Im­prove your soil and plants

Healthy, good qual­ity soil is the root of all gar­den good­ness, so get yours ship­shape now

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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

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