How do you prepare your soil?
It’s a bit like us really – how we look after ourselves can have a big impact on our health and how we feel. Likewise, how we look after the soil in our gardens can have a big impact on the health and vigour of the plants we want to grow.
To be fair, soil preparation isn’t a particularly glamourous aspect of gardening – but like your 5 a day – it’s got to be done! Get your food right and you’ll feel good, get the soil right and your plants should reach their potential.
The first thing to work out is what type of soil you have. What is its texture? Is it heavy, dense and clumps together when wet? Is it loose and free flowing, like sand? Or somewhere in between – a bit sticky but also crumbly? Obviously, soil is a mixture of sand, silt and clay, and the different proportions dictate the type of soil you have and how dense it is, how well it holds nutrients and how quickly it drains.
A clay-heavy soil will hold moisture and nutrients well, but it drains slowly and gets very hard when dry. A sandy soil has large particles and drains well but therefore doesn’t make a good job of retaining nutrients. A silty soil is tightly packed with fine particles, so it doesn’t drain or circulate air well.
What we want is a loamy soil. It has roughly equal proportions of clay, sand and silt and is rich in humus. However, most of us have to work at our soil to get it like that – hence the popularity of raised beds as we can control the mixture we put in there.
You can test your soil’s pH (either by using a DIY soil kit test or having it professionally analysed). If it’s too alkaline (above 7.5pH) or too acidic (below 5.5pH) it can affect which nutrients are available to your plants – most prefer a pH between 6 and 7. In any case, if it’s high you can add sulphur or aluminium sulphate and if it’s low, you can add lime.
So, to get a loamier soil, you can add composted organic matter and manure into the top 4-6 inches to improve the nutrient content and structure. This will stabilise the texture and provide a slow-release of nutrients. Or, you could do your research and simply grow plants that you know do well in your soil type. Careful mulching lets you add organic matter without disturbing the plants because you spread it over the surface and let it decompose naturally – just bear in mind potential the pH effect of the mulch you use and don’t spread it too thickly.
Finally, treat your soil gently. Some gardeners think that turning over and breaking up the soil every year helps to mix in organic matter and improve drainage. Others think that it encourages weeds by bringing dormant seeds to the surface and exposing them to sunlight. And it can disturb the worms that do a fantastic job of loosening and aerating your soil. However, if you need to work organic matter and nutrients into sticky clay soil or a heavily compacted new garden bed, then you don’t have much choice – just take it easy after that.
Really, we’re talking about managing your soil as best you can to make it the perfect environment for fertile growth – and then just let it get on with it.
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