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Vegetable Garden

A Beginner’s Guide to Organic Matter

March 1, 2020

Beginners Guide to Soil

A Beginner’s Guide to Organic Matter

When I started growing food in the earth as opposed to container gardening, one of my first conundrums was how to treat the soil. I  remember gazing around, thinking that if I’m taking plants out, surely I must have to put something back in. But I didn’t know how much or what. Everything I read pointed to adding fertilisers, (chicken pellets, blood, fish and bone etc.,) but they fed the plants: add this for extra nitrogen for your cabbages or that for potassium for your tomatoes. What about the soil? I knew that worms were great, but what should I be adding to keep them happy? Alongside that, magazines were talking about organic matter, manure, soil conditioners and compost as if I knew what they were talking about. I didn’t.

Hoping to learn more about soil was a primary reason that I enrolled as a mature student to study horticulture.  As it transpired, soil science was the module I had to work the hardest to get to grips with given its ions, cations and anions. Chemistry was a  subject I’d barely looked at 30 plus years ago, never mind one I’d be tested on in middle age. I almost quit on the first day.

Thanks to technology, we’re learning more than ever about the complex world that lives below our feet. We’re finding that it’s the millions of microbes, fungi, nematodes and their associations within the soil that are so beneficial, how they communicate, live and get along with one another. Feed the soil and the soil will feed the plants. As a result, no dig and no till methods of soil care are becoming popular as they cause the least upheaval to this microscopic world. Matthew Wallenstein, associate professor and director of the Innovation Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Colorado State University, wrote a piece for The Conversation about feeding the microbes which is worth a look at.

If, like me, you’ve ever wondered what the common terms are in relation to organic matter (OM), you might find the following guide helpful. In no particular order and with links and tips to some interesting videos and slideshows I’ll be looking at:

  • Organic matter
  • Soil conditioners or improvers
  • Compost
  • Garden compost
  • Well rotted manure
  • Leaf mould
  • Green manure and cover crops
  • Humus
  • Mulch
  • Top soil, sub soil and soil horizons
  • and a brief foray into soil structure and texture.

I hope this helps to dispel some of the confusion. Adding well-rotted organic matter to soil is a more holistic and sustainable approach to gardening and one of the underlying principles of ‘organic’ growing methods.

Soil most definitely matters! https://t.co/UcbFBEn3y8

Organic Matter

One of the simplest definitions for OM is that it’s something that was once alive. Organic matter is derived from a living thing. Whether that’s us, farmyard manure, twigs or leaves, over time the materials will rot down to become organic matter. When gardeners talk about adding organic matter, they can mean anything from garden compost, animal manures and leaf mould, to the remains of plants that have been planted as cover crops (green manures), as well as some soil conditioners.

OM adds nutrients to the soil that will feed the plants, and organic materials that will feed the soil microorganisms. It’s great for soil structure. No matter what soil you have, clay, loam, peat or sand, organic matter helps to break it up, increase drainage or improve porosity, allows oxygen to move around and plant roots to find water and nutrients. Organic matter also prevents the erosion of top soil, protecting it from the elements.

Soil Conditioners or Improvers

Soil conditioners or improvers can be made from organic material that is added to the soil to improve plant growth and soil health such as organic matter above, or fertilisers. Examples include compost, manure, coir, green manures and peat. Soil conditioners can also include inorganic minerals such as clay, sand, lime or silt and some can adjust the soil pH.

Just like ourselves who need proteins, carbs and vitamins to keep our bodies functioning healthily, several nutrients are necessary for plants to grow and fight off pests and diseases. The major elements they need in various quantities depending upon the plant include Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P), Potash(K), Sulphur (S), Calcium (Ca) and Magnesium (Mg) and the trace or minor elements essential for plant growth but in much smaller quantities include Baron (B), Manganese (Mn), Molybdenum (Mo), Copper (Cu), Zinc (Zn), Iron (Fe), Chlorine (Cl) and Nickel (Ni).

Seaweed is one example of a soil improver that contains all of these elements in abundance. It can be dug in or added as a mulch. Stephen Alexander from Teagasc lists in detail the nutrients required for all common vegetables in his publication A Guide to Vegetable Growing.

Organic growers apply regular applications of organic matter, toping up with organic fertilisers to feed the soil when necessary.

You can find a more detailed explanation about the differences in this slide share from Dr Radhey Shyam below:

Soil conditioners and amendments from Mahtab Rashid

Compost

Compost is a synthetic manure that can be made from various amounts of decomposing organic matter, fertilisers and soil. Usually sold in bags, some composts contain top soil, most contain peat, despite the knowledge that the later is not a sustainable source of organic matter. Peat bogs take hundreds of years to create and are fantastic carbon sinks. Its extraction releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a major greenhouse gas.

If you’re planning to garden under strict organic guidelines, avoid using store bought compost unless it carries a symbol to say that it’s organically certified. Some manufacturers are misguiding shoppers by printing ‘organic compost’ on their bags. It may have been derived from an organic base, but unless certified, compost is not ‘organic’ as we think of it and you’re wasting money buying organic seeds to plant into it. Research your source carefully.

Garden Compost

Composting your own waste materials is a great way of creating organic matter that will add nutrients to your soil and help with soil structure. If you’re planning to start composting this year, or you’d like some tips on how to do it better, head over to Stop Food Waste for more information. The image in the top photo is of our own home made garden compost made from uncooked kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, grass clippings, animal bedding, twigs and garden waste. It took over a year to make but felt great to be making our own and the soil benefits immensely from its addition.

Biology of Composting

Well-Rotted Manure

Is what it says on the tin. Manure primarily derived from herbivores: cattle, horse and poultry that’s been left to rot until it no longer smells or resembles it’s original form. Do not use manure from meat eaters (dogs etc) as it can contain harmful bacteria. It takes three months to a year or more for manure to rot down sufficiently for garden use depending upon the type and heat of the pile. If the manure is too fresh when you add it, it can harm the roots and microorganisms within the soil. Be careful where you source the manure from too. The chemical aminopyralid hit the headlines in recent years when it was found that residues could pass through animals in sufficient quantities to cause damage to many crops.

Take a look at the Greenside Up IGTV channel for a short video clip about adding animal manure to a vegetable bed.

Composting toilets are gaining in popularity but it’s advised not to use the waste on edible plants. More information can be found here.

Beginners Guide to Organic Matter

Courtesy: Stop Food Waste

Leaf Mould

Leaf mould is made by collecting leaves in the autumn, placing them in a container separate from the normal garden compost (they take longer to rot down), and patiently waiting. Different leaves can provide more nutrition or less and some take longer than others to deteriorate (anything from one to three years), but leaves are a great soil conditioner and you can make your own potting compost with them as a base. The RHS have a handy guide to leaf mould here.

A Beginner's Guide to Organic Matter

Phacelia in flower

Green Manure and Cover Crops

Cover crops or green manures are plants that have been grown specifically to protect the soil by covering it (nature tends not to leave soil bare) between crops. Usually before they flower, green manures are cut and dug in to the soil which helps with soil structure and provides food for bacteria, worms and microorganisms. They can also be cut and left on the top of the soil to act as a mulch. Cover crops are a great way of adding organic matter to soil if you don’t have ready access to compost or manures. A PDF containing some of the more popular green manures can be found here. Green manures include plants like Alfalfa, Phacelia, field beans and Hungarian grazing rye. Seeds can be brought online or from garden centres.

Humus

Humus is more than the organic matter that’s added to soil, humus includes decaying insects, animals, microbial bodies and fungus. It’s a dark organic material that builds up over time. Think of the soil beneath leaf litter in a forest to envisage humus. It’s rich, dark and earthy. It can occur naturally or is the result of a well managed compost pile.

Soil HorizonsTop Soil, Sub Soil or Soil Horizons

Soil is divided into layers known as horizons. These include: O – organic matter, A – topsoil, mostly minerals with organic matter incorporated, E – eluviated, missing in some soils, B – subsoil, where the minerals that have leached down from the higher horizons settle, C – parent material from which the soil developed, R – bedrock such as granite, limestone or sandstone that forms the parent material for some soils. If you stick a spade into the soil and dig down, you can see the different colours and textures of the horizons.

The importance of soil

It takes around 100 years to creat 2.5cm of topsoil and the majority of the world’s food is grown in this horizon. In 2015, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations published a technical summary of the World’s Soil Resources. They summarised that ” the overwhelming conclusion from the regional assessments is that the majority of the world’s soil resources are in only fair, poor or very poor condition. The most significant threats to soil function at the global scale are soil erosion, loss of SOC [soil organic carbon] and nutrient imbalance. The current outlook is for this situation to worsen unless concerted actions are taken by individuals, the private sector, governments and international organizations”. Using sustainable soil management techniques which includes adding organic matter to soil will help to reverse this trend.

Mulch

This is a layer of organic or inorganic material that sits on the top of the soil. Made from straw, compost, wood chips, dried leaves or pine needles, mulch can also be an aggregate such as pebbles, slate or stones.  Mulching adjusts the temperate of soil, insulating the ground against cold or heat, helps with moisture retention, and the spread of plant disease can be reduced by its application. More information about garden mulches can be found in this archive guest post from Jerry Day.

Soil Structure

Soil structure refers to the architecture of the soil, or the arrangement of all the particles (clay, sand, silt etc) within it. In heavily compacted soil there will be little drainage or oxygen available to plants and soil biodiversity. A more detailed explanation of the A, B, C’s of soil structure can be found in this Teagasc guide.

Soil Texture

Fun experiment to determine your soil textureSoil texture is the type of soil you have, sand, clay, peat etc. Knowing your soil texture can help you to determine what plants to grow. An example is carrots that prefer a looser, sandier soil if they’re to develop the long roots of say, an Autumn King variety. If you’re gardening in a clay soil, choose shorter or round varieties of carrot seed such as the Chantenay. Work with your soil where possible rather than fighting against it. I’ve shared a simple experiment to learn your soil texture in an archive post here.

How much Organic Matter Should I Add?

Now we’ve established what the definititons are, how much organic matter should you add? Unfortunatrely that’s a million dollar question as it depends on what gardening method you’re following and what soil you have. As a rule of thumb I use two parts top soil to one part organic matter when creating raised beds. No Dig guru Charles Dowding recommends a layer of around 15cm or 6″ of well rotted organic matter mulched on top of the soil to create a new No Dig bed. An early organic, Gardeners World presenter Geoff Hamilton used to recommend a bucket full per square yard. I aim to add around 10kg per square metre in our clay soil.

For a closer look below the soil surface, here’s a lovely short video ‘The Living Soil Beneath Our Feet’ from the California Academy of Sciences. We need to stop treating soil like dirt and look after it. Our lives may depend upon it.

If you really dig your soil or would like more information on regenerative agriculture, some great resources that include videos, podcast and peer reviewed papers can be found:

 

Green

Seaweed – a new kind of edible or a centuries old secret?

July 4, 2014

Once I’d picked myself up off the floor having opened the invitation and itinerary to attend the SoSligo Food and Cultural Festival in June, the trip we were being taken on that really jumped out of the page was seaweed foraging with Prannie Rhatigan.

Seaweed - a new kind of edible or a centuries old secret?

Sea or Mountain Woman?

I was born and reared within earshot of the sea and now living on top of a hill, almost an hour’s drive away from the coast, the deep yearning for sea air never goes away. I moved away from the seaside as a young child and my teenage years were spent close by to the salty marshes of Maldon, in North Essex, famed for its Sea Salt. I have no recollection of seaweed. Wistful memories tend to be of swimming every day with friends in the creeks, laying in bed listening to the bells ringing on stormy nights as they swayed violently on the tips of masts on yachts moored close by. Depending upon the wind direction, the sound of hammers and drills could often be heard echoing around the village as men worked in the boatyard on barnacle encrusted barges that sat resting, out-of-place high in the air on cradles, paint peeling from their hulls. The sounds were mirrored by the screech of the seagulls as they fought for morsels of food thrown from small fishing boats that lazily bobbed by.

But seaweed? I’m guessing there must have been some lying around the muddy marshes but it certainly wasn’t something we ate.

Edible Seaweed

Seaweed - a new kind of edible or a centuries old secret?It came as a bit of surprise last year when I attended a fascinating talk about seaweed by Sally McKenna, author of Edible Greens, followed by a Japanese cookery demonstration by Fiona Uyema, that not only is seaweed edible, those in the know have eaten it for centuries and it’s packed full of properties that are tremendously good for us.

Prannie Rhatigan

Prannie Rhatigan

Prannie Rhatigan was reared by the sea too but unlike me, she grew up learning its secrets. She describes in the introduction of her wonderful book, Irish Seaweed Kitchen how, as a child, she would help her father harvest the glistening seaweed on the edge of the Atlantic ocean throughout the various seaweed seasons. These days, as well as practising as a medical doctor, Prannie is sharing her knowledge and having stood spellbound in welly boots on the slippery rocks, surrounded by an abundant carpet of free and now I know, almost completely edible carpet of seaweed, I can safely tell you she really knows her stuff.

Prannie is not only passionate about seaweed in its raw and cooked forms, she’s also convinced of its health benefits and although her medical training dictates that she works from an evidence base, she can see that evidence building. She’s looking forward to seeing the day when seaweeds have mainstream preventative and therapeutic roles as anti-inflammatories, anti-cancer and antivirals among other things.

Seaweed - a new kind of edible or a centuries old secret?As we carefully wove our way around the slippery Sligo rocks, Prannie introduced us to the magnificent gifts from the sea that lay strewn around us, ensuring that we understood how to harvest seaweed responsibly, explaining that it wasn’t to be pulled out by its roots or from its mother plant, but snipped carefully and sustainably.

 

Seaweed - a new kind of edible or a centuries old secret?The waterproof Companion Guide to Edible Seaweeds that’s recently been launched to accompany The Seaweed Kitchen has an illustration showing exactly where to cut each variety of seaweed with scissors, an invaluable guide to anyone new to seaweed foraging.

Seaweed might be free, but taking anything from the seashore in Ireland should be done so respectfully and sustainably and Prannie was keen to point that out (see here for the Irish legislation about seaweed harvesting).

Seaweed - a new kind of edible or a centuries old secret?

Sea spaghetti growing out from it’s parent plant

I could spend pages extolling the virtues of this cook book and guide with a difference, from its thoughtful bookmark that gives quick tips on preparing seaweed to the tried and tested recipes that include starters, canapés and deserts, compiled from local people’s favourite gems, or the thoughtful illustrations and photographs. The book and guide haven’t left my bedside since I arrived home as I’ve loved every moment dipping in and out of them, bringing me back to the seashore every time I do so.

Seaweed - a new kind of edible or a centuries old secret?During the foraging trip Prannie introduced us to her power packed green smoothie, sea spaghetti and cheese straws, as well as bladderwrack soaked in brandy. Who needs olives when you live by the sea…

You might wonder why someone who lives inland is so excited about a seaweed cookbook and the chances of foraging will be rare? Thankfully there are people who’ve created a business with folk like us in mind, selling little bags of dried seaweed that we can buy from specialist shops and online stores, re-hydrating them when we’d like. I now have a bag of sea spaghetti waiting to be turned into a salad dish I spotted in Prannie’s book, once I harvest my own cosmic purple carrots.

Seaweed - a new kind of edible or a centuries old secret?

Bladderwrack & raspberries in elderflower fizz

If you’re interested in learning more about seaweed, there are several opportunities for you to forage along the clean waters of the Wild Atlantic Way. Prannie herself will be hosting a rather special sounding two-day course in the summer that would be a wonderful treat for someone special (treat yourself perhaps) or there are several other foragers dotted along the coastline. Failing that, buy the companion guide or a seaweed foraging book and see what you can find for yourself.

If you’d like to learn more about our seaweed walk, Irish TV accompanied us on our Sligo tour and you can view the episode below (usually found on Sky Channel 191). Susan from the Vibrant Ireland blog has also covered the foraging trip in a post here and has included a garlicy seaweed recipe conjured up by her husband Terry.

Have you discovered the hidden qualities of seaweed yet? Are you tempted?

 

Travel

Food Festivals, Foraging and Fun to be had in Sligo!

May 31, 2014

One of the drawbacks of being a vegetable grower is that since we began growing our own food, we rarely get to take breaks away together. Partly perhaps, because we don’t want to leave the vegetables we’ve carefully natured over the past few months, but also finding minders for our chickens, pigs, dogs and cats for more than one night can be difficult.

Strandhill, Sligo

Photo Credit: Val Rubus – Strandhill, Sligo

Thankfully, living on an island means that’s not too much of a problem. In four hours we can be standing at the water’s edge of Donegal or in under an hour walking in the Wicklow mountains. We may not be guaranteed weeks of blue skies, but we’ve fantastic scenery, superb food, wildlife, big seas, star filled skies, friendship, fun, faeries and festivals every weekend, all on hand to entertain, unwind and help us relax.

Holidays in Ireland

My first trip to Ireland and the one that sowed the seed to up anchor and move all my worldly goods here, was spent as a pillion passenger on a large motorbike. I shared my perch with the driver (naturally) a tent, sleeping bags and enough camping gear to make sure we stayed dry and comfortable. We travelled across the southern half of the country from Tipperary to Cork, Kerry and back to Dublin again. We found caves and mountains, hot warm dinners and wet windy roads and I spent hours on the back of the bike in a world of my own, lost with desire to spend more time here.

My second trip many years later involved landing at Dublin airport with a friend and a backpack, climbing onto a bus destined to Galway, and spending most of the week sleeping in hostels and exploring all the lively pubs that we were able to find in the vibrant city that inspired many a tune.

Jump forward several more years and my next trip over the Irish sea was with the man who was to become Mr G. We took the time to tour around, visiting the peninsulas and wild Atlantic coast, falling in love with Beara and dreaming of owning a campsite and surf shop, somewhere we could grow old, living a self-sufficient beach life by the ocean’s edge.

Sligo Surfing

Sligo Surf – Photo Credit: Val Robus

Settling Down

It’s now 16 years since we finally made the move over, choosing instead a small holding life on a hilltop rather than the wilder one we’d envisaged. Over the years we’ve taken several short breaks to various parts of this beautiful island that we now call our home, almost always under canvas, and not nearly as many as we should have given how close we live to all the places we still want to see!

Unlike Mr G, the one place I’ve yet to visit, the place that everyone talks about with a slightly wistful air, is Sligo. But that’s about to change.

So Sligo 2014 Food Festival

so sligo imageWith thanks to the So Sligo 2014 Food Festival team, a few bloggers that include Vibrant Ireland, Irish Food Guide, Sligo Secrets, A Taste of Ireland and Isle Magazine among others, have been invited to Sligo to experience a fabulous sounding couple days that will be showcasing everything Sligo has to offer.

The festival starts on Wednesday 11th June and continues until Sunday evening with things happening all over the county. Starting with Sligo town, the Só Sligo Food Trail has over 30 tapas sized house specialities available for €5 each.

I’m particularly looking forward to the seaweed walk and hope to share some of the tips I learn with you. There will also be urban foraging, fermentation and cheese making workshops as well as lots of food demonstrations and talks by local and celebrity chefs.

During the festival JP McMahon will be bringing a pop up version of his award-winning Aniar Restaurant in Galway to The Model on Friday and there will be a Yeats Nobel Dinner by Alan Fitzmaurice on Thursday 12th (the eve of Yeats Day which is also being celebrated in Sligo).

Other events include the World Irish Stew Championship, something that everybody is encouraged to enter by bringing along two portions of stew (they have facilities to heat & serve), as well as several events for children too. A food village will be setting up from 1pm on Friday to Sunday evening, and before wrapping it up, there’ll be a Street Feast where people can bring their own food – or buy it from the stalls and food outlets, enjoying together!

I’ll be reporting back how my trip goes and am particularly looking forward to horse riding on the Sligo beaches and the eco-tourism side of things, something that Ireland can offer in abundance.

Sligo Horseriding

Photo Credit: Val Rubus

If you think the festival sounds interesting and would like to head along, check out the So Sligo website for full details and be sure to find me on any of the social media channels and say hello if you’re in Sligo.

Photo’s for this post have been reproduced with kind permission from Val of Magnumlady.com, a Sligo photographer who captures life there so well.