs to produce healthy plants. Trace minerals and micronutrients in a balanced composition can be added as most of our urban gardens have depleted soils.

l Mulch, mulch, mulch – but use hedge clippings and other energy-rich cuttings rather than straw or bark. As it decomposes, nutrients are added to the soil and ensure healthy and sustainable microbial life in the soil. - Cape Argus

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