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How to improve soil organically on your allotment or garden

Wimpole Home Farm Pigs

Wimpole Home Farm Pigs

We have two big borders at the bottom of our kitchen garden that formerly were just a rough patch where very little thrived.  With great hope and optimism these became our first space for growing vegetables. I scattered a bit of Growmore and watered my seeds fervently. Things germinated and grew in a spindly sort of way, the nasturtiums were the only great success – these don’t mind a poor soil and will grow virtually anywhere.

We extended our kitchen garden to a slightly more fertile patch. Now we had the opportunity to compare the fertility of the soil. Slightly better growth but not the luscious jungle that I’d imagined. We blamed the overhanging trees, the shade and even the sun. In fact everything that we couldn’t control.
“This is what we have. We just have to put up with it.”

It was only when we hacked down the rose walk and extended the kitchen garden to its present size that we realised that the new kitchen garden borders were far more fertile than the others. This was the site of the basket weavers’ vegetable patch all those years ago.
“Well old Danes had all that pig muck back then.”
Doug leant over the fence to expand.
“The muck had to go somewhere so he just dug it into his patch. He used to grow some wonderful cauliflowers – never been able to grow them myself with the club root over here. You don’t happen to grow them do you?”

In an instant my interest in soil conditioning was born. How could I miss something so obvious? Unfortunately soil conditioning can take years and it’s not just a case of spreading manure in the autumn. You have to be a bit careful with manure, as my Grandmother found to her cost. Too much is worse than none at all. Manure is best when mixed with straw and other material and very well rotted down.

We hadn’t managed our composting very well. John’s grass cuttings compost heap was massive but had never generated enough heat to kill the pernicious grass and weed seeds. Our kitchen waste compost was rich but far too moist.

So I decided to take matters in hand. I ordered a square metre of compost and farmyard manure and dug it into our kitchen garden borders. This bulked up the soil and gave it greater water retention. In the autumn I ordered a few sacks of Rockdust soil conditioner and spread double the minimum amount. This spring I dug over the borders and the soil felt almost friable. It was full of worms.

The Grand Pond Cleaning Project produced loads of slurry from the pond and I spread this in the kitchen garden. A very satisfactory manoeuvre, racing down the garden with a wheelbarrow full of sloppy, gloopy sludge and whoosing it across the surface of the borders.

We are not yet growing giant vegetables but the results are far more promising than the early years. Improving the condition of the soil is now as important to me as growing fruit and vegetables.

The soil on our new allotment is fine and sandy. When it’s dry it’s like dust. Judging by the great quality of fruit and vegetables that people are growing on the site, the soil is fertile. Although I have no idea what fertilisers and chemicals that they use. Luckily, early on, I had a conversation with a lady who has gardened there for years.
“If we get a windy day after rain, it dries the soil out within hours. We grow great carrots but only if we have enough rain.”

There is free manure on the site. Donated by the horses that pass through Tattersalls during the famous Newmarket horse sales. Although we’re longing to start planting and sowing seeds, we are barrowing this free muck up the hill to our plot. It’s dug in at the ratio of a barrow per couple of square meters or so. This stuff is full of worms – hopefully happy to join the solitary worm that we found after 8 hours of digging.

In the long run this compost will build up the soil and save on watering. There is water on site but hoses are banned and just watering cans are allowed. Every time I tramp up the hill I distract myself from the load by trying to work out how many trips to the water tank that this will save. It’s quite fun too, digging the rich organic matter into the soil. A bit like stirring the Christmas pudding and making a wish. All hope and expectation.

In the autumn we are going to spread Rockdust too. I’ve used it in areas of our garden that were not given the farmyard manure treatment last year with very good results. Of course we will be building a compost area on the site that is designed to generate good heat and break down unwanted seeds quickly and efficiently.

Although most people up at the site think that we’re mad, we’re investing in our future and I know that this preparation and ongoing investment in the soil will pay dividends in the end. Basically I’m pretty lazy – I don’t want to have to water every day and am determined to give my plants the chance to thrive without needing to be coddled.

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  1. Manure is great, but don’t underestimate the power of simple compost! My folks gardening on dry clay in spain have a sturdy shredder and several compost heaps, as the organic matter in the soil is very depleted. Hedge trimmings, orange tree prunings (less likely in the UK obviously!), any green matter in bulk, all composts down to improve water retention, even without such a pronounced increase in fertility as manured composts give. They mulch with the coarser stuff, incorporate loads into every hole they dig, and are gradually converting their soil from something with the consistancy of concrete to that of aerated chocolate! They even have worms, a very hopeful sign. Good luck with the allotment, I’m jealous!

  2. skybluepinkish

    I’ve got one of those H2GO bags, our plots and animals are pretty spread out and I can’t bear miles of hosepipe. It’s brilliant. Am about to investigate rockdust.

  3. tenorissimo

    Would your allotment allow you to use an H2Go bag in your wheelbarrow? They are about £10 to buy and are a great way to move water when you need more than a watering can’s worth. Its still hand moved water after all so not cheating and just fairer when you are along way from the water source. I got a 3 gal can from a hardware shop and bigger water entry point makes it easier to decant the water from the bag into it for watering.

    Also been using rockdust. I am really sceptical about how it works BUT my veggie returns have been very impressive so i am not questioning it too closely.

  4. skybluepinkish

    I love manure! Our poultry provide a reasonable basis for the compost but proper steaming manure is a wonderful thing.

  5. Putting straw around plants also helps with the moisture retention. We use dried grass cut from our meadow which is a bit seedy but the time saved in not watering, especially when we had a month of no rain was an absolute boon.

    Underplanting is also a good idea if you can find something that does not compete too much with plants as we noticed how much wetter ground is with plants on it compared to bare soil. It seems to attract the dew which saves a certain amount of watering too.

  6. I always use well rotted horse manure and my own compost on our veg patch. It is small but always very productive and can only think that it is the manure that makes it so. The soil in the patch is very different from the rest of the garden and is a real treat to dig. We are on clay soil, but my fork goes in like a knife thru butter, weeds come up easily and the soil is a different colour. I love watching the blackbirds feasting when new compost is added, full of wriggling worms! I reckon most soils can be improved, but it takes time and perseverence. Good luck with the allotment, I look forward to reading more about it.

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