Recent posts on Real Men Sow have featured a theme of end-of-season reflection. I’ve looked at the good and bad of 2018, whether my massive squash plants were actually a hindrance and even pondering the reason for growing my own vegetables.
There’s something else that has also got me reflecting too. I’ve not had to think that hard to work this one out, but it has been a very welcome reminder: the soil is king, and its health and fertility are vital for good crops.
The squashes went mad because the soil has been amazingly fertile. The other crops that did fight their way through the mess have also been brilliant. The mangetout, beets, sweetcorn, and carrots that were in that bed were the best I’ve ever grown.
In the other main bed, things haven’t been as huge and the plants have not looked anywhere near as healthy. Although both were new beds, the soil was different, and it was clear there wasn’t as much good organic matter present as there was in the squash bed.
Here are some pointers that will help my second bed be as good as my first, and hopefully help improve your soil too.
What is Organic Matter?
To grow healthy, bountiful fruit and veg, we are reliant on the soil. Feeding the soil to create a rich base for our plants is arguably the most important thing a veg grower does all year.
To improve the long term fertility and structure of the soil, we need to be adding organic matter. Organic matter is the partially decomposed remains of soil organisms, vegetation and plant life, such as grass and leaves.
Although organic matter will typically only account for a small part of the soil makeup, it plays a vital role in holding everything together and retaining moisture, as well as storing and providing nutrients and food for all forms of life within your soil.
Adding organic matter to your soil is an ongoing job, as the plants you grow will eventually use up all the nutrients and that goodness will need replenishing.
Types of Organic Matter
Often, the type of organic matter that you add to your soil will depend on individual factors, such as space, cost, and what is available locally.
Horse and cow manure is a popular organic matter amongst generations of gardeners. The very best muck is the jet black, well-rotted stuff that has been left for a year and is often delivered to allotment plots on the back of trucks.
Well-rotted, homemade compost is an exceptional form of organic matter, but making enough can be tricky if you have a large allotment. However, it’s easy to make and cheap.
When I lived by the coast, I used seaweed. The black, bladderwrack type contains all the nutrients plants require for good growth, and can be dug straight in without washing the salt off.
Spent hops are another freebie manure, and are often left outside local breweries for gardeners to take away. Again, these can simply be dug straight into the soil.
Green manure involves growing a cover of specific plants right across a bed, and digging in later on. A good crop of green manures offers protection to the soil during bad weather, suppresses weeds, and stops nutrients from escaping.
How to Add Organic Matter
The organised allotmenteerist will add their organic matter of choice during the Autumn. Most of the beds will have been cleared ready for Winter, and doing this job early will give any organic matter the maximum time to rot down into the soil. Don’t panic if you miss this deadline though – any time through Winter will still be okay.
Spread a layer of the organic matter all over your beds. Approximately 2 – 4 inches in depth is perfect. If there are any veg still left in the bed, don’t go too close to them as the richness in the manure can sometimes burn the plants.
Some gardeners choose to leave the manure on the top to allow the worms and other microorganisms to incorporate it into the soil as they go about their daily business. This is called the No Dig Method.
Traditionally, manure is dug in, either at the point of spreading or at a later date once the organic matter has had a chance to work into the soil. Dig the soil into the depth of your spade, and break up any clumps before sowing or planting.