Golden wheat field

2015, International Year Of Soils

Good soil health is essential for providing food and natural habitats

According to Soil Association figures, soils around the world are being destroyed 10x’s faster than nature can replace them, with the biggest culprits being over-use of chemicals and deforestation. They are essential in agricultural production and for maintaining natural habitats. Soil is one of the most complex and diverse ecosystems; a single square metre of forest soil can contain over 1,000 different species of micro-organisms. These micro-organisms are vital to soil health, being responsible for nutrient recycling, can modify soil structure and water regimes and enhance plant health; see the blog ‘Fantastic Fungi’. They play a huge role in the fight against climate change by locking up carbon.

Hands holding seedling

A world without healthy soil cannot sustain life; all we can do on a global scale is lobby the politicians and buy goods which have been ethically produced. On a personal level we can improve the soil in our own gardens and grow some of our own vegetables, which will ease the pressure on many fragile tropical soils, by not buying expensive imported vegetables. Even if you only have a windowsill there is still the possibility of growing your own salad leaves, micro-greens, chillies and herbs. A single pot outside the door can grow an assortment of herbs or a hanging basket can produce strawberries or cherry tomatoes. Careful planning can produce a summer of vegetables from a single raised bed. See the blog ‘What vegetables can I grow in containers and small spaces?

Improving your garden soil is fairly straightforward; it just needs a bit of digging, so forget going to the gym dig the garden instead. An organic rich soil holds onto moisture without becoming sodden and is a better texture and structure, so making it easier for the roots to penetrate and reach the available nutrients from lower down in the soil profile. If you already have an established garden, mulch in early spring when the ground is still wet from winter; see the blog ‘Magic Mulch’. Spread a thick, 5cm – 7.5cm (2 – 3”), layer of material over the soil, taking care not to put it up to the stems of shrubs as this can lead to them rotting. You can use home-made compost, recycled compost, usually available from your local council, chipped bark or bagged compost from the garden centre or for an environmentally acceptable alternative to peat-based compost try the Chelsea Flower Show award winning Lakeland Gold, click here to read the blog.

If you are clearing overgrown land or taking up a lawn for a vegetable garden or herbaceous borders dig in a good layer, 5 – 10cm (2 – 4”), of organic matter in spring or autumn, before re-planting. Also incorporate one handful of blood, fish and bone per square metre. If you are making a vegetable garden this can be done every year in spring. You can use home-made compost, recycled compost, leaf mould or well-rotted farmyard manure. If using manure straight from the farm make sure that it is well-rotted for at least a couple of years and that it contains plenty of straw, fresh manure contains too much ammonia which damages plant roots and can kill them. This applies for clay, silt or sandy soils; there are other measures you can take with clay soils to improve the structure; see the blog ‘How to improve clay soils’.

Silt soils easily become compacted so avoid walking on them; put boards down to spread the weight. Incorporating organic matter opens up the structure and  binds the silt particles thus making the soil less susceptible to wind erosion in dry periods and to water erosion in a downpour. Sandy soils drain easily so the organic matter acts like a sponge and holds onto the water. A clay soil drains easier if organic matter is incorporated as it opens up the structure and prevents it baking hard in dry periods.

Mixed vegetable harvest

Improving your soil provides a healthy environment for growing your plants which in turn leads to bigger and better plants and an increase in yields without the need for using chemicals. They are not only expensive but they also damage the environment, both in use and manufacture, and pollute water sources. Click here for more information on how to improve the fertility of your soil without using chemicals.

Angela Slater
Daughter of a farmer and market gardener so have always had a connection with the outdoors, whether it was keeping animals or producing fruit, vegetables and cut flowers. Along with my work at Hayes Garden World I also have a smallholding, mainly breeding rare breed pigs. I gained an HND and BSc in Conservation and Environmental Land Management, as a result I am an ardent environmentalist and have a keen interest in environmentally friendly gardening. In my time at Hayes I worked for several years in the Outdoor Plant and Houseplant areas