Her Outdoors: It’s all about the soil

Jane Merrick

When I started gardening seriously, about ten years ago, my main interest was growing great vegetables and flowers – mainly from seed, because it’s cheaper and, although more time-consuming, more rewarding. I spent ages on selecting varieties, on watering, on positioning, but ignoring the most important thing: the soil – just sowing straight into the bed in the garden or in pots which I never refreshed year after year. If I could go back to the start and tell myself what to get right first, I would say it’s all about the soil.

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Some well-rotted manure ready to dig in to brassica patch

Adding the right amount of rotted manure, compost or humus is essential if you want to grow most plants to their full potential. Some toughies thrive on poor soil – like nasturtiums, which won’t flower if the soil is too rich, or rosemary – but the majority need fertile compost to grow. On an allotment, you can plan with a good crop rotation which allows some veg to pass on something to the crop you grow next in that bed. So, brassicas like broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts are good to grow directly after peas and beans because legumes fix nitrogen through their roots into the soil, which then helps your leafy brassicas. But there is only so much you can get out of crop rotation. If you want to keep your plot flourishing, you really need to add to it every year. As plants get their food from the soil as well as light and water, using the same soil every year just means you have less fertile soil with each season. Get the soil right and everything else is easy (well, relatively….)

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Well-rotted manure spread on top of soil where potatoes will go

Late winter and early spring (ie now) is the best time to add compost, if it’s rotted down and ready for sowing in straight away, while manure straight from the stables needs several months to rot before plants can be grown in it, so it’s good to add this to empty beds in late summer/early autumn. Our allotment site has just bought a bulk load of rotted manure, and I ordered eight sacks of this for my plot. I now realise I should have ordered double, because I’ve already used nearly all of it where it’s needed most: in the bed where the potatoes will be planted on St Patrick’s Day (which is next week!); to mulch the fruit trees and the asparagus beds that need help now that they’re entering the growing season; and dug into the beds where I’m going to sow peas and beans and transplant some brassicas that I’m growing on in my little greenhouse.

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A pile of poo

It is cheaper, of course, to make your own compost – although it is very difficult to make enough in a year to cover a full-sized plot. Every plot needs a compost bin, or better still, three – one for fresh clippings, veg waste and paper, one that is halfway there, and a third which is full of fresh black gold for piling on the plot. Turn the compost regularly to get it to rot down quicker and make sure there’s an even mix of ‘green’ waste – vegetable peelings, leaves and grass cuttings – and ‘brown’ – shredded newspaper and thin twigs (although thicker ones need taking out). Cover it because if it gets too wet it will be useless. Likewise, it must not become too dry – if it does dry out add water or more green waste. A separate stash just for autumn leaves is a good idea – leave them in a bag or some chicken wire bent into a cylinder and within a year it will make perfect leaf mould which is full of nutrients.

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Rhubarb 'Timperley Early' mulched with the rotted manure

On Monday, the same day that the sacks of rotted manure arrived, the Girl’s playhouse went up (with the help of the handyman). He told me about his allotment in Ealing, and hit the nail on the head (excuse the pun) when he said he finds it more about the relaxation of tending and growing a plot, rather than getting tonnes of harvested food. Whenever people ask me: “Why don’t you just buy your own vegetables?” I say it’s about taste, enjoyment and knowing where it’s come from, more than actually saving money (which it does with expensive veg like asparagus and soft fruit, but not with cheap veg like potatoes and carrots). But the handyman was right, it’s also about relaxation.

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The Girl's playhouse - conspicuously orange amid the bare trees

The playhouse – like a little wooden cabin for hobbits – now means she wants to spend several hours at the allotment rather than just an hour before saying “I want to go home!” Extra fun for her means extra time for me to dig in my rotted manure. “What’s that poo smell?” she asked as I spread it over the soil. “It’s horse poo,” I told her. This delighted her so much she wanted to help with the fork and rake. Then we looked at the playhouse, which by late spring will be covered by the grapevine. It is facing north-east, so in the height of summer she can sit in the little porch in the shade, and this means the back, where there is no door or windows, is south-facing. There is a half-foot margin between the back of the house and the path, so this is where we will sow sunflowers and see if they can grow higher than the 5ft 4ins roof. Perhaps, next year, we can cover this wall with polythene and grow something exotic like melons or nectarines. We then went to spy on one of our neighbour’s little ponds – where we were just in time to see two frogs dive underneath the surface. There looked like hundreds of black frogspawn clumped together in the middle. It has been warm enough for the buds on the Quince tree to burst into life. Spring is unmistakably here.

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The buds on the Quince have burst into life

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