Thursday, 21 October 2010

Preparing the Soil


We live in times where just about everybody is suffering from some degree of stress. Modern living lifestyles demand a great need to spend money that may be in short supply.
Although past generations may have been a lot poorer and had just as much if not more stress, they were not aware of it. Television and newspapers have made us all aware of how everyone everywhere is living with special emphasis on celebrity lifestyles.
Now we cant all enjoy that life so we look around for activities at our own level to enjoy or for exercise and relaxation.
There is nothing better than going back to nature, with a walk in the hills, or along the seashore, (we have ample places to visit in Scotland) or turning to gardening where you can indulge in growing a few plants around the house or if you are lucky, on your allotment.
They are now in big demand with councils working hard to reduce the ever increasing waiting lists.
Allotment sites are very sociable places where gardening discussions are going on in every corner to swap information and learn how to grow those huge clean vegetables or special brilliant flower displays.
There is a lot of people coming into allotment life with the romantic notion of relaxing on a seat in the sun amidst the wonderful crops of fruit, flowers and vegetables. For some this is reality, but unfortunately for others they never realised that to achieve this euphoric state without recourse to alcohol, a wee bit of work may have to be performed now and then.
It seems a priority to work hard at creating a visual amenity, so paths,fences, sheds, greenhouses, and patios all get attention. However allotment gardening is about growing plants, and these need soil, so this must not be ignored.
Most seed will germinate and grow on any soil without too much effort, but to grow good plants you need good soil, and if you want great plants that will be admired, you will need very fertile soil.
I would advise every newcomer to gardening or allotments to get hold of a book or subscribe to a gardening magazine and study good soil management. There is also excellent websites on the internet that will advise on everything you ever need to know.
Just ask Google.

Soil amelioration

This topic played a major part in studying horticulture during apprenticeship days as it was the custom to buy in manure or make your own compost or leafmould, and use it in all soils at every opportunity.
Every park kept a leafmould heap. Some were quite huge, especially at Camperdown Park and the old quarry in Balgay Park had been filled in with the parks leaves for years.
As the leaves decomposed on the surface they were riddled to remove twigs and debris then the composted leaves used to ameliorate flower beds, rose beds, and shrub borders.
At the nursery riddled leafmould was sterilised and used to make a Dundee version of John Inness compost where it replaced the peat. It may have helped to save the planet, but the geranium cutting did not like it and losses of 50% were accepted as normal. My lesson was complete when I visited a geranium nursery in England where success was 100% and propagators wore white sterile lab jackets. Cutting were snapped off (no knives used) with just one leaf and inserted into a Jiffy 7 pot. I am still doing the same method now as I grow the same four varieties every year overwintering young rooted cuttings.
Flower beds were always manured in autumn to feed the hungry wallflower plants used for spring displays.
Our training involved both fruit and vegetable culture where manuring every autumn/winter was standard practise and our gardener instructor wanted to grow everything to exhibition standard.
Bulky organic manures feed the soil increasing worm activity and soil organisms which break down the manures into humus. This creates a fertile crumb structure which opens up the soil, aerates it and improves the drainage. Humus also darkens the soil which then warms up more efficiently. Where there is a drainage problem or where plants need a deep root run e.g. roses, fruit bushes and trees, sweet peas, it is advisable to double dig those locations forking in manures at the bottom of your trench.

Organic manures

It is not easy to get hold of good farmyard manure today so go for whatever is available such as horse, cow, pig, hen or even seaweed or leafmould. Most will need to be left for six months or longer to rot down before use.
Remember that these mainly feed the soil to create a good structure and fertiliser will still be needed to grow strong healthy plants.

Compost heap

This is where the fertility comes from. I compost everything unless it is diseased , e.g. clubroot or rose black spot or has seed heads such as poppies. Even domestic newspapers, utility bills, bank statements can be shredded and woody material can be chipped and shredded then added to the heap. Grass cuttings, leaves and annual weeds will all rot down.
However discard or dry out any perennial weeds such as couch grass, mares tail, nettles, willow herb, dockens or dandelion.
Keep the heap for nine months and try to turn it over at least once. Keep it moist to assist worms and organisms, but also keep it covered to retain the moisture and warmth. A good compost heap can kill seeds and weeds during decomposition heat up.

Discovery compost

Dundee council make an excellent very black compost from domestic green waste. This is well rotted and weed free. It is great for adding to soils to dig in or mulch or even added in small quantities to potting composts. It is heavy to handle but for £0.50 per bag of any size it is great value for money.

Green Manuring

This is an excellent method of improving soil fertility. When the early crops such as broad beans, early potatoes, sweet corn, dwarf french beans or even old strawberry plots are finished, dig or fork over the ground, add some fertiliser then scatter some mustard. You can also use annual rye grass, tares, or clover. Dont use mustard where clubroot is a problem as it will hold onto that fungus.
As soon as the first flowers appear, trample down the stems and dig it in before it gets a chance to set any seeds.


Now you have all this lovely compost decide where best to put it. Use the rotation principle where you grow all the heavy feeders together, i.e onions, leeks, beans, courgettes and pumpkins get the lions share, but keep some for the brassicas.
Root crops are happy to grow on soil that was manured for a previous crop, though I still keep some for the tattie patch. Fruit crops do not need any unless used for a mulch, or before planting to get them established.


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