Soil Improvement for Vegetable Gardeners

Summer vegetable gardenHealthy vegetables need a healthy soil, it’s as simple as that. It is possible to grow vegetables in poor soil by using artificial fertilizers but the quality of the soil will be further eroded until, finally, you won’t be able to grow anything at all. This is the big problem with modern ‘industrial’ agriculture as the Earths soils are continuously being downgraded until, well, let’s just say it’s not going to be pretty.

How does this happen, surely the artificial fertilizers are just feeding the plants?
In general a plant doesn’t care where it gets its nutrients from. Artificially produced fertilizers feed the plant directly, the nutrients are pre-processed like a supermarket ready meal and can be absorbed directly by the plant.

In the natural cycle which takes place in the soil someone has to do the processing and that someone (or someones) are an army of bacteria, protozoa, fungi, nematodes, arthropods, earthworms and other soil micro-life who process dead plant or animal material (organic matter). The waste products of all this processing are the nutrients required to feed your plants.

So What?
So, the life in the soil needs food to process so it can turn it into food for plants, if we don’t feed the soil, the soil can’t feed the plants. The food is all the good stuff we’re advised to add to our garden like well rotted manure and garden compost, in short Organic Matter. If we feed the plant directly with artificial fertilizers we cut out all the important life in the soil which then has nothing to eat and dies. If the soil life dies the only way we can feed our plants is by artificial means and thus the cycle of chemical dependency is set.

Organic MatteTurning compost with a garden forkr
Organic Matter is defined as all living and decaying residues, including weeds, crop residues, decaying roots, microorganisms and anything which is added to the soil in the form of composts, manures, cover crops, mulches, leaves, etc.

As we’ve said this material is important because it (indirectly) feeds the plants but also builds the soil itself. Decomposed organic material (compost) helps loosen and aerate heavy soil and improves nutrient and water holding capacity. When compost has completely broken down it forms humus, a dark carbon rich soil like substance which acts as a storage and transfer site for plant nutrients. This process of organic matter accumulation is critical to the formation of topsoil and the growth of healthy crops.

no dig principle of vegetable gardeningHow to add organic matter soil
It is far better to add organic matter to the surface of the soil instead of digging it in, isn’t that great? Digging (or worse, rotevating) soil is a lot of work for you but it also breaks up beneficial fungal pathways which transport nutrients to plant roots and destroys worm tunnels and pores which keep the soil aerated.

Organic matter is best layered as a mulch on top of the soil where it will break down quicker (organic matter needs air to break down so if you bury it the process will take longer) and be incorporated into the soil by earthworms.

How can we help?
Well, naturally we have a choice of cool products that help you improve your soil structure, feed all your microscopic soil friends and ultimately grow tasty and healthy vegetables. We would always encourage you to make your own compost (it’s easy once you get the hang of it) but you may need some extra help to keep your garden soil in top condition.

Envirogrind green waste compostMunicipal CompostĀ  / Envirogrind
The best route to a healthy garden soil is adding generous amounts compost. Good compost is made up from a mix of plant material which has rotted down to produce a dark and crumbly material, it is the food source for the life in your soil. Unfortunately you can never make enough compost yourself because you eat a good proportion of the crops produced in the garden so you need to supplement with compost from another source.

Municipal compost is compost made from green and woody waste by your local council or composting facility, quality varies from place to place, we of course stock the best. ‘Envirogrind’ is a properly finished compost with the added benefit of 25% fish waste (no, it doesn’t smell), it is rich and dark and makes the perfect soil improver. Available in large cubic metre (tonne bags) or smaller 60 litre bags Envirogrind is best added in the Autumn or early Spring.

Soil renew soil conditionerSoil Renew
Soil Renew is a French product new to home gardeners and is designed to refresh tired soil and boost its nutrient processing abilities. Remember our bacteria, fungi and algae? Soil renew contains a rich mix of microbial life, molasses and composted plant matter in an easy to use pellet form. The live ingredients supercharge your soil and enable it to break down organic matter more quickly leading to a faster production of the ‘holy grail’ soil ingredient – humus.

Without getting too technical Humus, because of its negatively charged particles, increases the soils cation exchange capacity. This holds positively charged particles (cations) like potassium, calcium, magnesium and sodium in the soil and makes them available to plants.

Soil renew can be added any time of year but the most efficient use is adding in the Autumn where the active ingredients have time to do their magic before planting in the Spring.

Microbial compost innoculatorCompost Renew
Compost Renew’ contains the microbial portion of ‘Soil Renew’ but without the composted plant matter. ‘Compost Renew’ is added to your compost heap or manure pile and has the same effect, it breaks down the material much faster, again leading to faster production of humus. By adding this rich mix of microbial life to your compost bin you are also creating a more potent compost as the high concentrations of beneficial bacteria will be transferred to your garden soil when you spread the compost.

If you are using compost renew there will be no need to use the sister product ‘Soil Renew’ as you are essentially making your own bulk version with your high microbial compost. The active ingredients in your home made mix will continue to process nutrients and make humus once added to your vegetable beds.

Seamungus seaweed and poultry manure soil conditionerSeamungus
Strictly speaking ‘Seamungus’ is a plant feed but as it contains poultry manure and more importantly composted seaweed it is also an effective soil conditioner. Seamungus is very different to other seaweed and poultry manure products on the market as it uses freshly harvested seaweed rather than the seaweed powder used in similar products. The seaweed is composted with the poultry manure making a very well mixed ad well balanced feed.

Seaweed contains naturally occurring growth hormones which are particularly useful when starting off young plants while the natural humic and fulvic acids in the mix act as a soil conditioner making poor soils more fertile.

Seamungus can be applied at any time throughout the growing season. I use a light handful around the planting hole when planting most seedlings (especially brassicas) and also use it as a top dressing when required. The application rate is 50g per square meter every 6-8 weeks.

Rock dust soil re mineraliserRock Dust
Rock dust is ground volcanic basalt which contains a broad range of minerals including phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium and iron. Much of the mineral content in your soil comes from rock ground up in the last Ice age and though we have had some cold winters in the last few years it hasn’t been enough to mobilise the glaciers… Rock dust replaces minerals in a depleted soil but it also very useful for mineralising your compost heap. Add a handful every now and then when building your heap for a mineral rich end product.

When adding rockdust to your soil it is best to cover with a layer of good active compost as it is the microbial lie in the soil that ‘unlock’ the minerals in the rock dust and make them available to your plants. An application of rock dust and Soil Renew would also be a smart combination for the same reason.

Wooden raised garden pond shop

This entry was posted in Improving Your Soil. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Soil Improvement for Vegetable Gardeners

  1. clive says:

    Nice article Andrew, I was reading the other day about the harmful effects of artificial fertilisers and as well a starving the microbial life in the soil through the lack of organic matter, artificial fertilisers are chemically classed as salts. So applying salt at a high rate to your garden effectively sucks the moisture out of all soil life dehydrating everything in the top few inches of the soil. This process as you stated becomes a dependency that needs repeating and over a short number of years the soil becomes heavy with poor water holding capacity, this then can lead to leaching of nutrients and minerals which in turn can cause an iron pan ( an impermeable layer of mineral deposits which can cause serious drainage problems) and lower the ph of the soil creating an anaerobic acidic soil….perfect for growing rushes!

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks Clive. Yes, when you get into it artificial fertilizers really are doing terrible damage for so many reasons. I have an iron pan under my garden but that’s more from 1000’s of years of West of Ireland deluge than over zealous fertilizer application and yes, it is perfect for growing rushes!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *