Tag Archive: organic matter


Inspired by recent examples of ‘capturing the essence’ of things by crystallising them into a dozen or so objects, I thought I’d do something similar for gardening. So, here’s the first in a new weekly series of my personal take on gardening essentials (in a sort of logical order)…

compost-heapThe humble compost heap doesn’t look much, but it symbolises gardeners’ efforts to maintain or improve their soil and to help meet the nutritional needs of plants. Home made compost is just one, important source of organic material that both enriches the soil and improves its texture- whether your soil is light and sandy or heavy clay (the former being ‘the least back ache, the most heartache’ and the latter, vice versa!).

Do you make your own compost? I do, but don’t really have enough for a garden the size of the one here at The Old School!

I tend to use my two cubic metres a year  on the plants that are the hungriest- principally fruit bushes, canes and strawberries- and supplement it with manure (for roses, rhubarb etc.). And I do get a pretty good supply of leaf mould, which, though relatively low in nutrients, is a good winter mulch to protect bare soil, and can be turned in at spring time to improve soil texture.

Compost bins, like the one pictured, can be made from ready-to-buy kits or from recycled pallets and other wood. It’s useful to have removable slats at the front to make it easier to turn the pile and remove the finished compost.

Old School Gardener

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Get rid of the rubble....

Get rid of the rubble….

If the soil beneath your walls is especially dry, dig it out, along with any rubble, making a trench at least 60cm wide. Lay a seep hose along the length of the trench in order to make watering easier.

Fill the trench with well rotted organic matter, such as compost or horse manure, to create suitbale conditions for growing climbers or wall shrubs. Alternatively, use topsoil, available from garden centres or commercial suppliers, but you will neeed to check the quality.

Finish off with a 5cm layer of loose organic mulch in order to help retin moisture and cut down on weeding.

Source: ‘Short Cuts to Great Gardens’ – Reader’s Digest

Old School Gardener

raised bedsDigging

There is no need to dig at all once you have adopted the raised or deep-bed system for growing vegetables. If you are preparing a vacant plot for planting shrubs or flowers, get rid of the weeds, dig in a thick layer of organic matter and from then on you only need to mulch and let worms improve the soil.

Hmm, not sure about this raised bed....

Hmm, not sure about this raised bed….

Further information:

Raised bed growing

Raised beds- RHS

Source: ‘Short Cuts to Great Gardens’ (Reader’s Digest 1999)

Old School Gardener

 

raspberriesSummer fruiting raspberries are just about coming to the end here at Old School Garden, but Lee Mason of Whetstone has had a disappointing harvest:

‘I planted some ‘Malling Promise’ raspberry canes back in February. They’ve grown pretty well, but the harvest has been disappointing and the new growth looks to be weak. Would a fertiliser feed help?’

Malling Promise canes (and any other summer fruiting raspberries for that matter), planted in February would have benefitted from cutting down in their first season to 100 mm (4 inches) high canes back in March to encourage strong new root development, as well as new canes for fruiting in the following season. In short, Lee, you’ve ‘got a bit ahead of yourself’!  I suggest that you cut down all growth next March. You will lose a season’s cropping, but the sacrifice will be worth it in the long run. Giving the canes a good mulch of organic matter or a general fertiliser like fish, blood and bone should also help, if applied next spring.

Raspberry flavour

Have you been disappointed with the flavour of your raspberries? Sulphate of potash is a good fertiliser to use  to enhance raspberry flavour, but only if the raspberry variety you grow has some natural flavour of it’s own. Varieties like Malling Admiral have little natural flavour, whereas Malling Jewel or Malling Promise are better.

Shrivelled fruit

Are your raspberries shrivelled up? This might be because you’ve been a little too enthusiastic in digging around the canes! Avoid digging over the ground near the roots, as raspberries are surface rooters and don’t like any cultivation anywhere near the canes. This breaks the roots- which can spread out quite a way- and as a result the plants will be unable to cope with the extra stress at fruiting time. If you restrict your cultivation to the use of a Dutch hoe and follow this up with a good deep mulch of organic matter in the spring this will do wonders for the quality of your fruit.

Cut down the canes of autumn fruiting raspberries in early March
Cut down the canes of autumn fruiting raspberries in early March

Pruning Autumn (and Summer) raspberries

The first autumn raspberries are starting to appear here at Old School Garden (earlier than normal probably due to the mild winter and spring). It looks like we’ll have a good harvest. With these, the fruit comes on canes produced in the current season, so after fruiting (which can last into October) the old canes need to be cut back, but when is the best time to do this? Well not immediately after harvesting, apart from damaged or broken canes. It’s best to leave the rest until the following spring (early March), when all the remaining canes can be cut down almost to ground level. This ensures that some protection for the newly emerging canes is provided over winter. In July weak growth can be removed so that only the strongest canes are left for fruiting.

With summer fruiting varieties it’s best to cut down the canes that have fruited immediately after harvesting has finished and to select the strongest new canes and tie these into wire supports to protect them over winter. In spring the tops can be cut back by about 6 inches or alternatively these can be looped over and tied into the top wires.

Old School Gardener

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Soil that you can  make pots from is a challenge...

Soil that you can make pots from is a challenge…

Having ‘good’ soil is one of the most important elements in successful gardening, though some plants are well adapted to and actually prefer ‘poor’ soils. A good soil is especially important for growing food crops. The terminology and approaches to creating and keeping good soil can be confusing, as this week’s questioner illustrates:

‘My garden seems to have a very heavy clay soil. i want to know what to do to make it easier to work with and I’ve heard the terms like structure, texture and tilth – can you explain what these terms mean and advise me on what to do to improve my soil?’

So writes Lise B. Lowe from Hereford. Well Lise, a good way of summarising the different terms is:

Texture = the mix of different types of soil particle

Structure = the spaces between these particles

Tilth = the quality of the structure

The basic types of soil texture

The basic types of soil texture

Texture

Garden soils contain particles of varying size. Clay particles are minute and tend to clog together (which is why your clay soil is so heavy and difficult to work). At the other end of the scale, gravel consists of very large particles; this type of soil drains very easily and so is known as a ‘hungry’ soil. Between these two extremes will be found comparatively small soil particles, known as silt, and larger particles of sand. The majority of soils consist of mixtures of the different sizded particles. The proportions of large, medium and small particles in a given soil determine its texture.

The components of soil structure

The components of soil structure

Structure

A soil has good structure if is contains a balanced range of particle sizes that provide air pockets of a size to accommodate the right amount of air and moisture for healthy plant growth; it drains well; and contains adequate humus (decayed organic material like leaves and stems which will not decay any further) and other organic material.

Tilth

When soil has been forked and raked and its clods have been broken down to a fine, workable structure it is said to have a good tilth. This quality is particularly important when small seeds are being sown, because it enables them to make good contact with the available soil moisture. Too fine a texture does not make a good tilth because such a soil’s surface will ‘cake’ (develop a hard surface or ‘pan’) in the first shower of rain. So working the soil (and adding diffferent materials to it like organic matter, gravel , sand) produces different tilths, some suitbale for seed sowing, others for establishing and growing on different plants etc.

With your heavy clay soil the best approach is to add lots  (and lots) of organic material such as compost, humus, manure so as open up the structure of the soil, making cultivation much easier. Autumn is an ideal time to do this, as once you’ve dug over the soil and incorporated organic matter, the winter weather should help to further break down the larger clumps of soil, making it easier to cultivate in the spring. Regularly adding organic matter before you sow/plant and as a a mulch during the growing season will continue to help improve the structure of the soil and add nutrients too.

Adding compost or other organic material to the soil by digging in or as a mulch is a must...
Adding compost or other organic material to the soil by digging in or as a mulch is a must…

If, on the other hand, your soil, like mine, is on the sandy side, adding organic matter can help with moisture retention and add much-needed nutrients to an otherwise poor soil. I tend to add lower nutrient material such as leaf mould in the Autumn and richer material like compost and manure in the Spring so that the nutrients these contain have less time to wash away and are readily available when plants need them most, as they burst into life. However, if your soil is really in need of improvement then add any organic matter in the Autumn and give it time to break down and blend with the soil. Of course the alternative approach, where possible, is to plant things that are suited to your soil, even if it’s on the ‘poor’ side!

However, you’re probably on to a winner by adding organic material, whatever your soil!

Different soil types

Different soil types

Further information:

Checking your soil condition

Soil structure and formation

The genesis of soil structure

Feed your soil not your plants

Old School Gardener

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