Looking after the soil is one of the first principles in organic gardening. There are the same amounts of micro organisms in a tea spoon of soil as the number of people of the world (6-7 billion). They all have vital jobs to do to keep the soil healthy and functioning to support our plant populations and it is our job as gardeners to look after our soil.
Soil care techniques
Creating raised beds is one of the first ways to protect the soil from impaction. Ideally using recycled or local wood, you can create sides to a bed, of varying heights according to your users and needs. An ideal width is 4’ ( 1.2m) in order to comfortably reach to the middle, with paths between beds, of about 2’ (60cm) allowing access from both sides. Small paths in the middle of long beds, or ‘stepping stone’ access can further reduce the temptation to tread on the beds. Mounding up of permanent beds is also useful initially if you don’t have time to build wooden sides, but in a community situation with children and other users likely to clamber over them, wooden edges do help to keep the integrity of the beds and remind people not to tread on them.
Compost or manure should be added to improve the soil quality and give the plants accessible slow release feed. It also improves the soils water retention ability if sandy, and conversely helps with drainage if soil has a heavier content.
Mulches: these are a community gardener’s best friend!
A protective mulch is generally a 5cm + layer of natural material laid over the soil and around plants when the soil is warm and wet in the spring or to put plants to bed in the autumn. Mulches can be simply a layer of compost or manure, straw, hay or grass mowings, laid on the soil in between plants, or damp cardboard boxes (without the tape) covered with straw or hay, and it acts to hold water and warmth in the soil, reduce weed growth and protect the soil from erosion and leeching of nutrients. This will need renewing periodically, remember always to mulch the ground when it is wet and warm, not dry or frosty.
Other mulching techniques and materials can be used to create ‘exclusion mulches’, which can be used to cover an area of weeds for a period of time, excluding the light from them and thus preventing their growth. After about 3 -6 months, (less in the height of the growing season) the mulch can be peeled back and the remaining perennial weeds removed by hand, e.g. dandelions or docks, and the area is ready to lightly cultivate and plant. Useful materials for this form of mulching include carpets, (however use the hessian not foam backed type, also being aware that there are a number of strong chemicals in the carpet itself so this is no longer recommended for organic gardening,) also recycled black plastic or membrane or any other robust light excluding material. These can be covered by straw or hay for aesthetic purposes if necessary. This is a great way to deal with an overgrown plot, cut down tall weeds over the area, apply your mulch membrane, and leave, for natural processes to work quietly whilst you are working on another area.
This technique avoids the need for heavy digging and turning over of the soil.
The 3 layer grow through mulch is also a wonderful technique for low maintenance gardening once applied, weeding and watering is minimal in that area.
How to do it
Cut or scythe the area to be mulched, create air holes into the ground with a garden fork if compacted. Apply compost, then cardboard (dampened when in position) or porous membrane, and straw in thick layers. Leave for a month or so before cutting planting pockets through the cardboard or membrane, adding a little more compost and water and plant with eg strawberries, pumpkins, potatoes, or anything that will be more robust than very vulnerable seedlings. If you cut a cross in the cardboard or membrane, you can dig a larger planting hole, and plant fruit bushes or even trees in this way. The membrane or cardboard and straw can come back over the area, when it is planted and watered thus keeping the weeds out and the water in.
Some crops that do not compete too hard for resources, can be sown thickly to cover the soil as a living mulch, we sow poached egg plants around our fruit trees and bushes for this and insect attractant purposes. White clover is good to sow around onions and under brassicas.
Please note, that slugs also love a mulch, however in a balanced garden, ground beetles and other slug predators also enjoy the protection of a mulch and will be feeding on them. It may be worth protecting plants in the early stages with natural slug control too however and waiting until younger plants or seedlings are better established before bringing the mulch around them.
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