The Casual Gardener: Keeping your soil sweet will benefit it in the long run

To get the best from your ground give it some tender loving care

Digging in organic material will recondition your soil

THERE are many elements to a successful vegetable garden, some of which we can control, others we can’t. Our heavy reliance on nature means we are often vulnerable to its vagaries. Last year we had to deal the effects of prolonged drought, while over previous years arguably the greatest setback has been a dearth of sunshine and too much wind or rain.

The most important variable in this complex matrix over which we can have some influence is the earth. A fertile, well-textured, free-draining, moisture-retentive soil is the key ingredient of a productive vegetable garden and by adding certain materials we are able to manage its composition and increase its output.

If you neglect your soil from one year to the next it will become impoverished, losing its fertility and texture. Or perhaps you’re just starting out and need to enrich your soil to bring it up to an appropriate standard? Either way, it’s impossible to overstate the need to tend, cultivate and respect this valuable resource rather than assuming the ground is somehow obliged to produce a decent harvest under suboptimal conditions.

Not only is it harder to raise healthy plants when the soil is poor but it makes managing weeds doubly difficult. For instance, removing perennial weeds like dandelion or docken, both of which are awkward due to their long tap roots, is much more straightforward with a moist, stone free, friable medium than its dry and dusty counterpart. Plants are also more likely to go to seed when stressed – a last ditch effort at procreation – creating problems further down the line.

Perhaps your greatest ally in maintaining a healthy soil is kitchen waste, which provides you, free of charge, with the raw materials for creating homemade compost. If constituted correctly – ie the right balance of nitrogen and carbon – the finished product will both fertilise and enhance your soil’s texture.

Laid on the surface or dug-in over winter, it will encourage worms and microorganisms to set up home in your soil and begin working their magic. Other elements can be added too, depending on circumstances. Well-rotted manure, preferably horse manure, is always welcome, as is seaweed. You may need to add grit or sharp sand to clay soil to help drainage, while a little bit of lime can help reduce acidity and raise the pH level.

If growing vegetables on a permanent basis rather than as a one-off, it’s recommended you employ a crop-rotation system, which both reduces the risk from pests and diseases and improves fertility.

The traditional crop rotation method groups vegetables into three categories and ideally there are at least four corresponding beds that enable the group of plants in each to be changed on a three-year cycle. The fourth bed is for perennials like rhubarb and asparagus, which don’t require rotating.

The three main groups are legumes (peas, beans, Swiss chard, etc); brassicas (cabbage, sprouting broccoli, kale, etc), and root crops (carrots, parsnip, beetroot, etc). Alliums (onions, garlic, etc) should be regarded as legumes for the purposes of crop rotation, and potatoes a root crop.

The idea is of crop rotation is that the preceding crop benefits the next one. For example, legumes leave nitrogen in the soil, which will help the root crops that follow the next year. Salad leaves, like rocket and lettuce, can be interspersed between other crops.

It’s a method that demands some record keeping, mentally at least, but there can be a degree of flexibility. Essentially, the thrust of the approach guards against growing the same thing in the same space year after year.

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