How to improve soil organically on your allotment or gardenPosted by Fiona Nevile in Allotment, General care | 6 comments
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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