Gardening has never been more popular. Some gardeners are attracted by the back to basics ethos of growing their own food to feed their families, others just like to have a beautiful display of flowers each summer. The starting point to any type of garden is the soil, and the quality of this can vary hugely across the country. If you have just moved into a brand new home and are starting from scratch, it is possible to buy large sacks of topsoil and this will provide a good starting point for creating your perfect garden. If however your garden is more established, there are lots of other things which can be done to improve the soil quality and also help you grow more effectively.
The one thing which improves soil quality more than any other is organic material. Some gardeners swear by horse manure, others prefer to use compost which can be either bought commercially or made at home using grass cuttings or vegetable peelings. Whatever method you use, the point of digging in organic material is that it improves the texture of the soil and makes it easier for plants to take root. Don’t underestimate the amount of manure or compost you will need; experts recommend about half a wheelbarrow full of compost or manure per square metre of soil. There is no easy way of getting the organic matter into the soil either as it has to be dug in thoroughly – spreading it on the top and hoping for the best just isn’t going to work. Treating the soil in this way also needs to be done annually, usually before the winter.
The second step to improving the soil is to use fertiliser. This should be done a couple of weeks before you intend planting anything. All winter the organic material will have been rotting down and improving the soil texture, and the fertiliser will give it that final boost needed to start growing a bumper crop. It is always preferable to go for organic fertilisers which do not contain any harsh chemicals, and products such as bone meal or fish meal are ideal. Less quantity of fertiliser is needed, around a handful per metre square.
There is no point spending hours digging in compost or treating your garden with fertiliser if it is waterlogged and drains poorly. In many areas of the country, depending on the type of soil you have, this can be a major problem. There are ways around this, and using lots of mulch around the base of your plants when planting will help. Raised beds are the ideal way to improve drainage, and as well as being practical an arrangement of raised beds can look attractive too. Follow the same pattern of digging in organic matter and fertiliser, and ensure that your raised beds are standing clear of the ground to let excess water drain easily. If raised beds are not appropriate, it is possible to build proper drainage systems with gravel filled ditches to improve the garden, although this may be expensive.
Farmers have known for centuries that it is best to rotate around where different crops are grown on a yearly basis, as growing the same crop in the same place for years on end leads to less nutrients in the soil. This message has been adopted by many gardeners at home, but many are still sticking to the same pattern of planting year after year.
Rotating where you grow certain crops, or taking a year off from growing something altogether also helps to reduce pests and diseases in your vegetables or plants. Vegetables from the same family should be rotated together, so for example there is no point growing cauliflower one year and then Brussels sprouts in the same spot the next as they are both part of the Brassica family.
There are many resources online which will help you group the crops you intend growing, and come up with the best plan for rotating them around the space you have available. Rotating crops is an effective way of improving soil, but does not cut out the need for the hard work with the organic matter and fertiliser.