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Heathland gardening

I am lucky to have a garden directly on the edge of Yateley Common in North East Hampshire. It is fine sandy(dusty) Acid soil, Bagshot sands, Two Oak trees overhang the garden, on SSSI country park so cannot cut down not that I want to( I have had Great Crested Newts, newts, frogs toads and grass snakes in the garden. Birds on the common include the Dartford Warbler and the Studded Blue butterfly is a common sight) . Direct sun is at best is only available from about 8am to 2:30pm.
I cannot keep most plants alive, what plants I manage to get to grow do not develop outside of the root ball and perennials do not survive a year. Plug plants are a disaster. Any plants that survive are stunted.
I make my own compost which I have used for potting, this hasn't been as successful as I would like. I have, this year, tried lime, top soil and potting compost to no avail. I have two roses that manage to survive. Even Lavender  struggles. The usual acid loving plants struggle. I have two Hydrangeas in pots that have not developed beyond one foot. This year I tried Chrysanthemums and Dahlias, always the optimist, and not one has flowered yet despite having buds.
I need to change the soil structure but the common always seems to win......
To cap it all most of my neighbours have given up and laid artificial grass.
Has anyone any advice as it appears to be very thin on the ground.


  • Whatever you put on the garden, the common will win, simply as a matter of ratio. (You against It!)
    The only way to have a garden is to work with it and grow plants that enjoy those conditions. You can partly modify the soil by adding lots and lots of organic matter, lorry loads of well rotted manure, which will improve its water retaining properties somewhat, and lime may raise the pH a little.
    But really you need to regard it as a challenge, like Derek Jarman's garden at Dungeness, and find things that will make it more interesting.
    Alpines may be a good place to start, as many grow in acid soil on mountains where it can be hot and dry.  Research heathland plants and look for cultivated relatives or those that come from further afield, but would happily grow for you.
    A different option might be to create a patch of bog garden, with a butyl liner,  as there are many plants that enjoy moist acid soil (which is what I have a lot of!) and it would encourage more of your fantastic wildlife.
    And if you really want to grow dahlias or chrysanths, then create a raised bed with bought in soil dedicated to them and just enjoy the contrast :)
  • FairygirlFairygirl west central ScotlandPosts: 47,289
    Raised beds. You can line them, fill with a suitable soil/manure/compost mix, and place them accordingly. Group several together at varying heights and sizes, or place them along a boundary - whatever suits your needs. 
    I have some built along a boundary fence, as well as some individual ones. I don't have the issues you have, but it means I could grow all sorts of different plants with different needs if is so  wished.  People with acid soil can grow alkaline lovers, and vice versa. You can line the bottoms as well if you have free draining soil and low rainfall, so that they retain moisture for longer.  :)
    It's a place where beautiful isn't enough of a word....

  • JennyJJennyJ DoncasterPosts: 7,059
    That sounds like a difficult soil (mine is pretty sandy and slightly acid, that's bad enough and it seems to eat up compost for breakfast).

    Bagged multipurpose compost doesn't have enough "oomph" to do much in terms of soil improvement - for that you need lots of farmyard manure or homemade compost.  You don't say what size your garden is, but to do a significant area we're talking truckloads not bags dug in, then probably a mulch every year to keep it topped up.  Maybe you could try improving just one part of a bed/border, or build a raised bed and fill it with bought-in topsoil and compost/manure.

    Even with improvement it'll always be free-draining so it's best to stick to plants that like those conditions. The usual acid-loving plants like moist peaty/leafmouldy acid soil, not the dry sandy kind, so as you've found they don't tend to do well if it's very well drained.

    The alternative would be to choose the kind of plants that naturally do well in your area (or cultivated versions of them)
  • I already have a a walled section that I filled with fresh compost but the common has grabbed that. I have violets galore that I cannot get rid of. My erysimus isnt complaining but that is about all. My peony always looks fragile.
    One suggestion, I must take a bag with me and pick up after the horses, just like old man Steptoe.
    Thanks all for the responses.
  • DovefromaboveDovefromabove Central Norfolk UKPosts: 80,549
    Garden compost on its own doesn’t make a complete growing medium. It needs the addition of stuff like loam, grit and leafmould, in different proportions according to the intended use. 
    “I am not lost, for I know where I am. But however, where I am may be lost.” Winnie the Pooh

  • raisingirlraisingirl East Devon, on the Edge of Exmoor.Posts: 6,052
    There are lots of acid loving plants. If you look out across the common, I doubt it's bare soil. I think you maybe need to have a serious rethink on your target plants: lavender is a lime lover, so no good. Peonies are greedy feeders, no chance. 

    I assume you are avoiding the obvious heathers, but I would encourage you to look a little harder - there are some really lovely bell-flower types (erica cinerea) that grow into quite tall, bushy shrubs rather than the classic flat heather form. Any of the Vaccinium family - blueberries are really lovely shrubs, even apart from the fruit.

    Have a look at a nursery that is based somewhere that has acid soil - Burncoose in Cornwall is one. They have a double flowered gorse that is really pretty and would be fine and would start to form a wind break, in front of which you could plant less spiny things. There are sure to be other nurseries nearer to you that have plants that will cope with your soil.
    A bog garden is a great idea to give you some options for variety.

    Nature's way of dealing with light sandy soils is to find 'pioneer' species that grow anywhere (in my garden it's ox eye daisies) and they form a dense rosette of leaves, into which lighter or slower germinating seeds can settle and get going. Once you have a bit of a hedge, start a few small trees - hawthorn or elder, probably. Then find some appropriate wildflowers to form an under-storey, then more interesting plants have a chance of getting established. At which point it becomes a virtuous cycle, as the roots begin to 'hold', so the bulkier material you add begins to build up and more delicate plants can get in.

    Use composted bark chips to improve the soil structure, mulch with grit or gravel to slow soil erosion. I would try to dig in composted bark or leaf mould or straw, then put down a layer of something like chopped comfrey leaves or seaweed and then grit over the top. If you add a liquid feed it will drain straight through, so you need a bulky food that will break down more slowly. Use mycorrhizal fungi liberally when you plant shrubs. 
    “Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first” 
  • ObelixxObelixx Vendée, Western FrancePosts: 28,227
    edited September 2018
    You need to work with what you have and grow plants that are suited.  Excellent advice above about researching more suitable plants and creating raised beds nearer the house or terrace for other plants.

    I went to the RHS plant selector site and asked for a list of UK hardy plants suited to full sun in sandy, acid, well-drained soil -

    That should get you started.
    "We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing." - George Bernard Shaw
  • JennyJJennyJ DoncasterPosts: 7,059

    That's a great list from Obelixx.  A lot of those do well for me on my slightly acid sand.

    We have to resign ourselves to the fact that we won't be growing most classic herbaceous border plants without a lot of effort and muck. Lupins do reasonably well if the aphids don't get them, and definitely the shrubby salvias (jamensis and microphylla types). There are a couple of asters (now renamed symphyotrichium) that do well here - frikartii "Monch" and "Little Carlow" - all the others I've given up on because they get mildew and wither away. My dahlias struggled for a few years but seem to have got into their stride now - one advantage of a well-drained soil is that you don't have to lift and store them for the winter - just chuck something like shredded prunings or straw over them when they die back for a bit of frost protection.  I also have Teucrium fruticans and some sedums (hylotelephium) doing well despite the fact that both are supposed to like neutral to alkaline soil.  Some hardy geraniums are OK too - I have sangiuneum "album" and "striatum", "Ann Folkard" and x magnificum.

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