Soil, a Gardener’s Best Friend

I have fond memories as a child making mud pies on a huge mound of mud and sand in the back of my grandma and grandad’s garden. My brother and I must have spent what felt like hours playing in the soil. Rearranging and redistributing it here and there, probably to the horror of my uncle who was in the process of redesigning the garden and quietly counting to ten. Every time we visited we played in the glorious mud so much so that my grandmother told my mum to go out and buy us some dungarees to play in.

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You can’t see it in this photo (maybe a little top left) but behind was the even bigger mountain of soil and sand!

This memory came back to me today as I was digging my carrots out of the soil, don’t ask me why it suddenly came back to me there and then. It could have been down to the fact that I was in awe of the best carrots I’d ever grown so far and I put it down to the sandy, stoneless soil they were grown in.

Let’s be honest, how much time do you give to thinking about the soil in your garden?

No one starts with perfect soil. Some gardeners quite rightly dedicate a vast amount of their time to improving the quality of their soil whilst others just get on with what they’ve got and hope for the best. I’m probably somewhere in the middle and I want to change this. I am really inspired by gardeners that give their garden soil their full attention because at the end of the day without soil, they’d be no garden.

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Soil that’s work in progress.

I’ve always wondered why my uncle gets bountiful harvests at the end of each gardening year and now I’m convinced it’s because he spends so much time on the precious garden resource that sustains and supports these plants throughout the gardening year. I really don’t know why I haven’t thought of it before, it seems so simple and textbook that the one thing you should take great care of in the garden is the soil itself, to ensure your plants have the best start in life. It perhaps could be said that I am guilty of taking soil for granted for a good part of the year.

Don’t get me wrong, I do try to add nutrients back to the soil by adding manure, rotted compost and also bean plants that have been through the shredder in Autumn, it’s just at other times of the year I perhaps don’t give my soil the attention it deserves. I’m more distracted by trying to remove weeds!

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Poor soil in our garden with stones, stones and more stones. Onions battling through at the end of last year!

When it comes to stones I am not very patient at removing them from the soil. I always find that once I’ve removed half a dozen, it seems to me as soon as I’ve turned my back as though they’ve multiplied and more have appeared in that very same spot. Did you know that carrots and other root vegetables, like parsnips, can grow in funny shapes because of the stones in your soil. The vegetable, as it gets bigger, grows around the stones that are in its downward path which is the reason why dedicated gardeners try to remove all the stones for their root vegetables in the first place. This I would say would be easier if you had raised beds and not an open soil plot.

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Carrots that have grown around stones.

Despite not having raised beds, however, a majority of my carrots this year looked like shop bought ones, all long and smooth and I can only say it’s down to the fact that I worked like a trojan tossing stones aside and raking the soil, as well as putting sand in the soil before setting the seed. Of course I must have missed a few stones because I pulled a few funny looking carrots from the ground too, but they’re not without their entertainment and they certainly taste just as good!

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My beauties.

I have to say it’s finally dawned on me and I feel inspired to learn more about soil and give it my full attention. It’s an area of gardening I can honestly say I didn’t give much thought to in the past, yet in future years to come not only will I be grateful to soil for my harvests but I can imagine my plants will be grateful to me for taking better care of their summer beds!

What is soil?

Soil is one of our most prized resources on our planet but one that often gets the last thought. It is made up of pieces of rock, water, air as well as plant and animal remains. Microorganisms too are found in abundance. I have read that in a handful of soil there are more microorganisms in that small amount of soil than there are people on the planet. Amazing when you think about it and there are some bacteria helping to keep the soil in tip top shape by regulating the acidity or breaking up dead organic matter.

Soil has six levels but the layer of soil that is most productive is called topsoil and even that takes five hundred years for just under 3 cm to be made. Despite the length of time it takes for soil to be produced, it can take less time to ruin it.

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We need soil for our plants to grow.

Looking at the fragility of soil, it’s safe to say that without it we wouldn’t have a majority of the plants, including trees, that we see today. Soil provides nutrients and support to plants, and plants in turn provide food and oxygen among other things for humans. There are indeed plants that don’t need soil such as water lilies, but they are in the minority. Scientists have been studying hydroponics (ways of gardening without soil) but have found that plants just don’t grow as well and still believe that soil is the way forward.

What else do we need soil for?

I have already mentioned that the main reason we need soil is for growing and supporting plants which in turn helps humans have food and oxygen yet there are also less obvious reasons why we and other animals need soil.

  • Soil prevents flooding as it absorbs and stores water.
  • It acts as a filter, removing pollutants and cleaning underground water.
  • Soil absorbs and stores 10% of the planet’s carbon dioxide emissions.
  • It provides a home for animals and insects. Worms in return for a damp, dark cosy environment to live in, feed on organic matter in the soil turning it into a rich store of nutrients for plants. Not only that by moving through the soil bed as they munch, worms aerate the soil as well as making it more absorbent.

How can we protect soil?

Soil needs to be cared for not only in our gardens, but also on Earth. On a large scale, it is deforestation (cutting and clearing away trees) to increase agricultural land as well as erosion that are the main culprits in destroying soil. On a smaller scale in our own gardens, it’s lack of understanding and not enough TLC that prevents our soils from improving.

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Sand added to our garden soil in Spring.

In our gardens we can care for soil all year round, giving it the attention it needs by:

  1. Ensuring soil drains well. In my experience, soil that is like clay doesn’t absorb rainwater very well and you end up with large puddles on your vegetable patch. Not only this, if you were to walk on it, the soil loses its structure and becomes compacted. A notable nightmare for digging. I add sand to my clay soil to help with drainage and structure.
  2. Stay off wet soil – soil that has become compacted has, as a consequence, lost air particles and space for roots to grow into. Compacted soil leads to lower yields of crops.
  3. Have a compost bin and add compost to your soil. By doing this you will be helping the environment in two ways. The first that you will be recycling and not throwing organic waste into your bins but second you will be adding nutrients back into the earth where they came from and in the long run improving your soil.
  4. Crop rotation – Moving vegetable plants around your plot in an organised fashion every year will help to keep both plant and soil healthy. I will write a more detailed post on this later in the year!
  5. Test your soil and understand it better. You can learn what type it is (clay, sand, silt…) and also whether it’s a more alkaline or acidic soil. A bonus of doing this is that you will know what grows best in certain areas of your garden and ‘fussy plants’, those that can only thrive in certain conditions, will love you forever.  You will also be more aware of areas in your garden where soil is in poor health and find remedies to help, after all what are best friends for!

 

 

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