Soil health

Kim Stoddart gets up and close and personal with this important enabler of veg patch life and explains how to keep it fertile and simply fantastic all year round…

It may not look very glamorous but this earthy substance is the key to the success of your food growing efforts. Treat it well and make it as effective as can be with the addition of compost, mulching, and (if you have it) rotted manure. There will be no need for bought-in fertilisers or plant feeds at all. It’s no wonder then that in an organic growing system, soil is king as this nutrient-rich super loam can contain all the food your plants could need. Aside from the use of a little seaweed powder in spring (as it helps encourage microbial activity to the benefit of the health and vitality of seedlings), I focus on building fertility and affording protection for my precious loam throughout the year.

Here’s how to boost your growing efforts by making your soil the best it can possibly be:

Get composting

It’s so easy, effective and such an incredibly rewarding way to use up so much household waste to the benefit of your plants. Sure, you’ll most likely never make enough, but what you do produce will be worth its weight in gardeners gold. Simply add a roughly equal measure of brown (toilet, roll, paper, cardboard packaging, cut up twigs, sawdust) and green materials (fruit and veg leftovers from the kitchen, green waste from the garden) and let the natural process of decomposition work its magic.

Mulch, mulch away

The application of compost (either home-made or bought) will improve the health and vitality of your soil, provide a natural boost and cure structure and pH imbalances. It really is that simple. Also, if you don’t dig (and I advise you not to) and simply apply your compost on top of the existing layer of soil, you’ll be greatly improving your its ability to hold and retain water, providing a natural resilience that’s hard to beat.

Provide additional soil protection

If you keep building fertility and treat your soil well, the biggest threat to the effectiveness of your soil is weather-related damage. With increasing weather extremes through climate change this includes the potential for longer periods of drought and an excess of rain which can wash away nutrients. Mulching gives some protection, while raised beds can help areas prone to minor flooding as they keep plant roots out of the water. Avoiding bare patches of ground where possible will help improve soil structure and prevent the ground from drying out or becoming sodden with an excess of water as the elements strike again.

Green manures

Using green manures or even allowing some non-invasive weeds to grow over winter alongside your produce will help protect against nutrient loss. In the summer months, ground cover will shield the soil from the drying glare of the sun, saving you time and effort when it comes to watering. Good fillers to be used in this way include lettuce, summer herbs, perennial plants and edible flowers such as camomile, calendar and nasturtium.

Let there be life

This might sound like a strange note to end on but within the soil lies a complex word of creatures we have only scratched the surface in terms of our understanding. We know that earthworms play a valuable role when it comes to soil fertility, and in fact seeing these beneficial creatures underground is a sure fire sign that your loam is healthy and fit for purpose. By building fertility and letting nature play its course, your soil will be truly alive with a range of beneficial creatures which work in all sorts of exciting and hugely interesting ways to the benefit of your veg patch. From Mycorrhizal fungi on the roots of plant, helping them find water and food, to symbiotic relationships between produce (helping each other basically), to microbial activity which can boost the immune system of plants, therefore helping them to fight back against pests and disease.

Healthy soil may not be sexy but it’s certainly alive with produce, purpose and rather marvellous possibilities.

This article first appeared in Grow Your Own magazine in July 2019

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