Fertile Ground

From my cabin outside of Dawson City, nature’s transformative power is visible.

In the tailing piles left behind by dredge mining, tiny plants push through gravel and beside wheels of abandoned mining equipment. Beavers glide though dredge ponds. Old roads crumble under new root systems. Micro-ecosystems fill in the valleys between industrial gravel piles.

Left undisturbed, land heals and restores itself. Plants are tenacious little things — imagine what they could do in that famous, well-drained, nutrient-rich soil we read about in gardening books.

Container gardening is one way to obtain this dreamy dirt, especially in some areas of the Yukon where nutrient-thin soil, flooding, drought, and soil contamination, are all potential problems.

Containers do not have to be fancy. If raspberry bushes can grow wild in the gravel beside my front door, the same plant will grow in an old barrel, simple rock enclosure, or in a deep bucket.

Clay containers dry out more quickly than plastic containers, so consider water availability and sun exposure when choosing your materials. If you use wooden containers, line them with gardening cloth or heavy, food-grade plastic stapled in place. Make drainage holes in the containers, through the liners as well, and line the bottom with stones or gravel. Then, add the components of your dream soil.

Optimum soil for your container depends on a few factors: which plants you plan to grow; the temperature range; and the wind and sun exposure on the site. Consider the plant’s microenvironment when you plan soil components. Plants in sunny and/or windy spots usually need more water, and certain soil structures encourage water retention.

Willows, for example, grow near water, because they also live in high winds. The water at their root level balances moisture lost through their windblown leaves.

Water-loving lettuces can use a little clay in the upper level of the soil as clay retains water. But, for carrots, radishes, or potatoes, a lower clay level is better, as impacted clay will inhibit the formation of the veggies.

While it’s tempting to ramp up the soil’s nitrogen levels by adding lots of bone or blood meal to the containers for those tomato seedlings you nursed along indoors, too much nitrogen encourages problem insects. Instead, consider rotating crops.

Plant tomatoes in containers that beans grew in last year. The legume family releases nitrogen into the soil through their roots, leaving behind a good nitrogen level for tomatoes.

To increase this nitrogen release, cut up the whole plant and mix it in with the soil when your bean plants are spent, and let it compost on the spot. Beans and tomatoes both love heat and sun, so the rotating bean/tomato container can stay put in a hot spot near a wall. And when placing containers near walls, leave ample space between the wall and the container. Cramped plants with poor air circulation won’t grow evenly, and you need to move comfortably between the wall and the container to tend to all sides of the garden.

Plants derive energy and absorb nutrients from the air as well as soil.

Remove the top four inches of the soil in your container garden once per year, before planting, if you’re in an area where soil contamination is an issue — especially if you plan to grow medicinal plants and/or food. This step will help remove wind-born containments from your dream soil.

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