Confusion in understanding growing instructions

I'm getting quite confused about growing instructions for plants such as Mexican fleabane. It thrives in cracks in paving and walls. And yet the RHS say we must grow it in fertile soil that does not dry out. I see this kind of description all over the place.

Here baby's tears is said to require moist soil, yet to my knowledge it's quite happy on gravel and paving cracks.

I'm also confused about instructions like 'moist but well-drained'. How can soil really be both. Surely if something is permanently damp it's holding water and therefore not drained.

This poppy, they state, grows well on chalky and sandy soil and requires 'deep, fertile soil'. Surely this is a contradiction in terms. Isn't sandy poor synonymous with being poor?

Ox eye daisies - moist, fertile soil such as sand.

Is it a question of situations where plants will grow if forced versus their ideal growing conditions? Do all these plants what rich fertile soil really but will survive on sand if they have to?




  • fidgetbonesfidgetbones Posts: 11,106

    Moist but well drained, a basically gritty or sandy soil ( so it drains) but with a lot of humus added to retain water.  A slope helps.  A raised bed would help. Clay soil at the bottom of a slope is useless. except for a pond.

    It's not a mess, it's a nature reserve.
  • nutcutletnutcutlet Posts: 24,054

    moist, well -drained soil appears everywhere in instructions and means not a lot as far as I can see. A few lucky people might have something like that. Most of us have clay or too dry, or boggy, or something else difficult

  • Firefly∆Firefly∆ Posts: 294


    "Moist but well drained... with a lot of humus added to retain water".

    Does this not seem like a contradiction in any way?

  • TopbirdTopbird Posts: 3,483

    I just read it to mean soil which gets neither water logged nor dries out completely - ie which is usually just damp - but never saturated. 

    I dream of having such well behaved soil. image

    Heaven is ... sitting in the garden with a G&T and a cat while watching the sun go down
  • hogweedhogweed Central ScotlandPosts: 2,502

    I would call my soil moist but well drained. To me it means just bog standard dirt, not clayey soil, and easy to dig. We don't have limestone/chalk soils in Scotland. 

    'Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement' - Helen Keller
  • punkdocpunkdoc Posts: 5,114

    2 things.

    Labels are nearly always useless.

    Plants can't read.

    There's one more kid that will never go to school
    Never get to fall in love,never get to be cool.
  • Firefly∆Firefly∆ Posts: 294

    Punkdoc, indeed. I'm always amazed by the useful info labels don't mention - like if the plant is a perennial or not and what variety it is. Seems odd to me. Surely the variety name is pretty important. And I think that the powers that be should adopt a different system from noting full sun/partial shade. The phrase 'partial shade' is entirely hopeless.

  • LynLyn Posts: 8,095

    I have absolutely no faith in anything the RHS site recommends, caught them out several times, as Firefly has found out. 

    I lost confidence in them when they said, on a TV programme that they never move or plant their snowdrops 'in the green' when I put that on this site everyone jumped on me.  I'm not sure if they even say that on their web site.

    Gardening on the wild, windy west side of Dartmoor. 
  • Nanny BeachNanny Beach Posts: 2,050

    Me too, Lyn I put on another post,  cannot be doing with the "moist but well drained lark, thats the one that drives me mad above all others.  Also feel the same about the RHS site, often seen lovelly plants, mags etc. put them on the RHS site it will tell me they dont exist, then a list of them!

  • LiriodendronLiriodendron Todmorden, West YorksPosts: 3,840

    I was taught at college that "moist but well-drained" is the condition you'd find naturally about halfway up a gentle hillside in - say - Devon, where a lot of wild flowers would naturally prefer to grow (and therefore, a lot of cultivated perennials, bred from their wild relatives).  It's well-drained because of the slope (as Fidget says), but gets plenty of rainfall for the "moist" bit.  If you don't live on a nice gentle warm damp slope in Devon you can add lots of humus to your soil (for moisture holding) and grit (for drainage) and keep watering.  And keep your fingers crossed...

    Commercial plant labels are designed to encourage you to buy the plant, not tell you useful things about it - like "not hardy in this area" or "grows to 60 feet"...  image

    "Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change"    Stephen Hawking
  • Firefly∆Firefly∆ Posts: 294

    "Half way up a gentle hillside in Devon" is helpful and gave me a laugh. Unfortunately I'm in a terrace near Hackney, but I get the general idea.

    Does anyone have any ideas about the Mexican Fleabane conundrum - thrives in moist, fertile soil, so plant in the wall?

  • LiriodendronLiriodendron Todmorden, West YorksPosts: 3,840

    It's odd, isn't it, Firefly.  The info in the boxes on the RHS Erigeron page says well-drained sandy, chalky or loamy soil, which sounds more like what you find in a wall... maybe they just followed the "moist, fertile" route blindly when writing the main article.  Not really good enough though.  I always end up comparing a lot of websites for plant information and taking the average, in the end.  

    I think - returning to the Fleabane - it's easiest to establish from seed, chucked at gaps in the wall which have some soil in.  Though if you have a small plant you could try squeezing it into a gap, complete with its rootball; watering could be a problem though.  Seed-grown plants find the damp bits to grow in, and have long roots to search out the water.

    "Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change"    Stephen Hawking
  • raisingirlraisingirl Posts: 1,710

    I've always assumed it was just a get out of jail free card. Describe unobtainable conditions - cannot be held liable if plant fails to thrive because you did not provide the unobtainable 'perfect' conditions.

    I've found erigeron grows in sunny places in my clay soil. It won't establish in dry weather. So sown in damp fertile clay (in autumn) it germinates while the clay is pliable, then grows well in summer when the clay is dry and hard (a substance resembling concrete, so no doubt it would grow in cracks in concrete too). It won't survive in clay that stays wet (it rots). I'd hesitate to call any state of clay 'well drained' but it is happiest in banks and on slopes where the clay doesn't actually puddle. So it sort of makes sense, but only if you already know all of that. As a shorthand label to someone trying to decide if the plant would grow in their garden, it's next to useless.

    Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time
    Sir Terry Pratchett
  • Firefly∆Firefly∆ Posts: 294

    That's useful. Thanks. I recently bought a litre pot of fleabane from a garden centre and it came planted in what looks like regular compost - no sand, grit or gravel in sight. I might try the 'slightly moist and fertile' approach rather than planting in a sand/loam mix. I'll put the pot on a wall so it can pretend for a bit. I potted an old fleabane of mine in a sand mix (full sun) and it doesn't look very impressed. I sang to it and did a little dance. It's still sulking.

    Last edited: 24 June 2017 00:44:34

  • LynLyn Posts: 8,095

    I do live halfway up a hill in Devon, 960' up.

    It can be difficult growing things here, there's always a wind and for every 100metrs up, you can knock one degree c off the temperature. 

    I just grow what I like, all from seeds and hope for the best. I've got shade loving plants in full sun, sun lovers in shade, it all seems to work whichever way I do it.

    Erigeron grows wild everywhere in Cornwall, just hanGH's on stone walls, it won't grow for me here though.

    Gardening on the wild, windy west side of Dartmoor. 
  • Firefly∆Firefly∆ Posts: 294

    Ah, Lyn it seems that your hillside in Devon is not gentle enough for the fabled 'moist yet well drained soil'. It's true that plants, birds and all wild things of our land never seem to have read the right books. 

  • Firefly∆Firefly∆ Posts: 294

    Experimentation, and indeed killing things, may be the only way to learn about gardening. But it is an expensive way to go. In the last five years since I have had my own first garden, I have easily killed as many plants as have lived; probably more. Very many wasted packet of seeds, entirely slugged veg, everything put in the wrong place and not watered well. I'm getting there but I am trying to assiduously learn from other people, books, shows, wherever and whatever, rather than consigning more ever growing piles to the great compost bin in the sky. It's cheaper. As we discover, plant labels and many gardening (RHS?) websites are bugger all help.

  • raisingirlraisingirl Posts: 1,710
    Firefly0 says:

    Experimentation, and indeed killing things, may be the only way to learn about gardening.

    I'm getting there but I am trying to assiduously learn from other people, books, shows, wherever and whatever, rather than consigning more ever growing piles to the great compost bin in the sky. It's cheaper. As we discover, plant labels and many gardening (RHS?) websites are bugger all help.

    See original post

    I think the skill is to learn from the plants themselves. I am still very much a novice when it comes to veg growing and I think that's because most are annuals. It takes aaaaages to distinguish between the effects of bad weather and the effects of bad gardening, because you can't replicate conditions year to year with any confidence. When you've been gardening for many years, you stop using a book and a calendar to tell you when to pot on or plant out or harvest and come to just know when is the right time by the plant and the soil in your garden. At this point, you are 'properly' gardening for the micro-conditions in your own plot and will have far greater success.

    I started watching GW regularly not because I wanted to listen to Monty tell me how to put a banana plant in a greenhouse every year but because it's one of few programmes that I know are filmed close to the broadcast date and which show many shots of plants. Hostafan gets annoyed by all the dog shots but I like all the 'filling' sweeping views of the garden. I'm usually looking over Monty's shoulder or at the plants behind his dog's snoozing nose to see how his tomatoes or cavolo nero is looking to compare it to mine. If his is struggling, it's far more likely to be weather related than ineptitude because, whatever others may say about him not being Geoff Hamilton, he has been gardening at Longmeadow for decades and mostly knows what his veg plants need. Therefore when his plants are looking as sick as mine, I stop worrying about what I'm doing wrong and hope for better luck next year. If his are thriving and mine half dead I have a much harder think about what I may have done wrong this time.

    I am much better at ornamentals (about 20 years better), not because I 'know' what all plants need - I definitely don't - but because I am better at looking at a plant and thinking 'you're not happy, are you?' and then being able to see if that's a too dry problem or a too wet problem or a hungry problem, or wind burn or smothering by neighbours or eaten by pests or one of the countless other things that can happen. That means I can usually work out what to do next early enough to not actually kill the plant. Having said that, I still lose plenty and still come on here looking for advice on pests and problems and plants I've not come across before.

    You get better at it with time. You never get to a point when there's nothing left to learn image

    Last edited: 24 June 2017 09:14:18

    Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time
    Sir Terry Pratchett
  • LiriodendronLiriodendron Todmorden, West YorksPosts: 3,840

    Well said, Raisingirl!  Nothing beats learning on the job - though a bit of basic plant knowledge helps to avoid expensive mistakes (like planting rhodies in chalky soil).  I love wandering around my garden (which makes it sound huge - it's very small, in fact) and just looking at stuff.  It's good for the soul too; as they said this morning on "Thought for the Day" (not usually my favourite listening on R4), you can mend most things by turning them off and on again.  Including ourselves.  image

    "Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change"    Stephen Hawking
  • Firefly∆Firefly∆ Posts: 294

    Thanks for your posts. Wise words, Raisingirl. The patience and maturity to learn by doing. That's what I am hearing in your thoughts. I am too much of a literalist and very much expect things to do what they say on the tin. Sadly this is not often in the nature of the world. A wasted frustration.

    Have had an interesting experiment running in my small garden - in a 3m x 10m space. I have planted three lots of chard, three lots of sweetpeas and three lots of runner beans. I bought them as small plants. Each group was of the same size, look, and development (as far as I could see), bought from the same growers. I planted them all, all over the garden - east facing and west facing, in more sun and more shade, in containers and in beds. All had compost added and they all get water at the same time.

    The three beans plants all got slugged. End of. The chard put in the sunniest spots (west facing) has not changed in a six weeks. It hasn't grown, been slugged or withered. It's exactly like I just planted it in. The chard in pots in the more shady east facing spot is ten inches tall and thriving. It shot off from the beginning. The sweet peas are all west facing. One lot hasn't grown an inch, one lot is growing but sulking and one lot is doing well.

    The differences are dramatic. The plants are put in only a few metres from each other. It's confusing. I am thinking it must something to do with the level of nutrient in the soil. I will feed them and see if it changes anything. 

    Perhaps things rarely do what they say on the tin (or the packet) and I should stop expecting tin-based results. As professionals, you know this already. I'm still in the throes of wasted frustration.

    I like all of Gardeners' World - dogs and garden shots and all. It's a pure learning experience and very encouraging.

    Thanks for your words. Enjoy the weekend.

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