Edible Landscaping - April 2010 Q & A

By Charlie Nardozzi

Question: I've been struggling growing vegetables in clay soil for years. A friend told me to apply gypsum. Is this the secret?

Answer: Unfortunately, there is no secret to gardening in clay soil. Clay soil is high in nutrients and holds water well. However, it also is hard to work, especially when it's too wet or dry. The problem is lack of air spaces. Clay particles are very small leaving little room for air spaces in the soil. It results in a hard- to-work garden.

The key to success with clay soil is to add organic matter generously every year. This builds up air spaces in the soil and makes it more friable.

Many gardeners, like your friend, have been advised to add gypsum to loosen up clay soils. This will help only in certain soil conditions. The calcium in gypsum helps the clay soil particles aggregate together forming bigger pore spaces between them. However, it only works on soils low in calcium or high in salt. So, it's mostly recommended in the coastal Southeast and arid Southwest. Also, gypsum doesn't increase the pH or add nutrients per se, but it can cause nutrient imbalances in your soil, so use it carefully. Ask your local Extension agent about the wisdom of adding gypsum to your specific soil. It won't replace adding organic matter, but it may help. If you get really frustrated with your clay soil you can always bring in top soil and compost and make your own raised beds or grow in containers.

Question: I'm looking to plant an edible fence as a barrier between my house and my neighbors. I want to keep the dogs and wildlife from running though my yard. Any suggestions?

Answer: I have plenty of ideas. The first is brambles, particularly blackberries. Blackberries have thorns and form thickets that discourage even the most persistent animal from crossing through it. I would suggest trying the new everbearing varieties of blackberries, 'Prime Jim' and Prime Jan', that are now available in nurseries. Like the everbearing raspberries, these varieties form fruit on one-year old canes in fall. The next summer the same canes fruit again before dying.

Another suggestion would be rugosa or any old fashioned, thorny species rose variety. The species roses spread quickly from root suckers to form a thicket of thorny canes. The flowers and hips that form are edible, quite delicious, and nutritious.

Finally, consider planting gooseberries. Though not as thorny as the other plants mentioned, they can form a nice low (4 foot tall) barrier with thorny branches and excellent fruit. You might have to fight the wildlife for these tasty fruits unless you're quick enough to harvest before they do.

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