Soil – Preparation and Planning

Soil, its composition and how we treat it, is fundamental to growing veges successfully, so it was a pity only five of us turned up last Saturday for the course on soil with Jon Darby of Easton and Otley College. Not only is Jon an entertaining and highly informative teacher, he is a fund of experience in all matters horticultural and I’m grateful for the opportunity to benefit from his expertise. The soil type for Bluebell growers is sandy, large particles which don’t bind together, is easy to work and drains freely, but to provide a growing medium needs to be kept ‘sticky’ to retain water. Sandy soils should never be left uncovered. Critical soil nutrients and nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) but magnesium, iron and manganese also contribute to healthy soil. Ideally we should test soil for acidity or alkalinity and the rule of thumb is to put a helping of soil in a jar and fill up the jar with water to see if the sample sinks or swims! Or you can use a pronged gadget in wet soil. Bluebell growers will probably find that the pH there is between 6 and 7 which is ideal. We can improve our soil with organic materials – leaf mould improves soil structure but isn’t nutrient-rich, farmyard manure (horse is best) should be well rotted, peat is environmentally discouraged but is a soil conditioner, and garden compost used as a mulch or dug in is a good alternative to animal manures. Other things you can use are spent hops, spent mushroom compost, seaweed, shoddy, green manure (but do not use red clover or tares) and inorganic soil conditioners like fuel ashes, sawdust, wood shavings, pine needles are also useful.

To my mind, digging over a plot with a proper fork is essential, not just to get air into the soil but to get rid of those pesky weeds. (A weed is a plant in the wrong place!) I often feel I am in a minority in advocating digging, so it was reassuring to see Jon demonstrate digging techniques at Marlpit Community Garden. Double digging is not digging down two spades’ depth as is commonly supposed, but digging out one trench, putting in manure and turning earth from a second trench on top, continuing in this manner until the whole plot has been turned over. I notice at Bluebell that many growers do not favour digging for whatever reason but it’s the only way to get rid of weeds, in particular couch grass and bindweed which have long roots and multiply easily if you break them up when digging. For a diagram and other notes see the website. Don’t work soil in wet or frosty conditions, or if it sticks to your boots. Look out for your friends, the earthworm which is doing a fantastic job of producing fine soil for you, fungi which help bind soil together, increase water and nutrient-holding capacity, and bacteria which play a major part in the breakdown of organic matter.

Finally we looked at garden weeds and how they cause damage and disruption to your hard work. Get to know your weeds before dispatching them for compost!

crop-rotationAfter Jon’s treatise on soils, Mahesh talked about crop rotation. Norfolk is, as many of us schooled in Britain know, the home of the 18th century six-course crop rotation as invented by ‘Turnip’ Townshend at Raynham Hall, which in turn became the four-course rotation by Thomas Coke of Holkham, and then changed again into a new six-course crop rotation.

Luckily Mahesh has simplified it for people like me who forget things easily: leaf – root – fruit – potato. On our narrow strips at Bluebell it’s often difficult to stick to this, but I avoid growing the same crop on the same bit of plot each year. We also learnt about plant families which you can find on our website Grower’s Guide.  There are some very useful general and crop-specific tips on this so I recommend having a look.

I haven’t done justice here to the wealth of information available at the course, but you can find notes on soils, digging, weeds, and site selection at
Training was followed by a delicious lunch prepared by Amy.

training day lunch