Preparing your soil – part 1

You don’t need fancy tests to check your soil to see how much fertiliser you need.

There’s a fairly simple way to do this,  making growing your own food a little bit easier. It’s all very well telling growers to have a soil test done and then seek professional advice on how to fertilise it – but when it comes to small-scale and home vegetable gardens, the size of the operation rarely makes it worthwhile. And there’s a fairly easy way to check the soil yourself.  First, choose a part of the garden that’s in full sun, or at least gets sun for most of the day.

Then check that there are no hard layers in the area where the plant roots grow.  Do this by pushing a thin iron rod into the soil when it’s moist. If there’s a hard layer, the rod will “stick”. The soil here can be loosened with a fork after you’ve applied the fertiliser ingredients.

There are two kinds of fertiliser – the manmade, inorganic kind, which often comes in a powdered form, and the organic kind, which is made up of natural substances.  Both kinds help improve the soil by supplying nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other minerals. But because we don’t know what our soil lacks, or has too much of, we play it safe and apply organic fertiliser – that is, manure and/or compost.

Manure has a wide range of nutrients – the food needed to produce healthy vegetables.  Different manures have different amounts of minerals.  Cattle manure has a fair amount of nitrogen, a smaller amount of phosphate and quite a lot of potassium. Poultry manure is higher in phosphate and has less potassium.  By using both cattle manure and poultry manure there’s a better chance of getting the right balance.

Benefits of manure

Manure is beneficial because it loosens soil for roots to grow and helps it store water and hold nutrients. It also makes soil easier to manage from a fertility point of view.  As compost matures it becomes humus, and once the humus level in the soil increases, the soil becomes more fertile. 

In other words, with a good humus content it’s not so important if we don’t know much about fertilisers, and growing good vegetables is a lot easier. Another big advantage is that as the health of the soil increases, root diseases, eelworm and leaf diseases become less of a problem. Vegetables grown in organic manured ground also have more value and taste better.