Improving the Soil

When I started out on the allotments, the blue-brown clay lay just below a spit’s depth on plot 5 but now the topsoil is down to two spits depth and the quality of the topsoil is much better. Mind you, I’ve added tonnes of municipal compost, my own compost, green manure and animal manure over the years. Not to mention regular liming. With clay soils lime is particularly important as it improves flocculation. That’s a word I love! It just means that the fine particles join together to make larger ones, opening up the soil

I reckon the main beds on plot 29 are now a good 18 inches higher than when I took them on with all the added organic matter. When I dug over the main bed recently, I realised the topsoil is now two feet deep.

I read somewhere that the market gardeners of Paris used to rent their plots and they added so much manure and compost that the beds ended up 6 feet deeper than when they started. So I’ve a ways to go to equal their achievements in the 19th Century.

It amazes me how many people think they can just take crops off the plot year after year without putting anything back into the soil. Fertiliser has its place, of course. Ut whether you use organics like fish, blood and bone or chemicals like Growmore, the basic structure and health of the soil depends on organic matter. Not only does the compost etc. make the plot easy to work, it stores water better in dry spells and drains better in wet.

Most important is that the structure allows beneficial and symbiotic bacteria and fungi to thrive, which enables the crop’s roots to absorb more nutrients and especially the micro-nutrients that are as vital to plant health as vitamins are to us.

Even weeds have their uses. I know a lot of growers don’t like to compost weeds, fearing they’re just planting more weed seeds to grow and trouble them over the years to come. Yet weeds steal nutrients from the soil and by composting them you return those nutrients to your soil.

Of course some seeds will remain in the compost, unless you manage the art of hot composting to kill them, but so what? There are always weed seeds floating around in the air, waiting to settle on your plot anyway. Weeds are just part of growing and what your hoe is for.

As well as comfrey tea, you can make a pretty good liquid fertiliser from nettles. As you know, digging out an established patch of nettles is a devil of a job. You can, of course, spray with glyphosate and kill them off but taking cut after cut from them and adding the cuttings to a barrel of water will make nettle tea. Eventually the nettles will weaken and die so you can then dig over, incorporating the roots which will improve the soil.

Anyway, when I leave these plots to pursue plots and pastures new, I’m sure the new tenant will moan about me as I did the previous and wonder if I knew one end of a spade from the other. They’ll not appreciate what they’ve got as I do until they’ve added a few pints of sweat to the soil.

Posted in Allotment Garden Diary
One comment on “Improving the Soil
  1. Steve in Salford says:

    Hello John

    Still in a ponder, little surprise really given the problems with water logging last year. The recent rains have turned parts of the plot into a rice paddy again.

    So it looks as though I am going to have to mark out the plot in 4′ wide growing strips, dig out the paths to a 18″ depth maximum sloping of course, allowing the water to gather and then using my handy dandy pump on drill attachment to pump the water into my water butt or into a drainage ditch connected straight to the drains on a plot nearby.

    Then to fill this ditch with bark chippings which there should be plenty of and top it off with the topsoil which has been dug out but leaving the area near to the water but so I can continue to pump out the water at regular intervals.

    The whole plot is way to low with a high water table, which is what is causing the problems, all that water will leach out any nutrients. Digging does work it loosens up the soil aerates it and raises its level.

    But a recent discovery is the NO Dig method of growing, similar to the way the Victorians did, lots of muck and manure, compost, composted leaves and weeds.

    This varies from their model as it does not involve digging, a concept which came about in the 1940s as an movement against the use of too many chemicals and not enough organic matter. Which coincides with the start of the organic movement, the principle is sound as in nature in the woodlands no one goes and digs there and the soil is friable. Nature does it for you, this as a concept for us growing holds a lot of water, apart from the movement of the barrow after barrow load of the materials to do it involves less labour in the long run.

    The reasons for it are that if you keep turning over the soil you break up its natural horizons, effectively scarring it and then it has to recover. Where as if you apply layers of rotted manure and compost in 4″ or so depths then the little critters in the soil do the work for you, if this top dressing is applied once year and as you grow crops in a new area that has been used that season eventually gives you a good depth of workable topsoil without the labour. Additions of lime I suspect would be needed especially on clays soils to counteract acidity.

    Those good men form the council dropped off a load of chipped bark and leaves earlier in the week which I discovered yesterday. They remembered me from last year with the 3 van loads of leaves which I spread on part of the plot, which killed off the docks, well that and the herbicide did, the remainder got dug out yesterday and the area covered in the bark chippings.

    Getting the conditions right for planting is the key priority here and that is dependant upon for me the council tipping extra organic material at or on my plot.

    As mentioned before the previous owner was getting on in years and could not manage the whole plot so he used to work strips of it each year. He removed the top soil took it to the composting area, replaced it with manure and fresh compost, hence the low lying level of the plot.

    The next incumbents dug areas of it over removed more top soil, scattered heaps across the plot, parts where covered in plastic sheeting and made what was not good even worse. Yes your right the next plot holder after you will or may call you rotten but who cares you have moved on and we each have our own individual ways of dealing with the problems of growing and taking on new plots of land for cultivation.

    It is looking like it is going to be a labour intensive autumn for me but only if the rain holds off for long enough. To top it all I got side tracked from this which was my original plan, mainly as the organic material ran out before I could complete the task, so fingers crossed this year, I will be able to tackle the problems of this neglected site once and for all. Onwards and upwards, ah it looks as though the rain is clearing here right now in grey skied Salford, there may be a hope yet to get to the plot today.

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