Dishing the dirt on successful planting

Chris FerreiraCountryman

Iam constantly amazed when people, with all the best intentions, commit large sums of money, time and hope on planting with only a small understanding of what they are getting themselves into. For starters, many people will have little more than a ‘skin-deep’ appreciation of what constitutes the dirt into which their plants will be set.

However, the surface of your paddock holds little relevance for your plants. It is the sub-surface — in particular, the first 30 to 50cm depth of soil — where the bulk of the feeder roots will find their home and the sustenance they need to survive and thrive.

Having an understanding of your soil will go a long way. You don’t need to become a soil scientist and spend all day digging large pits in the paddock, but should know the types and distribution of soils on the property. Get close and personal with your soils.

Anticipate what plants need

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Whether it’s Muffy the horse, a rampaging roo, an overzealous patriarch on the lawnmower or the effervescent weeds, you will need to anticipate and plan for the needs of your newly-planted beloveds.

You can gain a lot by taking a closer look at your soil and picking up the clues and what they mean. It is vital to put this basic information at the heart of your planting strategies. You can broadly split the soils of the South West into five main soil types.

Heavy clays

Usually found on wide, flat valleys and near waterways, clays are a challenge to work whatever the season — boggy in winter and spring, and rock-hard through summer and autumn.

Sand over clays are usually found in wide valleys and sometimes near waterways. The characteristics of these soils can vary over the paddock.

Sandy soils

The good ol’ gutless sands — they make hobby farming fun, don’t they? There are five main sands — beach sands (known as Quindalup), grey sands (Bassendean), dark-brown sands (Cottesloe), which are often associated with chunks of limestone, and orange-red sands (Karrakatta/Spearwood).

These can be harsh and unforgiving soils, because they are the first to dry out once the winter/spring rains cease. In fact, Bassendean sands are so deprived that they have been declared the world’s worst agricultural soil by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

Hills gravels

Despite their reputation for being difficult (if not impossible) to work, gravels, with their mixture of different-sized rocks, are some of WA’s most productive soils. These soils are usually associated with the Darling Scarp and other significant hills.

Like clays, they can be difficult to work and will bake hard in summer but, being generally associated with slopes, they rarely get waterlogged. However, these soils can be affected by water repellence and terrible erosion.


If you have got loams in WA, you are in a rare and exclusive club. Loams are the premier soil and given its reputation for having a bare cupboard when it comes to soil resources, there is not too much of this type of soil to be found in WA. Consequently, loams will often be flogged by successive agricultural pursuits and they can be a haven for weeds.

A tip

The scale and scope of your impending battle with weeds will be largely influenced by the soil they grow in. As a general rule, the darker the soil, the more ‘squelchy’ it gets in winter and the more it forms into clumps when you mould it, the more productive it is and the more you can expect it to be prone to weeds.

Regardless of the site or the plants to be used, aim to create planting sites that are moist and expected to stay that way for at least four months after planting.

This helps to ensure that plants are put in at the right time of the year for the different soils. For example, sands will only give the minimum of four months needed to get your plants established if you plant at the start of the winter.

Heavy clays, on the other hand, will retain moisture for longer and may become waterlogged over winter. Therefore, put the plants in at the end of winter.

Put simply, know your soils and plant at the best time for your plants. When it comes to planting, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach.

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