You know when you meet someone at a party who you’ve never met before you have to try quite hard not to ask them what they ‘do’ to get the conversation going? Similarly it’s nigh on impossible not to ask the driver on a nighttime taxi ride “what time are you on till?”.
I have the same struggle trying not to start a monthly gardening bulletin without a reference to the weather. I hadn’t realised how bad it was till I checked back through my last 4 newsletter posts. The result is pretty similar to my maths ‘O’ level – 100% failure.
I suppose as gardeners we are obsessed with the weather as it has such a bearing on our success but don’t let it get you down. My cabbages, broccoli and sprouts were excellent last year because it was so wet. It’s all about working with what the year throws at you rather than battling against it. I sometimes think we may have unrealistic expectations from our gardens and our climate, we all seem to have decided we’re living in the Mediterranean over the last 10 years and expect to be growing all sorts of exotics in cool, temperate gardens. It’s like a Greek grower struggling to grow cabbage on a dry and dusty hillside.
Isn’t it half the fun that we’re intelligent and adaptable? I think we have to accept our weather is changing (that’s another conversation) but let’s try to work around it and to use our knowledge and skill to get the best from our gardens.
How did I get on not mentioning the weather?
I have decided to switch to ‘No Dig’ this year as the more I read about it and see the results of gardeners who practice it, the more it makes sense to me. So to get started the first thing I did was dig up my garden.
What???? I dug my vegetable plot for one last time as I’m turning my garden into a permanent system of raised beds so obviously I need to move the soil around. A ‘No Dig’ approach means you need to avoid compacting your soil by walking on it it so you need to create a system of beds and pathways to allow you to do this.
The idea behind no dig is to protect the beneficial fungal networks in the soil as digging breaks these up. It’s also about adding compost to the top layer rather than digging in your nutrients which opens the soil to erosion and brings weed seeds to the surface. If your soil is too hard and compact for easy planting then you need to improve it by adding to it as no amount of digging or rotavating will improve soil structure it in the long term.
I think organic grower Charles Dowding puts it best when he explains that ‘No Dig’ is the way nature creates the topsoil in the first place. Organic material from fallen leaves and dying vegetation falls to the ground where it decomposes and it worked into the soil by the earthworms. Another famous Charles, this time Darwin, concludes that earthworms add between 25-50mm of topsoil a year in healthy pasture as they secrete their rich ‘casts’ at soil level. This is one reason why archaeologists have to dig so deep to uncover our ancestors remains.
My garden has been carved out of a boggy field so is very wet meaning I have to go to town on the beds and use timber sides to create some height. Raised beds are perfect for a ‘No Dig’ system as you’re very unlikely to want to clamber into them to tend your crops. I like enclosed timber beds as they’re nice and neat but if your garden isn’t too wet and you don’t need the height a system of raised mounds and paths are just as good. The main thing is don’t walk on your beds.
A plants main feeding roots are in the top 15 -20cm (6-8in) of soil so it’s the top layer of soil you need to feed. Digging organic material down into the soil means it takes longer to rot down as there will be a reduced supply of air. Applying bulky organic material as a top dressing both to feeds your soil and helps to keep weed populations down. It’s also worth noting here that the fine, crumbly soil surface you should achieve with regular mulching is very easy to pull weeds from and makes maintenance a whole lot easier.
I can’t recommend adding large amounts of compost to your soil highly enough, it really is the key to your success. You will increase fertility, texture, the number of beneficial earthworms and microbial life. Your crops will be healthier and better equipped to withstand pests and diseases and of course, they’ll taste great. Ideally you’re trying to achieve a rich, dark, crumbly texture. Dark is good because it means there’s plenty of organic matter in it, a sign of a well fed soil. Another ‘spin off’ advantage of dark soil is it absorbs the heat (what heat?) from the sun and will warm quicker in the Spring.
It is impossible for a garden to produce enough compost to support itself because of the amount of material you remove when you harvest your crops. I have quite a big garden and have just added 2 tonnes of cow manure and will be top dressing a further 2 tonnes of municipal compost. My soil was pretty awful to begin with so I have a lot of work to do but you can do the same thing on a smaller scale. On an average soil I would recommend adding at least 30-50mm of compost every year for vegetable growing. This is well worth the investment as with a rich, dark well fed soil you really can grow anything. Green fingers? It really is all in the soil.