Improve your soil and plants
Healthy, good quality soil is the root of all garden goodness, so get yours shipshape now
ADDING ORGANIC MATTER
Organic matter is a blanket term for a number of natural soil improvers or fertilisers of varying nutrient levels. Soil on its own can lack sufficient texture and nutrient content, so to grow beautiful, thriving plants successfully, we need to help it along by improving it with different materials, according to what’s needed. Here are six key improvers, plus where, why and when to apply them.
Leaf mould is as simple as collecting moist fallen leaves now in black plastic bags, poking holes in the bags and leaving out of sight for a year or so. Thin, flimsy leaves break down quicker than thick leaves, so the latter may be better off decomposing quicker on the compost heap. Leaf mould is an excellent pH neutral soil conditioner and improves soil structure – conifer needles even produce acidic leaf mould, perfect for acid lovers. Use two-year-old leaf mould as cuttings and seed-sowing compost, while younger leaf mould is a great mulch – its content isn’t too harsh or too rich, or too full of nutrients; you can use bags of the stuff dug in everywhere and on the compost heap to enhance soil health, break it up and please worms.
Cheap to buy in bulk from online compost suppliers, nurseries or garden centres, this by-product of the commercial mushroom industry is usually made from composted straw. Use it when building up beds in winter or before planting. Its content is often chalky and therefore alkaline – if you see large lumps of chalk, break these up and mix it with rotted manure or compost as too much chalk can be damaging. It’s the perfect compost, however, for use on acidic soils that need balancing with alkalinity, and particularly among brassicas, which thrive in soil with a raised pH. Don’t use it among acid-loving plants or fruit plants. Spent mushroom compost is usually chalkier.
Environmentally-friendly, easy to do, saves waste, and gives you rich, crumbly, nutritious soil improver for free. Use it all over the garden to improve soil texture and fertility, but don’t sow seeds into it. Use it in autumn or spring. You can start a heap any time, mixing garden prunings, plant material, raw kitchen waste and paper – but not meat. A balance of materials ensures good decomposition and good quality material. Sprinklings of chicken pellets can accelerate decomposition. Municipal compost is made in bulk and is hotter at its core, so can be less weedy or potentially diseased than your own compost. Contact your council for details.
Dried, pelleted poultry manure is an approved organic fertiliser, rich in nitrogen. It’s not as quick or potent as synthetic fertilisers, but is chemicalfree, cheap and environmentallyfriendly. It’s fantastic for use on the allotment, but its alkaline nature means it’s unsuitable for ericaceous (acid-loving) plants such as blueberries, camellias or heathers. Apply it to your compost or garden between early spring and late autumn. Ensure any fresh poultry manure is composted first.
It suppresses weeds, protects plants, improves drainage, opens up soil structure and slowly releases nutrients – it’s a tonic for your soil. It’ll thankfully make no difference in soil pH to your garden, so can be used freely, so there’s little point in using it as an acidifier. Ensure it’s composted and not chipped before you dig it in – undecomposed bark chips take nitrogen from the soil and is best used just on the surface.
Fresh farmyard manure is too abrasive to heap around plants straight away, so be sure to rot it first before applying – or you can add it to bare beds now and wait until spring to plant up. Otherwise, of course, there’s well-rotted manure freely available from garden centres. This is one of the best rich improvers to choose for your garden; it’s a fantastic mulch, structure improver, adds vital nutrients and aids moisture retention. Roses, in particular, love it, however root veg or onions don’t need it. If you add manure now it may leach away over autumn and winter so early spring may be better.
Give your friendly worms a feed with a helping of leaf mould
You often see big lumps of chalk in mushroom compost
Mushroom compost usually has a heavy straw content
Put your kitchen waste to good use and make a heap now
Ro ed horse manure is nutritious, water retaining and improves the structure of soil no end
Chicken manure is a great compost accelerator
Ensure bark is fully composted and crumbly before digging in