15 February 2010

Simple Living Series - Enriching the soil

There is one thing you can do that will improve your harvests and the quality of your produce more than any other - enrich your soil before you start planting.  There is an old gardeners saying that is as true today as it was when it was first said: Feed the soil, not the plant.  Garden soil is not just rock particles, organic matter, water and air; good soil also contains microbes, fungus, worms, nematodes and a range of other "life" that hasn't yet been identified.  Good soil is alive.
The garden yesterday afternoon after Hanno had been working there for a few days. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

If you're starting off with mediocre soil that has been struggling to produce food in previous years, or has never been productive, the one thing I urge you to do it to work on your soil before you even think about planting.  That one thing will make more difference than anything else you do.  When we started vegetable and fruit gardening in our backyard 13 years ago, the soil here was undisturbed heavy clay.  We started by enriching the soil and making compost.  Then we planted various plants directly into bucket size pockets in the soil that we filled with compost.  We had small yields during those first years, but eventually, with continued additions of compost and whatever other organic matter we could find, such as lawn clippings and manure, we eventually turned our almost sterile soil into a fertile oasis.
Quentin has recently started laying.

We are not no-dig people.  We dig our garden.  We believe you get the best crops and the full measure of your soils - with all the nutrients and minerals they can provide, if you plant directly into the top soil.  If you can keep your topsoil alive by adding worm castings, worm juice, manures and well made compost, you'll be giving whatever you plant the best chance of producing maximum crops.
After the beds were dug over and weeded, Hanno moved the perennial Welsh onions to their new growing space for this year - the top garden bed near the bird bath.

So if you're thinking of starting a garden this year, you need to work on two things - making compost and enriching your soil.  I will write about compost tomorrow.  Even if you've been working on your soil for a while, you need to do it every year.  Each year you plant, that crop of plants will use the nutrients you add to the soil.  This is a continuing task to be carried out every year - add more organic matter and enrich the soil.
Some plants are still growing well.  Above you can see eggplant and pumpkins, along with an orange tree and passionfruit vine that self seeded and is now growing vigorously along the picket fence.

If you've never planted anything in your garden before, you'll need to know the pH level of your soil.  This is the level of acidity/alkalinity in the soil.  Some plants like a more acid soil, some like it more alkaline but the vast majority of plants will grow well in the range pH 5 - 7.  If your soil is too acid, add agricultural lime to help balance it out.  If it is too alkaline, add compost and organic matter.  Clay soil can be corrected over time with the addition of gypsum  at about 500 grams (1 pound) per square metre.  If you are blessed with good fertile soil you won't have to bother with all this palaver but the majority of us will have poor soils that we have to work on.
The girls on their daily gardening expedition.  This picture was taken about two weeks ago before Hanno started cleaning up for this season's crops.

So if you're starting from scratch, your first step is to dig your soil over and test it for pH.  Make the necessary adjustments, if needed, and water the soil.  You are trying to encourage microbes and worms to live there and it must be moist and nutritious for that to happen.  As soon as you start adding compost and other organic matter like manure, and if you keep the soil moist, the worms will come from no where.  They will further help you break up the soil because they'll burrow through it making tunnels for water and nutrients to flow.  They will eat and excrete and over time, will help develop the life in your soil.

Some plants, like comfrey, send down deep tap roots that mine the soil for minerals.  Those minerals are stored in the leaves of the plant and when you use something like comfrey for fertilising or activating your compost, you'll get the benefit of the high nitrogen leaves and the minerals they contain.  So it is a good idea to plant comfrey at the edges of your garden so you have a regular supply of high nitrogen and mineralised fertiliser.  Comfrey will grow in poor soil but it likes moisture so pick a spot where the water collects - make sure it's not a prime vegetable growing space, and plant your first bits of comfrey.  It grows well from roots.  Make sure of your place because once planted, it's difficult to get rid of it. 
The chooks love getting into the garden - during the normal growing season they're fenced off from the vegetables.

If you have chooks, let them into the garden while you're building up the soil.  They'll scratch around, leave their droppings, eat bugs and insect eggs that you can't see and generally improve the fertility of the soil simply by being there.  We let our chooks into our garden over the past two months.  They've eaten the comfrey down to the roots, picked all the leaves from the capsicums (peppers), turned over the compost heap several times and eaten every caterpillar and grasshopper in the place.  We don't worry about this damage, the leaves will grow back and the chooks do much more good than harm.  Because of their hard work, we are starting off our gardening year with a clean slate.  When you plant seedlings and have your garden in full production, you'll have to keep the chickens out of your garden.  We do this by fencing off the vegetable garden from the rest of the garden the chickens usually free range in.

Just to recap:
  1. Dig the soil over and remove the weeds
  2. Test for pH
  3. Make the necessary adjustments (see above)
  4. Water the soil and keep it moist
  5. Fence the garden off from chickens and pets
  6. Let the chickens in to scratch and feed during this period of soil enrichment
  7. Add compost and organic matter like cow, horse, pig, sheep manures.
    Tomorrow we'll discuss compost and how to make it from what you have at home.


    1. I love gardening, and so particularly enjoyed this post - and reading the details of your own gardening cycles, too. I love all of the photos your provide - please keep them coming!
      Tracy (Brisbane)

    2. So when I plan out my vegie beds I should also be planning a fence.

      Here is my question???
      How high should it be and how do I keep other critters out? (ie. racoons, skunks and the like....)

      I am plannning out the area on paper now and want to have it done as right as possible the first time.

      Looking forward to your compost article. Not sure where I am going to place it yet.

      ----Krystal from Nova Scotia, Canada

    3. You may have discussed this in a previous post but it's a hard topic to search for. I'd like to know what the advantages are for raised-bed gardening.

      I enjoy your blog; I've picked up a lot of tips and reaffirmed some things I've been doing against the grain.

    4. Hi Tracy and Krystal

      Krystal, I have no experience of racoon or skunks. Maybe someone commenting here will be able to help you. My fence works against what we have here - a dog and chooks. We also have free ranging peacocks and bush turkeys but they only visit during the day and we can scare them off when we see them. I plant extra for the wild birds and don't mind them taking from the garden. But you are right to get your fence sorted before you plant. Critters of all sorts will decimate any garden - they don't see your garden and "yours". They just see new food.

    5. Marti, I see no benefits in raised garden beds. I believe the best way to garden organically is to dig the soil. There will be some here though who will disagree. I can only speak from our experience here and say that our gardens produce more than enough for as long as we care to keep tending them.

    6. Thanks Rhonda. Looking forward to these posts on gardening. I love sneaking peaks at what other people do in their gardens.

      Raised beds work well to increase the temperature of your soil to extend your growing season a little if you have cold winters. It can also improve drainage if you need that. It can help deal with invasive grasses too.

      I've planted lots of green manure crops this year as I've only just made my garden - like mustard, lupins, phacelia, buckwheat. They protect the soil, and you can dig them in to enrich the dirt, or pull them up to add to the compost pile. You can also leave them till flowering/seeding stage before composting and then they are very carbon rich, which is what the soil needs to maintain it's structure.

    7. ms lottie, I agree that green manures are an excellent way to enrich soil. We were going to plant some this year but decided to let the chickens in instead.
      In addition to those very good green manure crops you mention, throwing in oldish green bean and pea seeds that are left over from your planting, make great green manures. Like you did with yours, you just cut them off or dig in when they're at the flowering stage. Leave the roots in as they often have nitrogen nodules attached to them.

    8. Thanks for the update. We started our little garden last year, and plan to grow even more this year. I've never thought to test the ph of the soil, so thanks for the advice.
      When I worked for a while in a nursery, the horticulturalist told me to start with rubbish soil and build in the nutrients myself, that way it's perfect for our little backyard micro climate and no nasty chemicals.
      We have a raised bed. The advantage to us is that it's portable and easier on the back.

    9. we have just started planting again,one garden bed is right to go, but the other the water just runs off. may have to get it tested. loved your post, since reading your blogs my garden has been the best ever. l even have a whole row of herbs that lam starting to use regularly.

    10. Great advice. I just manured my garden beds today. Not the most fun garden task, but I know it makes a big difference.

    11. Good morning Rhonda. We've had good yields from our small efforts this summer but your reminder to feed the soil is timely as we begin to think about cool weather crops. Thanks.

    12. Rhonda Jean what do I do about enriching the soil around my fruit trees without harming them? They have only been in the ground 6 to 12 months but I know our soil is so devoid of life that the nutrients I put in when I planted will now have been used up.

    13. Thank you so much for the tips on gardening! I think we are going to try raised beds this year....gophers.

    14. Hi Rhonda,
      Thankyou for all the info today, it always such a help.Do you know what the fat little white grubs are they are about 2cm long curled up, that are alway in the soil? are they good or bad? We keep on giving them to our chickens.

      Erika :0)

    15. Excellent post! Just yesterday afternoon I was watching our small flock of chickens (nine) munch away in our garden beds eating some weeds which have grown over the winter. And thinking to myself how easy this spring planting should be since I don't need to pull all those by hand! We added both bunnies and chickens to our little suburban homestead last year (less than 1/4 acre) and have been enriching the soil with the manure this winter, along with adding some to our composter. The soil is almost black, just gorgeous! I'm excited to see how the garden does this year.

    16. Excellent gardening advice! I love growing food for my family, and playing in the soil just calms my soul.... Thanks for the hard work you put in on yor blog.

    17. The advantages for raised beds (I mean *really* raised here) are:
      - good for wheelchair gardeners or people who can't bend much
      - practical if the ground is inhospitable, eg mostly rock, sand or clay, very alkaline, contaminated or boggy, or if you are gardening on concrete
      - to contain weedy plants
      - to prevent damage by certain animals
      - helpful if resources (water, organic matter) are limited, because they are contained

      My garden beds are slightly raised and I don't dig, because the clay subsoil is right under the organic matter I've been laying down for years, and it should not be mixed into my topsoil. There was almost no topsoil when we moved in.

    18. Very informative post, Rhonda. I look forward to reading more on compost making.

    19. What do you mean by , You are not no dig people? I don't understand. Is there another method?

    20. I so love your blog, fascinating, inspirational and down right brilliant. Thanks for the soap recipe which I hope to try out with my sister when we visit together soon; she'll also be trying to teach me to knit-again.
      I only have a small concrete 4m x 5m yard but it's covered in pots, including this year (I hope) sweet potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes and lovely rainbow chard. I love the whole idea of simplicity and try to embrace it as much as I can - while still working full time and having no land - not easy but very fulfilling. Favourite things include making my own wine from foraged fruit and quilting. It's great to hear someone talking about such great things from the other side of the world. Thanks again. curvywitch uk

    21. If you see no benefit to raised beds, why do you have them? We have thought about doing it because we thought there might be a drainage benefit during the rainy season, but by the same token it would require more watering during the dry spells. But I guess the main reason we don't do it is that it looks like more maintenance and expense.

    22. Marti, I think we have a different definition of raised beds. I think of raised bed as those garden beds that are built on concrete or compacted soil or clay that raise the bed up high enough to grow plants and not penetrate the soil below. I believe in digging the soil and planting in it. But I guess that is more no dig gardening rather than raised beds.

    23. Fay, add a circle of compost around the base of the trees and cover it with straw. Water in. Don't let any of the material touch the tree truck as that will cause collar rot.

    24. Erika, I think what you're referring to are the grubs of the rhinoceros beetle. They look like widgety grubs. The chooks love them.


    I welcome readers' comments. However, this blog never publishes business links or advertisements. If you're operating a business and want to leave your link here, I will delete your comment .

    Blogger Template by pipdig