The answer lies in the soil

By Richard Wright

Friday, March 14, 2014


The answer lies in the soil

Richard Wright’s rhubarb.


AS TIME flies, gardeners are forced to find new ways of doing things.

As a younger man many years ago, I looked forward to digging a large expanse of ground.

It was satisfying to set a goal, open a trench, ladle in the manure and hear the spade sing in a rhythm — and the job was done, relatively quickly.

As I say, the years pass and while not really old, there doesn’t seem as much time as there used to be, probably because just about everything takes that little bit longer.

And so, people find solutions, short cuts and new ways of doing tasks that achieve similar results.

One such is forking over, instead of a deep dig, which works just fine if a plot is free of bindweed roots.

Well-rotted manure can be applied around growing crops, such as potatoes, and have a similar beneficial effect, although there is no real substitute in my mind to a good, deep dig and getting the goodness to the root of the plant.

But top dressing will provide nutrient as the food leaches down and forking it in will also help to improve the health of the soil, which is vital to crops.

The recent Great Flood brought into sharp focus the importance of good tilth, showing up soils that had been neglected, the incessant rain helping compact the ground and make them sodden and unworkable when others that have good oxygenation could be dug at the weekend.

I have put a lot into my Sandlands soil over the years and, while parts are not quite as good as they might be, even a few dry days made it fairly easy to dig.

Roots rely on good levels of oxygenation and having a medium they can penetrate. The two go together and it is not sufficient to year-on-year pay attention only to applying nutrient.

Structure is vital so the application of organic matter, whether it be manure or — my personally favourite — seaweed, is crucial, both to its ability to absorb oxygen and to hold moisture.

If you have a soil in good heart it is possible to cut corners and avoid a time-consuming deep dig every year.

One system I employ, together with top-dressing, is to have a weed mat on a couple of sections.

Punctured with holes at the correct distance for some of my favourite crops — runner beans, sweetcorn and squash — the mat takes up half of one fenced plot.

Personally, I don’t like the look of the stuff but it means the other half can be cultivated conventionally and the next year the mat can be transferred to it.

The following year it can be turned and moved back, providing the crop rotation the soil needs.

A handy trick to planting the seed potatoes, which have been chitting away in the conservatory, is to 'strip dig’ as a labour-saving method.

Instead of digging the whole plot, fork over only strips 2ft apart, which is a system that only works in land free of bindweed — and that is achievable using a planting membrane which effectively hinders perennial weeds.

Spread a generous portion of chicken manure pellets and trowel those in when planting the potatoes 4ins or so deep.

The compacted 'paths’ between rows will be loosened when earthing up in a few weeks’ time when the top-dressing of manure or seaweed can be added.

I always grow multiple varieties in half rows so instead of labelling them I have taken to drawing a little plan, which avoids confusion and enables me to identify those that are successful and those that are not.

A useful tip from my former allotment neighbour, Eric, for those irksome convolvulus roots:

Never add them to the compost heap (obviously). Just chuck them on a grass path and they will wither and die in days.

The rewards of early planting

MALCOLM wins the allotment prize — again — for the earliest broad beans.

His have been well in flower for days while mine haven’t yet hit the ground running yet.

He planted his in the autumn when I, again, missed that important window of opportunity.

I normally plant my Optica seed on Christmas Eve — I really don’t know why — but this year I just had this feeling that it was going to rain. And it did, which would have made transplanting them into the open ground problematic at best.

The torrents and the howling gales, which stripped new roofing felt off my shed and the sheer force of which broke greenhouse panes, have left their mark on his plants, although he will still get that glorious taste in late spring while I will have to wait, probably until midsummer.

While it may have been wet, the ridiculously mild winter has meant all sorts of plants which survived the deluge are well ahead.

Apples and pears are in bud break and the rhubarb I transplanted last year is a full month ahead at least.

Trust seeks new members

THE IW Gardens Trust is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and plans to broadcast more widely news of its considerable achievements.

The trust, which has done much work to conserve historic gardens and landscapes on the Island, has much work needing to be done and has been lucky enough to secure a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, which promises to uncover some interesting information.

It is also seeking new members and has a reception at the Royal Yacht Squadron on the evening of Tuesday, March 25.

The trust is big on increasing knowledge and passing it on — and there is no requirement for members to have horticultural or specialist knowledge, just an enthusiasm and an enjoyment of visiting special places on this garden isle.

"We have lots of events, activities and volunteer opportunities for people to enjoy — especially during this, our anniversary year," said chairman Susan Dobbs.

General or membership inquiries can be made to 616027 or

Gardeners on TV

KITCHEN gardeners have a chance of TV fame.

Silver River Productions, a TV company based in London, is in production for a BBC2 prime-time gardening show, The Big Allotment Challenge, to be presented by Fern Britton.

The synopsis said: "The series follows a handful of talented amateur kitchen gardeners as they transform a plot of earth into a patch of beauty and reveal all the wonderful possibilities that can be unlocked from allotment growing."

Producers are looking for gardeners with fruit, flower and vegetable skills.

For an application form, e-mail

Facebook Icon Twitter Icon Delicious Icon

More Features

1 - 2 - 3 - 4

Most Read

  1. Police investigate roadside brawl

    Wednesday, August 27, 2014

  2. Historic building vandalised

    Wednesday, August 27, 2014

  3. Effort to save fallen horse fails

    Wednesday, August 27, 2014

  4. Mod mania on the Isle of Wight

    Tuesday, August 26, 2014

  5. 'Flooding risk unacceptable' — Isle of Wight councillor

    Tuesday, August 26, 2014

View our Elgin Traffic & Travel Map