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.

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