Challenge 3: My soil is not what I hoped for

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This sheep sorrel is prolific in our acidic soil, in spite of our regular harvesting.

What began as just a couple of wee sorrel clumps poking through the chuckies, quickly became a carpet when we pulled up the stones.  Listening to weeds can tell a gardener a lot about their soil… but did I listen to our happy sorrel?  Oh no.  What might I have heard if I paid more attention to the sorrel?  For one, that the soil at our place is rather acidic.

Good sense might have instructed me to get a soil analysis done before planting too many things.  However, eager to get things in the ground for the growing season (and to diminish the big muddy patch that was our entire property) I went planting things with willful ignorance.

While a few intentionally planted things thrived (tatties, kale, yarrow, borage, to name some), many plants did not do so well.  Raspberry canes yellowed before their time, blackcurrant leaves became tinged with purple, and my apple trees just managed to survive a few aphid attacks.

This is when I decided to get a soil test done.  I dug ten samples from around the garden, mixed them all together, took a 200g sample from that, and posted it with £30 off to the RHS.  They tested for texture, organic matter content, pH, available phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium.  Along with the analysis, they sent recommendations for soil amendments for growing different kinds of plants successfully.  They also noted what would happen in the absence of these amendments… indeed, yellowing rasps, purpling blackcurrant leaves, and attacks from pests were just some of their warnings!

In the challenge of a tight budget I talk about how parameters should be helpful in framing your project.  That stands true with soil too.  The ideal garden shouldn’t involve amending the soil for eternity in order for it to grow well.  Yes, it needs to be fed and watered and maintained, but in the end, we need work with what we’ve got by locating plants where they are best-suited to grow.  This benefits the individual plant itself, but it is also better for the garden as a whole.  As an aside, one of my favourite landscape designers who works with this principle is Pied Oudolf.

That all said, it is hard to know what the true equilibrium of my soil is, given it has been buried under gravel for about ten years.  Most organic gardeners will be able to get great results with generous piles of compost through each growing season, as well as other simple organic methods like cover crops and organic fertilisers+teas.  But my soil, I suspect, is so out-of-whack that it needs a little extra attention and some mineral additions… ideally a year ago.

What I really wish I had done, is tested my soil in the early days and then incorporated additions with the compost and topsoil.  But it is never too late.  This rainy month, I will apply dolomite lime in most areas to adjust the pH and raise the magnesium level.  Early in the spring and throughout the season, I will work in more compost and apply some Grochar (an organic alternative to the oft-recommended synthentic Growmore) and fertilising teas.  I hope that further down the track my garden will show me what it wants to grow well and the application of extra minerals will not be so neccessary.  My job is, and will be, about feeding the soil so it can keep feeding me.

For now, this concludes my Three Challenges series.  I had intended to write more on this particular issue going into more detail about, for example, cover crops, crop rotation, fertilising teas, and “no-dig” solutions, but I think I will leave it more generalised for now and wait until the season is appropriate for these other topics.

If you would like to read about the other two challenges I face in my garden, here are links:

Challenge 1: Part I  Challenge 1: Part II

Challenge 2: Part I  Challenge 2: Part II  Challenge 2: Part III

Also, here are some yummy recipes, two of which I have tried, with sorrel (beyond just brushing the soil off and popping them in my mouth, which is also worth trying).

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