Doing the Groundwork
Soil doesn’t look very exciting, but it provides the heart of the garden. It is like a supermarket, supplying water, air and food to the plants it has growing in it. It also gives roots something to grip onto, so that they can hold plants upright. To garden successfully, you need to know a bit about your soil. This can vary from garden to garden, or, in some cases, within the garden itself. So although looking over the fence at the neighbours’ plots can be helpful when you want some idea of what grows and what doesn’t, you can’t just assume that your plot has been looked after to the same extent.
Soil is Not Dead
There is plenty going on underground which is essential for the smooth running of the garden. Soil contains billions of microscopic organisms, some of which are beneficial and some harmful. The beneficial bacteria eat plant and animal remains, turning them into plant food. Digging plenty of garden compost and manure into the soil is a good way of adding extra good bacteria, but don’t put diseased plants onto the compost heap, otherwise the harmful organisms will be spread when you use the compost.
Encourage the Worms
Worms are extremely good for the soil as their burrows make tiny airways that aerate the soil and also help to drain water away. They are the labour force you want to encourage. They eat their way through the job, allowing enormous quantities of soil and organic matter to pass through their bodies. This is the first stage in breaking down organic matter into humus. The worm casts you see on the surface are just the tip of the iceberg; they are deposited within the soil as well and play an important part in forming soil crumbs. They are rich in minerals, micro-organisms and nutrients which the plants can use straight away. Finally, the worms become a fertiliser themselves. Their bodies are a rich source of protein (ask any bird) and when they die and are recycled they return nitrogen to the soil. Basically then, they are the most natural fertiliser you can get, so do your best to encourage them! We disturb hundreds of them every time we add more kitchen peelings to the compost bins in our garden. Lovely grub!
Digging for Success
Gardening isn’t a natural activity. In the wild you won’t find the same variety of plants growing in a particular area as you will in a garden. We want our gardens to grow a huge variety of flowers, fruit or vegetables in close proximity and expect them to look good all the time. We take a lot out of the soil by harvesting crops, which would otherwise be returned to the soil for future enrichment. Even pruning, grass cutting, weeding, collecting dead leaves and plants from the soil impoverish the soil further. The general rule should be to always put something back after you’ve borrowed from the soil bank. Digging helps to aerate the soil and expose pests to predators. It can also encourage the wildlife that eats vast quantities of pests. We have a resident robin, who sits so close by when we’re digging that I always worry that he’ll get hit by the spade or fork. Digging also gives you a chance to add humus-forming manure or compost to your soil. For heavy clay soils this is a must as it will improve the structure. Autumn and winter are the best times for digging, although if you’re like us, you’ll still be at it in the spring.
The No Dig Approach
There is a school of thought that says that you can improve the soil without a lot of heaving soil around by digging it. We tried this once, but I can’t say it was a great success on the vegetable front, although having heavy clay soil to start with isn’t ideal. It’s worth a try in a small area, though, or if you suffer from back problems. Spread manure or compost on the surface in a layer up to 15 cm (6 in) deep. As far as possible, keep the area continually mulched. Scrape away the mulch to plant seedlings or to sow seeds. You need a lot of mulch for this, so try it after you’ve got the compost bin going. Avoid walking on the mulch as this will compact the soil, prevent water draining away and make it harder for roots to penetrate and develop.
Digging a Small Area
Use a spade for normal digging, but choose a fork to loosen ground that has already been turned over, or when perennial weeds are a persistent problem. A fork is less likely to slice through the roots and leave pieces behind to grow again. By shaking the soil through the prongs it’s easier to remove troublesome weeds. For a small area of ground, use a spade and drive into the ground at right angles. Push as far in as possible without having to push it in with your foot, 15-20 cm (6-8 in) is far enough. D
on’t be tempted to be too ambitious with quantity of soil, or you might end up with back problems. If you’re not used to physical labour, then be extra careful and work up gradually. As you get better at it, then you can use your foot more. Pull back on the handle, using it as a lever to loosen the bite of soil. Lift the spadeful of soil, keeping your back as straight as possible and doing the lifting with your knees. Flick the soil off, inverting it to bury the weeds. If you’re lucky, most annual weeds will be killed, and will decompose. Perennials like dock, dandelion and nettles, however, must be removed to prevent spread. Throw the soil forward slightly as you work, then rake it level when preparing the soil for planting. When you reach the end of a row, work back in the opposite direction.
What Sort of Soil?
We’ve ‘looked after’ many gardens in different parts of the country over the last 30 years. That’s the fun of moving house and area. We’ve had all soil types but mostly, it seems, the hard work variety. All gardens can be hard work, and digging can’t really be avoided. The advantage of chalk soils is that drainage isn’t a problem, but then again, retaining moisture can be a disadvantage in dry weather. Our current garden is on the edge of a marshland. Lovely views, old mature garden, we thought we’d got it made until we tried digging into solid clay.
After 14 years we’re finally winning, but we’ve only achieved this by a lot of hard work and digging in lots of compost, leaf mould, bonfire ash and sand. Even then, there are flower borders we only get to every so often, and there are distinct layers of clay and loamy soil, on the sloping site. What a contrast then, to inherit a garden in southern France which had been untouched for about 15 years. What joy to cultivate a sandy loam! The disadvantages are that the area is prone to drought and the soil is incredibly well drained, but after years of heavy digging, this is a doddle. It just means you have to be aware of soil type all the time and plant accordingly. Soil may be acid, neutral or alkaline. Some plants prefer one type, although most popular plants are fairly easy going and grow in any kind except extremes. You can buy a test kit in a garden centre which will check the pH, or the scale used to show acidity or alkalinity, and this might be a good idea if you move to a new garden, but why not just grow what the soil likes, and settle for the odd fussy plant in a container? So, whatever pH or soil type, there’s no real substitute for digging to:
• AERATE THE SOIL
• HELP DRAINAGE
• HELP THE WORMS
• WORK IN ORGANIC MATTER