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Improving Your Soil

Ten Ways to Improve your Soil

garden soil types

Soil is the foundation of any vegetable garden, if it is treated well it will reward you. Year by year soil needs to conditioned and improved to accommodate the demands of cultivation and the weather. Here are some supplements that will boost the health of your garden.

Improve your soil with cow manureManure. Farmyard manure from cattle, chickens, sheep or horses, with a high nutrient and trace element content, is ideal for improving and conditioning the soil. It will help the structure of the soil, boost the nutrient content and then continue to release nutrients slowly into the bed over the growing season. Only well rotted manure, that has been left to break down for six months to reduce the excessively high nitrogen content, should be used directly on the soil.

Garden Compost. A readily available resource that requires little effort to produce. Kitchen and garden waste are allowed to decompose naturally with the aid of micro-organisms to form a light, friable material to nourish the soil. Ideally, a well balanced compost with a mixture of carbon and nitrogen based materials will contain all the essential nutrients for replenishing a vegetable bed.

Seaweed in frostSeaweed. Seaweed has traditionally been used as a soil improver in coastal regions because of its high nutrient content and easy availability. It contains significant quantities of nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and magnesium; all the essentials for healthy plant growth. The fresh seaweed can be added like manure or placed on the bed as mulch. It is also available as an extract in liquid or powdered form.

Leaf Mould. Made from fallen leaves, this organic matter is a useful component for conditioning soil. Leaves are collected in autumn, formed into a sheltered heap in the garden, or stored in sealed plastic bags and left to rot for up to two years. The crumbly mixture is relatively low in nutrients but can be mixed with compost for seed-sowing. The best leaf varieties to use are oak, beech, alder and hornbeam.

Growing vegetables with mushroom compostMushroom Compost. Due to its high content of organic matter, the left over material from mushroom farming is used as a mulch and to maintain soil composition. It has an alkaline pH, unsuitable for acid loving plants but ideal for brassicas.

Blood, Fish and Bone. This organic, general purpose slow-release fertilizer is a healthy addition to your garden, promoting strong plant growth. The plant will take up the nourishment as and when it is required, preventing overfeeding or leaf ‘burn’.

Bark. Normally a waste product from the timber industry, wood bark is ideal for mulch or for clay soils needing improved aeration and drainage. It has little nutrients but a high carbon content that may be beneficial in balancing excess nitrogen in the soil.

Grit or Sand. Heavy, clay soils will often need ample addition of aggregates to improve drainage and release their naturally high nutrient content. Be careful when adding sand to a clay soil however, less than 50% sand will actually make matters worse!

Ericaceous Compost. This soil conditioner is lime-free making it suitably acidic for blueberries, azaleas, camelias and rhododendrons.

Improve your soil with green manureGreen Manure. These plants are generally sown in the bed after the main crop has been harvested with their roots maintaining soil structure and foliage acting as a weed barrier. The plant is dug into the bed while still green, returning valuable nutrients to the soil. Mustard, alfalfa and some clover varieties are commonly used this way.

 

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13 comments
  1. Jan Baker

    I have been watching your videos and this year friends and I decided to change some wasteland into veg plots as we have been inspired from your quick crop videos! We have really got into the allotment and it’s such a fun thing that everyone can do. The kids sowed seeds and very excited they have grown. All down to your videos so thank you and keep up the great work!

    1. admin

      Hi Jan. We are absolutely delighted you find our videos useful and that they have inspired your friends and their children to sow some seeds and have some fun outside, that is what it is all about. We have a large filming schedule this year so look forward to being able to show you a whole lot more interesting stuff from our gardens. Thanks for getting in touch and have a great growing season! Andrew

    1. admin

      Hi Paul. The seed pods are exactly that, they are the seeds of the potato plant. The way we reproduce potatoes by planting tubers is essentially cloning, the potato produced will be an exact replica of the tuber you planted. The plant also produces seed pods (this can be erratic, some years they do, some they don’t depending on conditions) which is how new varieties are created by cross pollinating between plants and growing from seed instead of planting tubers. The reason the seed pods look like tomatoes is that potatoes and tomatoes are from the same family (solanacae or deadly nightshade), this is why they both also suffer from blight. I hope this answers your question. Andrew.

  2. Bob H

    We have gardened on two allotments with heavy clay soil. On the first, as well as manure and compost, we were able to have copious amounts of free year old sawdust (not straw) manure which after 5 years or so did improve the soil and make it friable. We were then kicked off to turn the site into a Park. This present plot has worse soil, very heavy clay/silt with a pH well below 6 in places. Ten years on and using straw manure, compost, gypsum and lime it is no different. Grows good veg but backbreaking. Both plots also had White Rot when we arrived.

    1. admin

      Hi Bob. That must have been very frustrating having to leave a site you had done so much to improve. A heavy clay soil is hard work, there’s no doubt about it. I also had heavy and slightly acidic soil which I have improved by adding large quantities of organic matter. I have seen many people with the same problem start by adding very large quantities of spent mushroom compost (about 50/50 soil compost mix) which resulted in a very good texture. They then continued adding manure etc.. and produced a fabulous plot. As you know a clay soil when improved will be very fertile. Thank you for getting in touch and sharing your valuable experiences, I wish you the very best for next season! Andrew

      1. Bob H

        Dug some more spuds today, thought the rain recently would have made the soil easier to work but it was like breaking concrete. The variety Golden Wonder has not done well against the slug onslaught and we have thrown away quite a proportion. they are also very dry and explode if boiled but that is due to the dry summer. You just cannot water spuds sufficiently with a watering can, we are not allowed to use a hose. We will see how the other 3 varieties of potatoes have done when they get lifted. Pleased with the carrots, grow them in an old 50 gal water tank with nice sandy loam, the only way on our soil and it helps keep them up away from the root fly.

        1. admin

          Hi Bob. Thanks again for getting in touch. I still have to dig most of my maincrop as I cut all the foliage down early in the year to control blight. Unlike you we have had a wet Summer potatoes are a good size but I am dreading seeing the extent of slug damage, I’ll be lifting them all this weekend. I agree with you on the carrots, if you have a heavy soil you really have no other option than to use a large planter. I am glad to hear it helps with carrot fly, I have never found this to be successful but probably not raising them up enough. Good to hear from you again. Andrew

  3. Ang Lee

    Andrew thank you for all the useful videos and your ongoing blogs. I appreciate your hard work. I follow you from the US and while my weather is extreme and not constant as it is on the west coast of Ireland where you farm, the information that you provide is very useful for all climates. My question concerns care of my organic raised bed vegetable garden once I have harvested and begin to prepare for the winter. What do I do? Cover the soil? Add organic nutrients? I don’t generate enough compost so have to buy from big box stores. I expect there are raised bed gardeners who have questions similar to mine. Thank you for your information.

    1. admin

      Hi Ang Lee

      Thank you for your question and apologies for the late reply. The key to any vegetable growing whether in raised beds or growing directly in the ground is you need to replace the soil nutrients that have been used by the crops. In the wild when vegetation dies it falls to the ground where it rots down and returns the nutrients used in its growth to the soil around it. In our gardens we remove the plant and eat it so the nutrients never go back into the soil.

      When you have harvested your crops you need to add nutrients in the form of organic garden compost, manure, seaweed or other organic material. Yes, you should cover the soil in your beds to protect from Winter weather and can use a mulch of any of the above or use a plastic sheet. Personally I use organic cow manure with a layer of seaweed on top as I can get both amendments easily so it depends what you can get. If you only have access to big box stores I would look for a poultry manure based slow release feed and garden compost. I would add whatever compost you can generate and cover. The best will be your own compost, if you can’t generate enough it may be worth asking neighbours who don’t compost if you can have their compostable waste to add to your pile.

      I hope this helps

      Andrew

  4. Marion Reid

    I would think the first step to improving your soil should always be testing to see what the current condition is before adding any amendments.

    1. Andrew

      Hi Marion
      Thank you for your comment. Yes, I agree, the first step in improving soil is to test. We have another article on testing soil, this one is just a guide to possible amendments you can make. I am sorry if this wasn’t clear, I will look at bringing the 2 articles together into one piece.
      Andrew

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