New Gardener Series: Soil & How We Learnt To Love It

Sigh. Soil. Sigh. Just look at it there all lovely and friable. God, just makes you want to climb in bed with it for three minutes of bliss. Sigh. See Monty Don's soil on Gardeners' World the other week? That's soil porn. Sigh. We know people who would take his dog, Nigel (the major star of Gardeners' World nowadays, he's going to be the new judge on the revamped, The Voice on ITV next year) on a four mile ball throwing every few feet hike just to sniff that soil. It's dirt with major sex appeal. Soil. Sigh. Soil is everything. So why do we treat it so damn mean?

Soil erosion and how to tackle it.

Our soil in 2010 was not a pretty thing, it was more dust than friable and it was riddled with weeds; the types of weeds that would have made Johnny Cash cry. Like many of us who look at the weed infested plot, be it the back garden we thought stopped growing because it was too excited Santa Claus was coming to allow weeds to shoot up or the allotment we took on in a fit of optimism that was cut short after the hundredth nettle sting, we are often faced after the monumental struggle to reclaim nature as a garden. Once the plot is cleared, the soil is bare, we sigh happily that somehow, against the odds, against the bad back, the aching hands and the feeling that something is crawling around in your trousers, that we are gardeners and our plots look just like Monty Don's. Wrong. Monty has great soil but like you, he probably didn't start with, safe to say after he took that land back from field to veg plot that he had a lot of cockchafers and leatherjackets in his trouser turn ups. That doesn't make soil porn though it may get some of us hot under the collar. The soil before you may be a wondrous, freshly weeded thing, but come the sun drying it out and then the rain lashing down on it, and then wind moving through it like a choreographed fart at an opera, you will in a short few days be an owner of a swathe of weed seedlings and then if you manage to keep on top of them you will notice that your soil often cracks - this can be a sign of clay subsoil but it is also the first tell tale sign of soil erosion. If left those cracks become little rivulets that take you carefully weeded soil away, via rain, sun and wind, that soil is cast to the four poles. It's important that you protect soil, there is only one place in the world that soil is permanently on show to the heavens but it has largely lost it luster and passion, we call those places, deserts. 

It doesn't take long to understand how soil can be protected

1) Never underestimate a good mulch. A good 6-8 inches of your own compost, manure or even straw/dried grass with no seed heads (if you're not on a windy site) will do wonders for the soil beneath. Mulches actually take the brunt of bad weather, and in the case of straw actually slow down the rainfall by filtering so it merely trickles between the straw and onto the soil. You can read here how manures work. To show that we put the mulch principal into practice, see the photo above. This was us in the process of mulching the then fruit bed, in 2012. That two years of mulching in spring and autumn, two years of bad winters and..ooh, that soils a bit more saucy, isn't it? Bit more darker, looks less like the winds will blow it away. It won't be blown away if you plant it. There is a great documentary called, Dirt, that outlines why soil is important to us and what impact its loss has on all of us. Bare soil = soil erosion.

How to build your soil up

2) Plant! Plant! Plant! As soon as that soil is dug over, do something with it. The planting of shrubs and hedges help your soil. Shrubs and hedges have roots and roots bind the soil, there is more going on underground then we can even begin to comprehend. Pick up a handful of soil, hold it, smell it, and understand this, there are millions of universes in your hand, millions of species, bacteria and chemical processes going on in that one handful of dirt than can found in the whole history of humankind. Soil is life, right down to it's atoms and molecules. It is a truly amazing thing and is, pound per pound, worth more than gold. A good root system is money in the bank. There are few simple tips for you to stop soil run off without the need to build walls - which don't stop soil from leaving your plot - these are:

(a) Never leave edges of paths bare. Why? A hard piece of landscaping beside a soft soil is just asking for trouble. Rain always finds a way back to the soil. Paths naturally have a run off to prevent flooding, put the two together and the rain will naturally pour to either side of the path and create rivulets. There is no mystery in this, if you look at a path that runs across a hill rather than up it, you will see that on the far side the soil has collected, some has even spilled onto the path but on the side near the bottom of the hill, there seems to be something wrong, the soil seems to have compacted. It has. You can see it in the countryside too, though lovely country lanes that run beside fields that are lower than the road. Again, this is compaction, and erosion, through rain and wind. That is why our valleys are fertile and our mountains aren't. Your path is working on the same principal. So plant your edges. On Pig Row we use chives which create and extensive root run and multiply year in, year out, attracting bees and locking the soil down. We also use perennials, such as geraniums. Find a plant you like, one that isn't a bully and plant around your path edges, your beds and your plot.

(b) Never leave any soil bare. Plan your garden, even allotments can be designed to not have bare beds over winter. Use a mulch, use black plastic, use green manures. We do use green manures and our favourites are Hungarian rye and red clover. We actually prefer the latter as it can be undersown in July, allowing the crops to grow on but working to improve the soil. Clover is a great way to lock nitrogen in the soil.

(c) Learn about your soil. What type of soil do you have? Does it drain well or does it form great big puddles? To know your soil, is to understand your soil. The more humus you add to it in form of mulches which can run from compost to bark, the more life you are putting into it. If you don't feed it, then you will starve it.

(d) Learn not to dig. We know that sounds crazy but there should be parts of your garden you should never dig. These parts will help the rest of the garden by acting in the same way as a swale. A swale helps to contain water and stop run off from the land. Swales can take the shape of grass banks. If you want see the difference, walk on a lawn and then an exposed bed of soil. Though the soil may be muddy and even slippy it does not feel as saturated as a lawn can, it doesn't feel as springy as if you could pick up the lawn and wring it out like a sponge. Grass locks in moisture and prevents run off, just like a planted bed will do. At Pig Row we have established a cottage garden at the bottom of the hill, along with several stone walls that run across the plot. These were designed with substantial footings of rubble, they become reservoirs, you can see this in the cabbages that are planted right beside them...

Lock rain in your soil rather than let it take away your soil

...they're twice the size of those in open ground because first they have been planted on a substantial mulch - no digging required - and they are drawing up water from the base of the wall. We also plant all our rhubarb at the bottom of the field area, again this draws in and locks water...

Planting will help stop soil erosion

...some plants we have learnt don't tolerate this, the raspberries by the rhubarb have died. Some things are trial and practice.

(e) Accept that sometimes things will not grow on your soil. This means, right plant, right place. There is no point in us growing delphiniums, we have tried, we have been bloody minded but our soil is wrong, our location is wrong and we have to find the plant that works for our soil. 

(f) Finally, soil erosion is not just rain, it's sun and wind too. Make sure that your site is protected from the wind, a good fence, some wind break material, a hedge, a wall or planting. Protect your soil, enrich it, build it up and love it.

These are only a few tips and there are plenty more out there for you from permaculture to Gardeners' World. You have to find the best thing for your soil and the best way to do that is to ask questions.

New Gardener Series


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