Having taken on a dormant and unloved plot of land last year in order to grow my own food I was shocked by how “poor” the soil was. Stony, dry and nutrient-depleted it resembled more of an untended meadow than a productive vegetable plot. Fortunately soil is a living, breathing medium with a constantly changing population of nutrients, moisture, minerals and micro-organisms and so by fully harnessing these elements it is possible to quickly and easily improve the condition of your soil. In doing so you will make your little plot of land far more productive which will in turn lead to an easier life for you and a far higher yield of healthy, organically-grown vegetables just begging to be eaten.
Many of these soil-improvement techniques are quick and simple to implement. We’re not talking “large scale” operations involving diggers, importing topsoil and spending huge amounts of time and money on your garden. Rather, I prefer to stick to permaculture principles wherever possible, working with nature to assist her in a natural, sustainable fashion. Of course an additional benefit of these principles besides the reduction of food miles and agro-chemical use, is that many of these methods are quick and easy to implement and can easily be fitted into most people’s weekly gardening duties.
So what specifically has been working well for my plot…?
Different crops use different nutrients and are attacked by different pests. This means that if the same crop is grown on the same piece of land year after year then over time you’re likely to see a drop in yield as a result of sickly, weaker plants.
The age-old way to tackle this issue and to keep your soil healthy and productive is to move your vegetables around each season – literally rotating your crops. One of the easiest techniques I have personally found is splitting your vegetable plot into three imaginary areas. Your crops themselves are then classified into three groups – namely potatoes, brassicas (cabbages and the like) and “everything else”. Then each season you simply move the groups round so that the same group never grows on the same patch of soil for two years in a row. Simple!
Nitrogen Fixing Crops
Gardeners and farmers often refer to “N, P and K” as the essential elements needed by most plants to remain vigorous, healthy and disease-free. Those letters stand for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and of those nitrogen is the element which is most likely to cause you problems. This is because most nitrogen is found in the atmosphere around us rather than in the soil itself so the individual who cares about the environment and wants to grow their own crops needs to find a way to grab this nitrogen from the air and put it into their soil where plants can access it readily.
Whilst commercial “factory farms” invest huge amounts of money in artificial fertlizers to provide this extra nitrogen the side-effects of wide-scale fertilizers are well documented. So in line with permaculture principles we use another gentler and more natural solution: nitrogen-fixing plants.
These plants have special roots with “nodules” on them in which bacteria live. The bacteria in turn “fix” nitrogen from the atmosphere making it available to the plants in the ground. The most common nitrogen-fixing plants available are the legumes such as peas and beans so a smart idea is to dedicate at least part of your plot to growing this type of vegetable each year. Over the season you will find that the nitrogen content of the soil around your legumes increases and by rotating your crops each year you will be constantly working with nature to add nitrogen to your soil before another crop begins to grow and feed off it.
So we’ve covered the “n” in “N, P & K” but what about the other essential nutrients for your vegetables? This is where natural fertlizers can be beneficial. The key word here is “natural”. Many intensive, commercial fertilizers contain too many nutrients and are applied too vigorously and as a result these nutrients frequently wash into water sources leading to problems such as eutrophication.
In contrast “natural” fertlizers still do their job but are far less harmful to the environment – as well as typically being far cheaper to buy!
Examples of natural fertilizers that can be applied to your plot of land are well-rotted compost, farmyard manure or a liquid feed made from borage. As you can see these can all be produced yourself or bought for next to nothing yet do their job admirably in adding nutrients to the soil.
As a brief side-note, be aware that some vegetables such as potatoes dislike being planted in or near fresh manure which can “scorch” them so check your gardening books before applying it if you have specific planting plans in mind.
Digging To Reduce Compaction
One of the biggest problems I found on my plot of land was quite simply that years and years of being trodden on had turned much of the clay-like soil to concrete. Of course compacted soil isn’t ideal for growing vegetables because the roots struggle to gain a hold which can lead to weaker, smaller plants and smaller yields.
Whilst it can be back-breaking work, it can be very beneficial to dig over your soil – to a spade’s depth or ideally even two – on a regular basis to break up large clumps of soil. Digging over like this doesn’t just help to open up the soil and make it easier for roots to become established but can also help to distribute nutrients and also make your soil a more pleasant place for helpful micro-organisms.
Having turned over my soil every few weeks so far this year I am really seeing massive improvements in how “workable” it is and how my plants are responding.
One useful tip if you don’t want to do the work manually like I did is to consider investing in a cultivator. This is especially so if you can find one that is electric rather than gas-powered, and you use renewable energy at home. In this way regular use won’t in any way harm the environment but you’ll save yourself some sleepless nights as you roll around moaning about your back!
Removing Stones by Sieving
Stones aren’t the end of the world – and are possibly the least important element mentioned here. The reason I mention it is that many root vegetables such as carrots and parsnips can really struggle in stony soil and you can find that either they don’t grow at all or that the vegetables you produce are split, damaged or so freakily-shaped as to be impossible to peel!
Consequently if you’re considering growing root vegetables but your soil is overly stony it can be worth taking the time as you’re turning over your soil to manually remove stones as you find them or even gently sieve your soil with a garden sieve. Whilst this is impractical on a wide scale it can be beneficial to remove stones from the one small area where your root vegetables will be growing this year and of course as you rotate your crops over forthcoming years, working each area one at a time, you will slowly and gently rid yourself of the stones that can otherwise cause problems.
Photo by Ula Gillion