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.
Generally, this is done annually during the Autumn and involves adding bulky organic matter to our beds. The organic matter helps replenish the nutrients that have been taken out of the soil by the previous season’s crops. Veg plants feed incredibly hard during the growing season, so replacing the lost goodness is vital for continuing success.
So, what does everyone add to the soil to restock the goodness? This will generally depend on individual factors, such as space, cost, and what is available locally. Here are a few examples of organic matter that I’ve used with success.
Horse and cow manure is a traditional and 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.
Animal manure is high in nutrients, making it ideal for digging into the soil. A good load can cost up to £20, but this often depends on how keen people are to shift it. My local livery yard can’t move it quick enough and are more than happy for people to fill up trailers and bags from their muck mountain for nowt.
Well-rotted, homemade compost is like black gold. High in nutrients, it is easy to make from an equal mixture of nitrogen ‘rich’ greens (e.g grass cuttings, vegetable peelings, spent veg plants) and carbon-rich ‘browns’ (e.g. cardboard, paper, straw), either in a designated compost bin, or piled up and covered with old carpet.
Compost is free and once you’re got a system licked, available whenever you want it. Creating enough to cover a whole allotment or veg plot is a challenge, but some local Councils sell their own green waste compost which can be used to bulk up your own stock.
Living near the river has been a rich source of freebies for me, and none more so than the bladderwrack which is washed up after every tide. If you’ve got access to the sea, a barrowfull of the slimy black weed can be gathered in no time at all.
Seaweed contains all nutrients plants require for good growth, and can be dug straight in without washing the salt off.
If you are collecting seaweed, take care not to remove too much from one area, or dislodge rocks in the process, as these provide important habitat for estuary creatures such as crabs.
Leaf mould is low in nutrients, but is an excellent soil conditioner and helps maintain moisture. I use lead mould primarily to bulk up garden compost, although I find it an ace form of mulch on its own.
The mould is easy to make, but the leaves can take a year or so to rot down. Simply gather up leaves, put them in a plastic bin liner, and pierce a few holes into the bag.
And some I haven’t used…
Many growers advocate green manures, but I must confess I’ve only used them once. 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 stop nutrients from escaping.
I’m keen to try using green manures again, as access to both my garden patch and allotment isn’t brilliant, so the opportunity to grow a soil conditioner there and then would be very handy.
Have you used green manures or any other organic matter to improve your soil? How did you find them?