Top tips to building and maintaining soil health

Get to know your soil
This doesn’t mean you need to get to terms with ph and soil type as a beginner. Just observe it, feel it and look around you. What is, or isn’t, growing can tell you a lot about what condition your soil is in. So can your neighbours or fellow plot holders. See Propagate’s Soil with Abi video.

Never leave it bare
An ‘empty soil’ is wasted, exposed to the elements and likely to lose nutrients through exposure. Having crops, green manures, annual weeds (young, fleshy plants without seed heads on) or, cardboard is always preferable. 

Don’t dig if you can avoid it
Digging your soil interferes with the soil structure; the worms, fungi and beasties are quietly working away on building, it also brings weed seeds to the surface. Of course, there is a healthy balance to be struck and at times digging, makes sense to some but, if you want to build soil fertility and do more with less time, check out ‘No-Dig’ methods in the Resource section.

Make your space work
Think through how you layout vegetable beds to avoid standing on your soil. You are working towards a Victoria sponge consistency able to hold water and air, not a chocolate brownie!

Make your own compost
On a small scale you can’t overdo your soil fertility. A combination of the good practice above and whenever possible a healthy dose of homemade compost will keep your soil well fed and productive.

One more thing
Remember, still one of the most significant impacts the gardener can have is to avoid the use of peat. We urgently need to protect peatland habitats that hold large stores of carbon, these are being ‘mined’ (quite literally)  to grow plants in pots. Buy peat free compost for sowing small seeds into.

 

Composting

Composting know how

 

Here’s how

  • Build from pallets, or use daleks.
  • Raw kitchen waste- onion, peelings etc, but not cooked kitchen waste- stale bread, porridge and meat scraps. If you have a council food waste bin these are best taken away. and composted by them.
  • A good mix of green from the garden-soft prunings, grass cuttings etc and browns- flower stems, ripped up egg boxes and toilet rolls. This gives microbes food (green) and air (browns).
  • Compost autumn leaves separately for leaf mould.
  • Never compost woody stems thicker than your pinkie!
  • Remember the more hands on you are, the faster you will have compost. 
  • If you have a great light pitch fork and surplus energy turn it regularly. If not mix your browns and greens together and let the worms and microbes do the work .
  • Keep your heap level as you go. 
  • Once the bin or bay is full, pull it out and mix it up or seal it off and start a new one.
  • Be selective about what you put in. Ideally put annual (green fleshy) weeds in before they have gone to seed.
  • If in doubt. Leave it out!
  • Compost is ready when it is moist and crumbly and it doesn’t smell. 
  • You can sow big seeds into it in pots, or just add it to pots or your plot in the spring. No need to dig it in, the worms will do it for you.

In a communal setting

  • Site your heaps somewhere highly visible- a well used and looked after heap is a visible group commitment to good soil health. 
  • Don’t tuck your heaps in cold, shady spots. Your compost heap deserves so much more. Part sun/shade is ideal.
  • Some agreed do’s and don’ts and simple signage will help keep people straight.

Troubleshooting

  • If it smells it is too wet- mix more ‘browns’ in. 
  • If nothing is happening, add more greens or the occasional bucket of water.
  • Still stuck- there’s a heap of information out there- see our resource section and send us your favourite resource so that we can share with others. 

 

Leaf Mould

Leaf mould, know-how

 

Here’s how:

 

  • Collect fallen leaves, free from plastic, dog poo and other nasties.
  • Bag them up (any decent sized plastic bag will do*) and leave open to the rain for a while or pour a bucket of water over them.
  • Close the bag and pierce the bottom of the bag with a garden fork a few times to prevent any liquid collecting inside.
  • Leave your bounty in a corner to quietly break down. Be patient and check in about 18 months time. It’s worth the wait.
  • When the contents are crumbly with little evidence of the original leaves, you are good to go. The best use
    of this magic stuff is either in seed compost or a potting mix. 
  • In seed compost, this low nutrient, relatively weed-free material absorbs early spring sunshine and acts like a sponge, holding onto moisture when required. 
  • In seed compost, you might like to sieve your leaf mould to remove lumps.
  • In a potting mix, for young plants in pots, leaf mould, when mixed with garden compost, provides bulk and water retention qualities to stop young plants drying out. 

*some people like to use hessian sacks or keep their leaves in an open heap. 

Resource section

No Dig
See any Resource from Charles Dowding, a really useful website, packed full of No Dig ‘Know How’ and so much more. Perfect for starting out.

Composting signage
Thanks to Redhall Walled Garden for sharing their signage here. Feel free to download and print if this works for you in a shared garden.

Propagate
A series of how-to videos on composting and so much more. See the compost one here!

Sustainable Kirriemuir
Guide to home composting.