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green manures

Vegetable Garden

Three Ways to Protect Garden Soil

December 5, 2014

Three ways to look after garden soil

How to Look After Garden Soil

Muck, dirt, clay, mud – all words I’ve heard people use to describe garden soil yet it’s such a valuable resource it deserves so much more. It’s easy to take soil for granted yet soil is a substance that provides us with all our basic needs, such as food, shelter and clothing.

It takes *between a 100 and a 1,000 years to form just one centimeter of soil yet our lack of understanding or knowledge about soil management can help to destroy that centimeter of soil within 1 to 10 years. That’s quite startling given that most of the things we depend upon start their life in this incredible substance.

Therefore, in no particular order, I’ve listed three basic soil requirements that will help you to protect your garden soil, so that it keeps giving its best in the future. There’s also a link at the end of this post to People for Soil, who are looking for signatures to help give soil a voice by asking the EU for specific regulations.

How to Look After Garden Soil1. Add organic matter to your soil.

Adding organic matter to garden soil not only helps to add nourishment to it and increase plant health, it also benefits soil structure and texture which will  prevent soil erosion and aid drainage, helping to prevent vital nutrients washing away. Organic matter is decaying animal or plant material and can consist of homemade compost, well-rotted animal manure, leafmould or green manures.

If you’re not already doing so, and if you have the space, start composting or collecting leaves now to make compost. Here’s a link to a PDF which gives more information about composting. Compost is free and a fantastic alternative or addition to well-rotted animal manures if you’re not sure where to source them.

Just a note, avoid working the soil if it’s wet or frozen as this can damage soil structure too.

How to look after garden soil

Green Manure ~ Rye

2. Keep soil covered.

At last, a great reason NOT to be TOO TIDY in the garden.

Plant roots such as those on weeds and green manures help to protect soil structure and the fungal interactions that occur between plants and soil will help to nourish it. So don’t stress if you didn’t weed the garden before the onset of winter, you can now rest easy with the knowledge that those little weed roots are protecting your garden soil.

3. Reduce or preferably stop using artificial chemicals and fertilisers on soil

Or better still, switch to organic gardening methods.

Research is ongoing about the effects of artificial chemicals on soil health so far better to err on the side of caution until we know more.

If you’re not sure, don’t add it. Stick to more natural fertilisers such as compost, seaweed, plant or animal based fertlisers until you’re more informed, and don’t forget to practice good Crop Rotation practices.

Symphony of the Soil from Lily Films on Vimeo.

If you haven’t seen it yet, keep an eye out for a screening of Symphony of the Soil, a documentary film that shares the beauty and importance of soil. I have a licensed copy of the film so if you’d like to screen it in Ireland, contact me for more information. It might make you view soil in a completely new light.

Meanwhile, why not pop over to People 4 Soil and sign the petition to give soil a voice. People 4 Soil are a free and open network of European NGO’s, research institutes, farmers, associations and environmental groups. The proposal for a Soil Framework Directive was withdrawn in May 2014 after it ran into a minority that blocked it for eight years. The current EU policies are not able to to offer soil adequate protection. We’re hoping to change that.

Source: * http://www.fao.org/globalsoilpartnership/information-resources

Vegetable Garden

Seven jobs for your autumn vegetable garden

October 2, 2014

7 jobs for the autumn vegetable garden“And all of a sudden it was autumn”

The words from the social media stream of Foxglove Lane, one of my favourite photographic blogs, captured the almost overnight change in our weather. Our wonderfully long Indian summer is coming to an end. The leaves have started to flutter down in the autumn breeze and the hedgerows are giving us hints of the glorious shades that will soon adorn the landscape in their fall displays.

In the laneways the hedge cutters are busy trimming and tidying and thankfully those around us are doing so with sharpened blades that don’t leave the branches scared, torn and naked. The hedgerows are looking trim and tidy, ready to take the weight of snow that may befall them and the regrowth that springtime will bring.

7 jobs for the autumn vegetable gardenIn our homestead Mr G has been busy clearing out sheds so he has room to cut and store firewood and make space for workshop repairs, a never-ending pastime when you live in an old, rescued farmhouse.

And the garden… I’m beginning to despair at the lack of time I’m managing to find in my own. I do know however, this is a temporary glitch, soon I’ll be able to spend some precious hours inhaling the scent of soil and vegetation, preparing the garden for winter, hopefully before the rains come.

If you’re growing vegetables and are wondering what you could be doing outside now in the autumn days to ready it for winter, here’s seven jobs you could be getting on with. I keep adding to them, this was meant to be a list of five, and of course there’s plenty more, but I might frighten myself if I begin to list them all…

7 jobs for the autumn vegetable gardenSeven Jobs in the Autumn Vegetable Garden

1. Pumpkins, Courgettes and Squash

7 jobs for the autumn vegetable gardenThe days and nights are still warm but that could change, quick as a flash. Keep a close eye on your squash plants and the weather forecast as members of the squash family are frost tender. If you haven’t already done so, cut the stems of any plants that aren’t producing fruit and stop them growing. Small fruit are unlikely to amount to anything at this stage so its sadly time to get rid of them too. It may seem harsh but it will allow the plant to put all it’s energy into developing the remaining fruit on the plant. For more information on growing, harvesting and caring for squash, the RHS have a very useful information page here.

Courgettes will be coming to the end of their season and you may have noticed some whiteness on the leaves. This is likely to be powdery mildew and can be treated by removing the worst of the infected leaves from the plant and spraying the rest with a solution of 30% milk to 70% water. Don’t forget that plants have a natural lifespan and many will be starting to die off at this stage anyway so it may just be time to let nature take her natural course.

7 jobs for the autumn vegetable garden2. Clear away dead plants and debris

Now’s a great time to get outside and clear away all the debris of plants that have finished growing. Compost anything that’s not diseased, tidy away canes and netting. Clear away dead leaves away from plants such as the brassica that will be overwintering.

3. Cover the Soil

Once you’ve cleared away all the old plants and vegetable debris from around your garden, you may be left with beds of bare soil. If you’re not planning on planting any vegetables to overwinter, it’s a good idea to cover the soil with well-rotted manure or compost then cover them with black plastic or cardboard to prevent the nutrients leaching out during the winter months and polluting water streams. This will not only feed the soil over the winter months but prevent weeds growing too.

If you don’t have access to manure or compost, most garden centres and online stores now sell green manures that can be sown and left to grow until the springtime before being dug into the soil before planting season begins again.

7 jobs for the autumn vegetable garden4. Start Collecting Leaves

Leaves are a valuable source of nutrients and will rot down to create leaf mould that will turn into a wonderful soil conditioner. It’s a good idea to keep leaves separate from your compost area. Sacks can be purchased to keep them in or make a leaf mould bin using four fence posts and some chicken wire. The Secret Garden blog explains leaf mould in more detail and why it makes sense to collect our leaves.

5. Look After Your Rhubarb Patch

I spotted some very useful tips from the Real Men Sow blog recently that will tell you how to look after your rhubarb patch in the autumn. If you haven’t done so already, stop harvesting, let the leaves die down naturally then mulch heavily with well-rotted manure. Don’t cover the crowns completely is it may encourage rot to set in. Tending to your rhubarb now will make sure you get a good crop of stalks next year.

6. Harvesting

7 jobs for the autumn vegetable gardenGrab what you can when you can! I’m pining for some time to preserve all the fruit and vegetable growing in my garden but have given up stressing about it. Berries (including hedgerow berries) can be frozen flat on trays then bagged up, ready for some quieter time during the winter months for jam and juice making. Apples can be washed, peeled, sliced and basted with lemon juice before freezing flat on trays, then bagging up. Runner beans can be blanched and frozen in handy sized bags and courgettes will keep for a while in a cool, dry shed. (Whatever would we do without a freezer?!)

7. Plant something new

Just because we’re approaching winter, doesn’t mean we can’t grow anything. Now’s the time to plant overwintering onion sets and garlic cloves. Oriental salad leaves grow well in our climate as well as winter spinach and hardy peas.

If you’d like more than seven things to get on with in the vegetable garden, check out the Garden Tips page on the tab above for a month by month guide, as well as some handy, free downloads. Oh and if you can think up any upcycling ideas for a pile of old bicycles, be sure to let me know!

Vegetable Garden

Pea and bean crops – do they contain enough nitrogen to benefit anything else?

April 4, 2011

Pea and bean crops - do they contain enough nitrogen to benefit anything else?I just thought I’d share this fabulous photo taken by one of the Goresbridge Community Gardeners, who captured a picture of nitrogen nodules on a field bean I took along to show the group last week.

Over the winter months I’ve been growing field beans in one of my veggie beds as a green manure. Green Manures are used as a means of adding organic matter back into the soil, and are particularly handy for people who’re growing veg and don’t have a ready supply of organic matter (compost or manure).

As members of the legume (pea and bean) family, they’re able to make their own nitrogen and are known as nitrogen fixers.  Legumes store it in little nodules (as can be seen here) and once the nodules have separated from the plant or the plant decomposes, the nitrogen is released and is available to other plants.  Plants from other vegetable families get their nitrogen from the soil, usually from plant debris (or from fertilisers).

Green manures from the legume family are therefore great to grow before anything from the brassica family (cabbages etc) as the big leafy green crops will relish the additional nitrogen and are unable to make it themselves.

*It might surprise many gardeners who are familiar with crop rotation that botanists now believe that the root nodules accumulate half of the total nitrogen and that it only becomes available to other plants when the nodules are removed from the plant.  This only happens when the plant is severely stressed from shade or drought or when the root dies.

Also, when the plant is young about 40% of the nitrogen is in the roots with the rest in the foliage and stems. Once the plant has flowered the reserves of nitrogen in the roots drop to 3-6% with 8-10% in the leaves and stems. The remaining 70-90% is stored in the seeds and seed pods.

What this means for most of us hobby gardeners is that the roots of the pea and bean crops that we have allowed to flower and fruit for the cooking pot are unlikely to be of any nutritional benefit to the veg following them in our crop rotations as is currently believed…. green manures are the key.

* Source Chris Beardshaw – How Does Your Garden Grow