Few of us garden with perfect soil, so improving its quality should be of interest to us all. But where do you start and how do you go about it?
One-third of the world's soils are already significantly degraded, and with a growing population, this is something that we can't blithely ignore.
But how does this big issue relate to your little patch?
To celebrate World Soil Day, I'll be taking you through how you can improve your soil the natural way over several articles. There's no time like the present!
- Soils are more than just particles of clay, sand and silt. They are filled with thousands of tiny organisms! Without these crucial organisms, plants would struggle.
- Each handful of soil could hold more than 50 billion life forms! Just imagine that when you next pick up a handful of 'dirt'. That's more life in your hand than there are people on earth!
- Of course, most of these life forms are invisible to the naked eye and include various forms of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and mycorrhizae. Some are bigger, like the familiar earthworms, beetles, woodlice and perhaps even millipedes.
Mycorrhizal growth on pine tree roots
- Most of these life forms are responsible for the breakdown of dead plant material - both leaves and roots - and turning them into an essential soil component - humus.
- Humus is made up of decaying plant and animal material. It is highly nutritious to plants as it is rich in minerals and microbes vital for healthy growth.
- Encouraging plenty of humus in our garden soils is essential to its health.
- The composition of your soil will depend mainly upon your garden's location. There's not a whole lot that you can do about it except to accept and learn to live with it.
- But there are some things you can do so that your blooms are better, your crops heavier and your soil just that bit easier to manage.
- For most gardeners, loam soil is the 'holy grail'! Loams have an equal balance of sand, clay and silt particles which gives it the benefits of each component but few of the disadvantages.
- To change your soil from say a sandy soil to a loam takes time and a very deep pocket, as huge volumes of clay and silt will need to be added. Check out this article to learn more about the structure of your soil.
The Importance of pH
- Testing to find out whether your soil is acid or alkaline is simple and will save you money in the long run.-Trying to grow lime hating (calcifuge) plants in a soil with a high pH (alkaline) will be a waste of money as they won't thrive.
Red new leaves of a Pieris calcifuge plant
- For most plants to flourish the pH should be close to neutral (pH 6.5), as many nutrients become inaccessible to plants at both high and low pHs.
- Adding lime to the soil will be necessary to raise the pH for most gardeners who grow fruit and vegetables since most grow best with a neutral pH.
- However, if the underlying base material is chalk or limestone, then the pH is likely to be above neutral.
- Calcium is a crucial element required for plant growth and is present in lime.
- Where a high pH prevents the addition of lime, then gypsum can be used instead. Incidentally, gypsum is useful in clumping clay particles together to form a crumb structure. Soils with a crumb structure are easier to work with.
- Waterlogged soils kill plant roots. They become so wet that roots quite literally suffocate. Air is another essential element of healthy soils and is needed for roots to thrive.
- Soils lacking good structure will drain slowly and after heavy rain may often result in considerable surface runoff.
The author digging drainage trenches
- Surface runoff carries soil particles into water systems and can ultimately lead to blocked drains, streams and rivers. And you will also be losing your best soil!
- Underground drainage systems may be necessary to improve the soil in your garden. These can only be effective if your property has a good outlet for the drained water to run away.
- No-dig gardening is a method of growing plants without digging the soil.
- This is especially useful for growing vegetables and has produced some remarkable results.
Charles Dowding's no-dig garden
- It is argued that digging destroys much of the natural life in the ground. You will undoubtedly be burying the best bit of your soil - the top layer - underground.
- This technique is by no means new but has rarely featured as a mainstream technique.
- Farmers are using minimum tillage techniques to reduce soil damage, reduce costs, retain soil moisture and reduce soil erosion.
-Yields of vegetables grown using the no-dig technique are often as good or better than where conventional digging is carried out.
- And you get vegetables without all that hard work too!
- Growing plants in raised beds has become very popular recently and allows you to focus on improving the soils in a small area, rather than your whole garden.
A raised vegetable bed
- Working along paths between raised beds reduces damage to the soil from our own weight.
- Soils within a raised bed tend to warm up earlier in spring and may remain warmer in autumn to extend the growing season.
Find out more about how to improve your soil here -