Look after your soil and it will look after your plants

By Richard Wright

Friday, March 8, 2013

 

Look after your soil and it will look after your plants

The soil in the greenhouse has been replaced.

GARDENING THE answer to good gardening really does lie in the soil.

It goes without saying it is the most important element when it comes to producing good crops of flowers, fruit and vegetables but the tail end of 2012 and early 2013 has proved a real problem in giving the soil the care and attention it needs.

The Great Deluge has done several things. It has shown up inadequacies of drainage in heavy soils and, especially in lighter, sandy soils, it has washed away valuable nutrients.

An indication of the incessant wetness is that reservoirs are at their highest levels for many a long year but this week at least the ground continued to dry out.

In England and Wales, overall reservoir stocks were at their second highest level on record — just exceeded by the year 2000, an indication — if we needed one — that the ground really was soaked until it could take no more.

The bottom line is that to garden successfully we will need to improve all soils so they can cope. Beefing up the amount of organic matter will help in all seasons — it will improve drainage in autumn and winter and increase water-holding capacity in summer.

If your garden compost heap has produced dark, rich, crumbly material then use that — it’s free.

Failing that, several bags of IW compost or Levington Organic Blend Soil Conditioner will work wonders on wet, clay soils.

In the case of Levington, the coarse, fibrous material will open up pockets of air within the clods and provide drainage channels for any further rain. On a light, sandy soil it will hold extra rain and any additional nutrients you apply.

At my Sandlands allotment, I have conditioned the soil for 11 years and there is still much room for improvement. Heavy soil needs a lot of work but it’s worth it — the extra organic matter will provide home for billions of beneficial micro-organisms and help increase the availability of nutrients.

Feeding cannot be ignored — and it is not too late to dig-in copious quantities of well-rotted horse or farmyard manure, which will both feed and condition at the same time.

Potatoes love being planted in it and, and provided it is incorporated in the next couple of weeks and covered with a good layer of topsoil, other crops won’t mind the late application.

Indeed, I’ve only just got round to hoofing out the exhausted soil in my greenhouse and replacing it with fresh stuff — covering a generous quantity of manure.

Many of the fertilisers that can be bought in the garden centres these days are organic — such as Miracle-Gro Bonemeal, chicken manure and fish, blood and bone.

Others supply just one element of the nutrient balance, such as phosphates, sulphate of ammonia (nitrogen) and sulphate of potash (potassium).

These allow gardeners to balance the nutrient levels in their soil to suit different types of crops.

For example, green leafy vegetables, such as cabbages and other brassicas, need plenty of nitrogen, and a dressing of sulphate of ammonia will encourage fast, strong growth, whereas phosphate promotes strong and healthy rooting and is an ideal supplement where you are growing carrots and parsnips and won’t lead to forking.

• It is worth checking the pH balance of your soil to see if it is acid (numbers six and below), alkaline (numbers above seven) or nearly neutral (seven).

Most vegetables will thrive on a slightly acid soil in the numerical range of six to seven and if your test provides an acid indicator below six you should dress the soil with lime to 'sweeten’ it.

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