A handful of soil

I’m a day late, but what the hell? It’s a great cause, so I’m adding this post to many others for Save the Soils! blogger action day (in my case action day +1… well, what do you expect from a snail?).

When we moved into Chez Snail we didn’t have any soil…we had a thin layer of clay, a patio and a lawn. But where was our soil? Surely there must have been some over the land at some point in the past? The answer, of course, was that the soil had been stripped off the land when the house was built and, no doubt, had been sold (valuable stuff, top soil).

These ones were planted a bit later

Soil in our garden where there used to be none

So, we started making soil… we collected bags of moss raked out of friends’ lawns and sacks of leaves; we made compost from grass clippings and cardboard and kitchen scraps; we got chickens and used their soiled bedding; we built raised beds and primed them with some bought-in soil and them added any organic matter we could think of; we planted a willow hedge, chipped the prunings and incorporated these; we learned to compost dog poo safely ; we boosted nitrogen with urine; we shredded all our confidential waste and added this to the garden, we trained the neighbours to deliver their grass clipping to us… and fifteen years on we do have a productive plot  that contributes significantly to our diet.

Amigurumi Escherichia coli

Bacteria are so important in soil… ok this is a crochet one, but I didn’t have a microscope to hand!

But soil is not just about organic matter – it also contains a mineral element (which varies according to the nature of your bedrock) and lots of living things – from those we can see (like earthworms) to microscopic bacteria, algae, cyanobacteria and fungi. And then there are the marvellous, magical mycorrhiza (also fungi)… mostly hidden from view, but bursting forth into our world when they produce their fruiting bodies – mushrooms and toadstools. And it’s these living things that make to soil the wonderful, productive and dynamic system that it is. Bacteria in the soil and in the roots of some plants can fix nitrogen from the atmosphere… converting it into forms that are available to other living things (like us). Micro-organisms break down dead stuff – plants and animals – converting their bodies into more soil and freeing the nutrients held within them. Without micro-organisms we’d be drowning in dead stuff!

The 'four sisters' bed

All that soil building really pays off

Living things participate in a great cycle of nutrient transfer and harvesting crops means we deplete the soil… hence the importance of putting organic matter back in through composting. Artificial fertilisers just don’t deliver the goods – they give a short-term boost, making micro-organisms go berserk, but leaving the soil depleted or imbalanced in the long term. Compost, on the other hand contains carbon and nitrogen in balance and so the soil micro-organisms get a balanced diet and continue to thrive. Not only that, but compost improves soil structure and enhances water retention… both key to productive plant growth. Plus, if you make compost, you are keeping material out of landfill and building up a bigger carbon store in your garden… every little helps when it comes to reducing our carbon emissions!

So building good soil is a win-win-win-win situation. Even if you only have a tiny back yard or a balcony, you can build a little area of good soil… and if you have no outdoor space, make sure your organic waste goes to a municipal composting facility, so it can boost soil building somewhere else. We can all do something to improve the soil that is the foundation of our lives… after all, without it we are not going to have much to eat!

P.S. In case you didn’t know, I’m an ecologist by training… I’m getting off my soapbox now

Round and around

Most annual crop growing systems benefit from some sort of rotation, where you grow different crops in the beds from year to year so that you don’t get a build up of pathogens and a depletion of specific nutrients. Your rotation can last three or four years, and there is lots of information available on how to plan; for example the Royal Horticultural Society give  a brief outline of both three- and four-year rotations here. In practice, many vegetable gardeners either do not have the space to practice a rigorous rotation (for example not growing potatoes at all, or only growing them in containers) or simply can’t be bothered.

My pick-and-mix placement of crops usually works

My pick-and-mix placement of crops usually works

In my small garden, I could be strict with a four-bed rotation as I do have four raised beds. However, I’m not consistent with the crops that I grow, so sometimes I want more than a quarter of the space given over to one type of crop and sometimes less. Also, I like mixing crops in the same bed, which sort of puts a spanner in the works. And anyway, I’m just too disorganised. I like to be creative and spontaneous, so basically I plant what I feel like where I feel like with the proviso that I don’t plant either onions or potatoes in the same place two years running. In fact I try out new crops each year and some of the less conventional ones (like Aztec broccoli or oca) almost certainly have fewer diseases than the standard offerings  and different nutrient demands. I do try to move my beans around each year because (a) they always get a healthy dose of compost dug into their bed before planting and (b) they are nitrogen-fixers, so should help boost the fertility of the place they have been.

Last year the potatoes grew in it, this year it's being used for mangetout

Last year the potatoes grew in it, this year it’s being used for mangetout

In addition, in my garden, I do lots of container growing. I make use of loads of home-made compost for this purpose and, of course, it doesn’t just get used once.You can’t, however, plan a rotation for your pots in the same way as for land. Last year I used lots of my fresh compost for potato-growing in dumpy bags. After I harvested the potatoes, I left the compost in the bags, but folded the tops down to protect it. I don’t want to grow potatoes in the same compost this year, so that has been transferred into some big pots for growing mangetout up the fence. Compost that has had tomatoes or peppers growing in it usually gets transferred into a bed that will be used for squashes. Because tomatoes and potatoes both get blight, I try to avoid transfer of spores in compost so don’t use compost from tomato pots in potato beds.

It all sounds quite complicated, but actually, I don’t have any difficulty remembering what I grew where (especially since I always take lots of photos) and deciding where to plant. I’m sure there are some of you out there who love an organised rotation, but you are clearly not scatty like me!

And while we moved compost today, Max enjoyed the sunshine!

And while we moved compost today, Max enjoyed the sunshine!

To dig or not to dig

I frequently hear about the value of using a no-dig system when growing vegetables, but a recent post by Deano on his Sustainable Smallholding blog has made me think quite a bit about this issue and about the entrenched ideas that can permeate specific approaches to gardening (or any other aspect of our lives).

If you have read much of this blog, you will know that I am interested in permaculture and using this approach for designing systems in my gardening and elsewhere. Often, in the permaculture world, one finds reference to no-dig systems. The idea is that, in nature, productive systems are able to establish and thrive without any turning of the soil like we use in traditional gardening and agriculture. In order to emulate natural systems, the principle is that organic matter applied to the surface of the soil becomes incorporated into the soil structure by the action of worms and other soil fauna; just like it would in a woodland.

Woodlands produce organic matter that is incorporated into the soil by the fauna

The theory is sound, but in practice it may not be the best option. Natural systems have no ‘agenda’ – the vegetation that develops on a soil is the one that can thrive there. When we garden, however, we have specific aims and a specific time frame: it’s no good having to wait for 30 years for a deep fertile soil to develop when we need to feed ourselves now. Usually the reason for digging is to loosen the soil and to incorporate organic matter. It is true that, in some soils, worms and other soil animals can do this quite quickly, but it is not the case for all soils, as Deano has demonstrated with his heavy clay soil. Clay is a valuable component of soils as it is mineral-rich, but it is also sticky, impedes drainage and dries rock hard, and when it is abundant in soil, it creates a difficult environment for worms. Its presence is to be valued but, like most things, in moderation. Other components of soil – sand, silt, organic matter, water and air – are also important. The addition of organic matter to a heavy clay soil can help to improve aeration, fertility (including the release of chemical elements from the clay) and drainage. Given enough time, worms will do the mixing for you, but if you need it to happen this year, then some mechanical incorporation is the answer.

One of the arguments against digging (or ploughing) is that it damages the soil structure and adversely affects the habitat of the soil fauna. This is, indeed, true. For example repeated ploughing can lead to the creation of a hard, impermeable ‘plough pan‘ at the depth that the plough reaches because it smears the soil at this level. In addition, digging or ploughing causes physical damage to soil fauna and flora – potentially killing worms and chopping up fungal mycelium, mixing up soil micro-organisms, exposing buried organisms to the surface and burying those from the top layers.

So, there are pros and cons… the essential issue is that you must know and understand your soil in order to select the right way to manage it. You must also understand what you need from your soil. It’s about making informed decisions. And this is, perhaps, the real issue: we should not allow sensible ideas to become dogma. There can never be a single solution that fits all situations, and by making rules and being prescriptive will inevitably lead to disillusionment when that answer doesn’t  work.

It’s not just humans who dig!

In fact, I don’t dig my vegetable beds much because, as I have mentioned before, there was very little soil in my garden when we moved in so we build raised beds. The imported soil was light and friable and supports large numbers of worms, which do mix organic matter in quite quickly. Having said that, however, I do dig. I particularly like in situ composting involving digging a hole and burying fresh organic matter – a mix of material high in nitrogen plus something like wood chip or shredded paper to provide carbon and improve structure – especially when I’m planting runner beans or members of the squash family. And sometimes I dig in compost for a quick addition and to stop the chickens chucking it around all over the place. Talking of which, the chickens do quite a lot of digging too!

But, perhaps I need to get to know my soil better in order to make more informed choices about how I manage it and, with this in mind, I’m going to be testing the pH of my beds soon and I will be thinking a bit more about the structure and texture of the soil.

Making connections

I was delighted to observe this week  that one of my hazel (Corylus avellana) trees, a Kentish Cob, has found a friend:

Hazel and friend

There on the right of the main stem you can see the fruiting body of a fungus. I am really hoping that this indicates that there is now a beneficial relationship between the two and that the fungus has formed a connection with the roots of the hazel. Such fungi are known as mycorrhizae (the singular is mycorrhiza) and are a key component of natural woodland ecosystems – they are associated with the enhanced uptake of water and nutrients, resulting in healthier plants that can survive more harsh conditions than those without the association. The fungi benefit too – receiving carbohydrates from the plant.

As you can see, this particular hazel is in a pot, but it is destined for the ground very soon. It arrived last winter when the ground was frozen and so it could not be planted immediately so I put it in a large pot with wool compost. Then  I entirely forgot to plant it out in the spring. Anyway, it seems to be happy and healthy and I hope that it and its companion will enjoy their new home. Fingers crossed that this means an abundance of hazel nuts in the future.

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