Soil - A Priceless Commodity
23rd Oct 2004
Now that we"re approaching the end of October, most gardeners think it's the end of the gardening year for them, particularly in the kitchen garden. The truth however is that we could quite possibly state that the gardening year actually starts now. As with any building, the laying of the first foundation stone is important, so it is with the soil, if you haven"t got the structure right, then you won't grow vegetables to their optimum. The first action is to clear out the garden of any debris that has collected over the past few weeks. Keep all your canes tidy and never leave any bits of them lying around the garden, they make a perfect hiding place and breeding area within their hollow stems.
Identifying Type of Soil
You must identify your soil as well because if you don't know the type of soil you are growing in how can you possible get the best out of it? First of all have a good look it, then dig it and finally feel it. For instance dark soils are usually rich in organic matter whilst pale grey soil suggests chalk with too little organic matter present. When you dig it, see if it sticks to your spade and the clods have a shine to them, if it does then the soil is usually clay. When you feel it, smear it between finger and thumb, if it's smooth and a little lumpy it's clay, if it's gritty it's coarse or medium sand. If you squeeze a little in you hand and it falls apart as you open it, it's too much sand and when you do the same thing and it clings together, you are lucky because you will have loam, the perfect garden soil.
It can not be stressed too often that soil is not just dirt or muck, it's a living system that deserves the utmost respect, the quicker you realise that, the better your produce will be. My father was a very humble man, but having worked on a farm for most of his life he certainly knew the soil and his regular lesson to me was 'the soil is the most honest commodity that you work with, you get out of it what you are prepared to put into it'
I always like to turn my soil over before Christmas as it then gives time for the Winter frosts to do they their magic work of breaking down the clods. This is certainly true if you happen to have heavy clay soil, however, if you have sandy soil then it's best left until Spring before you dig it over as any prolonged frost will open up the soil structure too much allowing vital nutrients to leach away.
Humus is a word often associated with soil and this is created over many years through adding organic material to the soil when digging which eventually turns to humus, a state when it becomes available to the plants. Fortunately I live in a rural area where I can get access to plenty of Farm Yard manure which is often three to four year old and already well decomposed with plenty of red worms visibly working away amongst it.
Equally as good is to dig in plenty of your own compost and if you live by the sea, dig in plenty of Seaweed, pick it up at high tide level after a storm and spread it out on top of the soil. Any salt in it will soon be washed away with the Winter rains and I have never found any traces of salt to have any detrimental effect on my vegetables. Alternatively buy in some Westland Farm Manure in 50 Litre bags, I used it extensively last year when growing my Chelsea exhibits and it proved to be excellent in every way.
Do's and Dont's
Never add lime on the soil at the same time as manure or fertilisers, it's a chemical problem. The lime will turn any Nitrogen within the manure into Ammonia gas which is simply blown away depleting the manure of an essential nutrient. This also slows down the rate at which the manure decomposes into valuable humus. Check your soil PH as well - a scale devised by scientists to determine the acidity or alkalinity of your soil, both determine the availability of nutrients as well as the ease with which they can be taken up by the plants. The value of 7 on the PH scale is Neutral and fine for vegetables.
If you haven't a clue how god or bad your soil is, then my advice is always to have it checked by having a soil analysis. Mine is always checked, not only for the PH level, but also for the availability to the plants of Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Pottasium and Magnesium. I have used Lancrop Laboratories very successfully for a number of years and the above test will cost you £16.45 inclusive of VAT and P&P
Finally, in fairness to the soil it's vitally important that you practice crop rotation on your vegetable plot, but this can be dealt with nearer planting time.