Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Soul Of Infinite Life

…otherwise known as SOIL.

I recommend a pot of strong coffee before reading this piece. Maybe some cake would help too.

Soil. It isn’t pretty, it isn’t sexy, it isn’t exciting – or is it?

The good stuff
There are sandy soils and clay soils, chalk, silts and peats and then there are the loams, which are a mix of clay, sand and silt. Gotta love the loams!

Without soil we would be in a pickle and yet it is often the very last thing to be given a thought when gardening. I wrote about green manure two weeks ago because apart from it helping insects it provides valuable nutrients for the soil in preparation for the growing of veg and flowers.

So, in the absence of a friendly horsey person and a shovel and sack – get the green manure in, in fact do both. On different areas of course – there is such a thing as over-feeding!

Get your soil to the best you can and you are almost certainly guaranteed good crops whether your interest is in growing fruit and veg or ornamental. They all need the same good basis to get their roots into.

I see September as the start of the growing year; I see soil as the start of the growing.

'Dead' soil
The two opposites of the soil spectrum are clay and sandy – clay being heavy, dense and easily binds together – the other, sandy, being light, gritty and doesn’t bind.

Clay is heavy in nutrients but due to its dense, binding nature these nutrients are not readily available to plants – whereas sandy soil struggles to hold on to nutrients as the water quickly drains through, flushing them away.

How’s the coffee and cake going?

Oddly, for both soil opposites, clay and sandy, the same process is needed.  Organic matter – yes, back to the muck and manure again. Organic matter will open up the clay particles making the nutrients available to plants and it will bind the sandy particles together to hold onto the water and therefore more nutrients.

So saying soil is boring would be like saying air, sun and water are boring.

A while back a pal of mine came to a garden centre with me to help me carry three very large bags of compost to the car – when we got to the till to pay he said ‘you’re paying how much for dirt!’  He isn’t a gardener.

Some of you know I have been involved in setting up an allotment project here on camp – it has been a long process getting the military might to hand over a small plot of land for those of us mad enough to want to grow our own.

After two years of pushing, we were given a small piece of what was once a football pitch/sports area and has been used as a dog-walking area for many years.

We set about stripping turf off our plots only to find the soil is all but dead. My first main season of growing has almost come to an end with the inevitable disappointing results of attempting to grow good quality crops in poor soil.

Much muck and green manure is going to be needed!

Are you thinking I’m obsessed with muck and manure by now?

Recognising your soil
Sandy – gritty, dries out very quickly, nutrients wash out quickly
Clay – heavy, lumpy and sticky when wet, rock-hard when dry, nutrients are locked in
Chalk – drains easily, mostly it will be stony
Silts – heavier than sandy, well-drained yet retains moisture
Peat – dark, warms up quickly, holds water and may need drainage
Loams – there is nothing bad to say about this chap, it is what all gardens would like to have

If you ever doubt the need to ensure you have your soil in the best possible condition it can be – take a look at these pictures of dwarf beans.
Beans grown in quality compost
The same beans, sown three weeks earlier than those in good compost!

One sowing was made at the allotment in the ‘dead’ soil, the other was sown at the home garden in top quality multi-purpose compost.  The allotment sown-beans were sown three weeks ahead of the home-grown beans!

My pal, Andy Smith, describes soil as … the blood vessel of plant life that exists on every patch of the Mother Earth. Soil contains millions of beasts in a teaspoon of spoil; some good guys, some not. The subject of soil is endless.....’ But then Andy, like me, is a gardener – we like soil – lots.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Green Manure

A pal asked me if green manure came from horses after they had munched down on a feast of all things green.

Nope, no horses’ smelly stuff required for this.

Green manure is the lazy (wo)man’s  way of ensuring you have top quality soil for the next growing season.

The next growing season?  Already?

Whilst it’s true that the main veg growing season for 2012 is coming to a close, as the days grow shorter and the nights longer, it doesn’t mean that we can rest on our shovels. Do we ever!
Now is the best time to get green winter manure sown
I am sowing as we speak and will leave all the lush green material in situ for as long as possible to gain maximum benefits to my soil.

Why bother to grow green manure – why not just cover the ground over with weed-suppressant membrane and be done with it?

One year I tried the weed-suppressant membrane approach of keeping the soil covered over winter, it does the job, there’s no doubting that, but there is something soulless about seeing all the black material covering the ground. What it doesn’t do is put anything back into the soil.

If you are a ‘tidy’ gardener you may struggle with the weed-like look of the green manure – if this is you, think of it as a challenge, a break out of your comfort zone.

Why do we sow green manures?  It’s a lot less messy than spreading horse poo over your plot that’s for sure and, of course; it will provide a different environment to poo.

All this talk of poo as given me child-hood memories and images of my Dad jumping out of the car whilst we were driving out for a picnic somewhere, he would fling open the boot and out would come a sack and a shovel – in went the horse poo!

This would happen on every trip – we always kept our fingers crossed that Dad would spot the ‘gold stuff' when we were  just a couple of yards from home, of which he never did, it was always on the out-bound journey!  Is it any wonder I prefer green manure!

So – what to sow?

Phacelia - Surely a flower worthy of any vase!
Out of this little list I really like the Crimson Clover and the Phacelia, both produce pretty flowers, which will keep the bees happy through the autumn sunshine that we will surely have.
I will continue to sow these through September and into November, filling in any bare patches that show up.

Crimson Clover – growing period (gp) is 3-18 months
Whilst this is not always winter-hardy it will do a wonderful job before it gets culled by heavy frosts. Enjoy the flowers but do ensure to cut down before they set seed, leaving it all on the soil surface until you are ready to start again.

Field Beans – gp overwintering
These are usually tough enough to get through most winters and can be left in the ground until spring when you would cut it down and dig into the soil before flowers set seeds. Having dug the green lushness in wait for 3 to 4 weeks before sowing/planting.  Cabbages will perform well in the recently-vacated field beans bed

Phacelia – gp 1-3 months, may overwinter in mild areas
This is probably my favourite, these scented lilac flowers are worthy of any flower bed.  The bees also have this top of their list.

Forage Rye – gp 3-6 months ... boring green (but useful) stuff

Mustard – gp 1-2 months ... mmm, hot dogs!

Sweet Clover – gp up to two years (excellent value!)
This is another green manure that both the bees and I enjoy, producing sweet smelling yellow flowers. As with all other flowering green manures ensure you cut the flowers down before they set seed – leaving all in situ until you are ready to dig the composting material into the veg bed.

Winter Tares – gp overwintering ... another rather dull green thing – sorry WT, but you are!
During the dead winter months, green manures will improve soil fertility, protect the soil structure from heavy rains. It will provide a safe winter home for beetles and other predators that help to control pests.
Deep rooting green manures will aerate the soil, which the worms and your soil will thank you for.
So who said it was all over!
It’s never over in the world of gardening, unless you have a concrete standing and empty pots…imagine that!

Piskie, a.k.a. Virtual Assistant / Business Supporter Suzie Warren, can be found here

photo credit: TexasEagle via photo pin cc
photo credit: David~O via photo pin cc
photo credit: Anita363 via photo pin cc