What is soil?
Soil is considered to be non-renewable as it takes hundreds of years for weathering to break down stone into the mineral particles in soil. Soil is precious and in drought conditions it can be blown away in great dust storms. Soil is a mixture of organic material, minerals, gases, liquids and organisms.
So much of the world's topsoil has been damaged that it is now just a way of keeping a plant upright and not a growing medium.
The importance of organic rich soil
We eat organic produce so when we got our allotment we gardened organically but only half heartedly tried to improve the soil with the compost we had from the heap. We decided, as some of the areas in our allotment had been used for ten years, this haphazard approach wasn't good enough. We have had a wormery for almost as long but recently purchased a Bokashi bin system. The first trench is dug and we are waiting for the first bin to go through its two week ferment. This didn't work for us the animals over the allotment liked to dig bits up. We now use the Bokashi as a layer in our main compost heap.
After watching a film about soil from The Food Revolution Network we were surprised by the claim that modern farming methods were depleting the soil and with it the soil's ability to absorb carbon. This was corroborated by a Wicked Leeks report, Riverford's newsletter, a couple of weeks later.
So for the coming growing year, 2021, we are planning to focus on improving the soil.
Sandy soil has large particles, silty soil medium sized particles and clay soil very small particles. The amount of these particles determines the texture of the soil and its water retention and nutrient properties.
Fill an empty jar one third full of topsoil, top up with water and shake well. Leave the jar for 24 hours to settle. Layers will form in the jar according to particle size. Sandy soil at the bottom, silty soil in the middle and a clay layer on top. Evenly balanced layers - healthy soil
Another good thing to find out is the pH of your soil. Most plants grow best in a soil with a pH level between 6.5 and 8
Planting beds and paths
One thing we have learnt the hard way is that the less you walk on the soil the better especially if you have a silty or clay rich soil. Our soil is nutrient rich and holds moisture well but the downside of clay soil is that it clings to your boots when wet, compacts easily and dries into a smooth hard surface which the rain will then run off. Last year we started to put down paths and to use beds that we could reach to plant and pick without standing on them too much.
Although it is a relentless task, weeding and digging by hand will eventually give less weeds on the plot. We have bindweed and the last thing you want to do with that stuff is chop it up with a rotavator - every tiny little piece will grow.
If dandelions are your problem make wine. We picked three bags full of dandelion flowers, made wine and have never been able to gather enough since!
If you are not walking all over your beds the soil will be loose enough to use a fork and wiggle the weed from the soil taking most of its roots. We have lots of self sown companion plants such as calendula, borage and nasturtium so leave the shoots to grow until we can identify what they are. In between plants or in a bed you want to seed it is best to hoe regularly.
No Dig Gardening
This year (2021) we are trialing some beds using the No Dig method. Using the no dig method allows the soil to heal itself. The microbes living in the soil live symbiotically with the plant roots. Weeds are smothered and struggle to grow. Nutrients are kept in the soil and are not washed away nor blown away in the dust. The improvement in the soil will help with water retention. If you want to learn more probably the best known exponent of no dig is Charles Dowding.
However, be warned no dig sounds like less work but to set up it is time consuming hard work. We have brought in a lot of alpaca manure, leaf mould and cardboard. Luckily we have been able to source these for free. We have had to improve our composting in order to provide enough compost to lay down.
You can never have too much compost, it takes time to be ready anywhere from 6 months to two years depending on how you store it and whether you are turning it. The bigger the heap the the hotter it gets which will speed up decomposition. Homemade compost when ready will smell earthy. There are different ways of composting we have a traditional heap and have been given several plastic composters which are useful to have even if one is just full of sticks and has a grass snake and a slow worm family in it!
Find details of what to put in the compost and links to useful information here
Vermiculture - Using a Wormery
Find details of what to put in a wormery and links to useful information here
Find details of what to put in a bokashi bin and links to useful information here