17 June 2009

Improving your soil

I think it's wonderful that there are a lot of new vegetable gardeners now. Growing food is part of a new way of living for some, it helps others keep to their budget, and some people see it as a healthy activity producing organic food for the table. Whatever the reason, producing some of your own food is a good thing. It gives us life skills, it's a great activity to enjoy with the kids and it takes us into the natural world outside our door everyday. But vegetable gardening is a complex simple activity. It requires an amount of expertise and skill to be good at it. That comes with time, by simply gardening every season. Each year you learn new things, it's an activity for the brain as much as it is those other wonderful things. If you're a new gardener, I encourage you to buy a very good organic vegetable gardening book that is suitable for your area. The one I use here most often is Lyn Bagnall's Easy Organic Gardening and Moon Planting, but I also like, and often read, Linda Woodrow's The Permaculture Home Garden. You don't want a book full of pretty pictures, you need one that has good practical information about gardening in your climate.

If you have no reference book yet, check out your local library to see what they have or ask your local gardening club which of the organic vegetable gardening books suits your area best. Once you have your book, read about soil types, worms, compost etc, but about what you're about to plant. If you're doing the 3x3 method, read as much as you can about those nine vegetables. A good book will give you information about soil conditions, seed or seedling spacing, fertilising, plant growth, plant maintenance and harvesting specific to each of your vegetables.

The thing that will help most with growing vegetables is to plant them in good soil. You don't have to start off with good soil, we didn't, our soil is clay, but over the years, because we added compost and organic matter each year, it's turned into the most beautiful loam. The range of soil goes from sandy, to loam, to clay. Sandy soil has very little organic matter and will therefore be unable to hold water, support worms and microbes or provide a suitable growing medium for your plants. Treat it with organic matter and compost - mulch your plants with straw or hay, it will break down and add organic matter to the soil. Loam is good for most vegetables. It has an amount of organic matter, good structure and will support the unseen life of microbes and worms. To keep it that way, add compost every year, and mulch your plants with straw or hay. Clay is full of nutrients but the structure is so dense, it doesn't allow air in or water to drain away. The solution? You guessed it - add compost and organic matter, with a bit of gypsum. That will break up the clay and give you excellent soil after a couple of years.

If you have deficient soil that you want to plant in this season, there is a way. Either build a no dig garden or dig compost and organic matter into your entire garden and plant into pockets of pure compost. The second option would be my preference. After a few seasons doing this, you'll eventually improve even the worst soil - either sandy or clay, and you'll get wonderful healthy vegetables. BTW, organic matter can be many things like old grass clippings, worm castings, shredded newspaper, vegetable peels, straw etc, or a combination of all of them - you need to dig it in well. The best kind of organic matter is compost which is all those things previously mentioned that have been wet and allowed to decompose. The structure of compost is very similar to that of loam so it gives the tiny seedling roots a good medium in which to grow. If you're serious about your gardening, I encourage you to build a compost heap. Not only will it give you valuable compost, it will help you reduce the amount of "rubbish" you put in the garbage bin.

Tomorrow, I'll write about fertilising leafy green vegetables and fruiting vegetables because some of you mentioned recently that you over fertilised. The following day I'll write about making compost in the backyard.

Don't expect to have perfection or success with every thing you grow. Gardening is a natural process that we can assist but not control. The best way to approach gardening in the first few years is to plant only what you can manage, plant what you eat, and learn as you go. I learn new things every year and I've been gardening for yonks. Being a gardener is like joining a secret club full of generous people who will help you whenever they can. Your part of the bargain is to help others in years to come. If you can do that, you'll be a true gardener and worthy of the title.



  1. I like your ideal of getting an organic gardening book for your area.
    I'll just google in "Organic gardening North Idaho"

    Coffee is on.

  2. Good morning Rhonda. I've always left the gardening to the man with the green thumbs in our family but I am getting more involved now. A Web site I've found very helpful is
    It's amazing to read about someone growing lots of food in the arid mid-north of South Australia. There is a whole section for beginners:

  3. I really enjoyed reading your blog. Lately I have not had much time for blog reading since summer is coming into full swing here, and you guessed it....I'm in the garden! Veggies and flowers! Will check back soon!

  4. I live in an area with about 1cm of topsoil over clay. I favour no-dig raised beds over any kind of tillage here. The first reason is to minimise effort; the second is drainage; the third is the need to prevent compaction. Besides, I have weeper hose laid down, and whenever I use a garden fork I puncture it!

    My tip for finding useful gardening books is to check where the writer lives and go local. In Australia, it is not necessary to specify 'organic' to get a good book, as there's a strong tendency among all gardeners to minimise the use of synthetic chemicals (scratch a gardener, find a greenie).

  5. I love learning everything I can about gardening. Thanks for helping us all.

  6. Yes indead, thank you for helping us out with your tips and trucs.

    Greats from Holland.

  7. Hi Rhonda, I have only recently discovered your blog but have been delighted with all the informative posts I have come across. I look forward to many a cold night (Melb winter) sitting up in bed with the laptop perusing! I have just planted my first vegie patch and it will very much be an experiment...I have made a raised bed and planted carrot, celery, onion and sweet peas. I also made a compost bin on the weekend. It is all so exciting. And after a week in the office it is so nice to get out in the fresh air.
    I read your post about making soap and have decided to give it a go, I just need to get the ingredients together - I can't wait!!
    Thanks for giving me some direction for all this creativity that has been trying to get out!!! :-)

  8. Dear Rhonda,

    many thanks for such a helpful and encouraging post. My soil here is Wellington clay and stones, however, I can a see a way forward to a wee veggie garden over our next Summer.

    I send many, many happy and caring thoughts for Shane and Sarndra's wedding.

    June the 6th was my parent's 50th wedding anniversary. We were blessed with glorious weather both that day for the "do" at their home in Tauranga, and the next at a lunch out for immediate family.

    I think this bodes well for Shane and Sarndra's June wedding.


    care and huggles, Michelle and Zebbycat in a chill yWellington tonight, xxx

  9. why were my started from seed plants so spindly? Some looked like a bad science project. I'm learning so I can do better next year. The green peppers were good and part of the tomatoes..

  10. I am very excited as our corn, potatoes and cucumbers just popped up overnight. This is the first year for us with a garden and we were pretty worried about the soil. We have begun to compost and will add it each year to the garden to really get the soil up to par. This year was an experiment so if we don't harvest too much, I won't be disappointed. I am learning more about the soil, sun location that will benefit us alot next year. Keep posting Rhonda! I love your blog. Have a great day! :)


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