March 21

10 things I didn’t know about soil

I was given  a couple of books for Christmas about soil. I read the fun-looking one a while ago but left the more serious one, Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis,  and have only just got round to it. It turns out that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. I learnt masses from the second book so here are my top 10 amazing facts.

  1. I have heard plants being called fast carbon pathways but haven’t ever really understood why. It turns out that as a result of photosynthesis, carbohydrates move back down a plant to the roots and then drip out of them. These carbohydrates and proteins that come out of the roots are known as exudates and are what attract the fungi and bacteria in the soil to them.  Bacteria and fungi are eaten by protozoa and nematodes and their waste is absorbed by the plants as nutrients all of which happens in the rhizosphere which which is about 1mm around the root system of a plant.  I like the analogy that is used in the book of bacteria and fungi being the small bags of fertilizer and the protozoa and nematodes act as fertilizer spreaders. All of this is controlled by the plant. Soil life provides the nutrients needed for plant life and plants initiate and fuel the cycle by producing exudates.
  2. Some plants prefer soil dominated by bacteria, others by fungi. I knew that there are organisms in the soil but I didn’t know that plants had preferences.
  3. Most vegetables, annuals and grasses prefer soil with more bacteria and their nitrogen in nitrate form.
  4. Most trees, shrubs and perennials prefer fungally dominated soils. In general, the longer a plant stays in the soil, the more it likes a fungally dominated soil. It make sense really. Annual plants are over in a year or less and that isn’t conducive to the hyphae on the fungi having enough time to grow and spread out.  In fact, the bacterial numbers in the soil stay the same, it is the fungal numbers that increase.
  5. The compost that we add to a soil inoculates it with the micro organisms in it. The aged brown material we add feeds the fungus and the green stuff provides the sugars for the bacteria. Kelp and rock dust can be added to compost heaps and they provide food for fungal growth.
  6. Worm compost is rich in bacteria with very little fungal activity. That makes sense. The worms eat the scraps we put in and the microbes in their digestive system break them down. It is therefore best used on annual vegetables.
  7. Bacteria need more moisture than fungi and work quicker if the materials are ground up or shredded. This fits in with making the 18 day compost using the Berkeley method (which I still haven’t mastered yet!).
  8. The best way to support fungi is to spread a compost made with more brown material than green with the addition of rock dust if you have it. After this has been spread you could then mulch with wood chippings which will break down more slowly. I was thinking about raspberry canes when I read this.
  9. There are two types of mycorrhizae: ectomycorrhizea and endomycorrhizae and plants prefer one rather than the other. Ectomycorrhizea grow around the roots of a plant and surround them, endomycorrhizae  grow into the cells of the roots of a plant. Some mycorrhizae can act as ecto with one plant and endo with another. Fascinating and very flexible!
  10. It is worth using mycorrhizal fungi when transplanting all plants other than brassicas and chenopodia (spinach, beetroot etc). They do not utilise mycorrhizae.

There are a variety of actions that can develop bacteria and fungi in the soil – adding compost, mulching (or combine the two and mulch with compost!) and using actively aerated compost teas. I am still getting my head around these teas – they involve an air pump or being stirred for hours and so are not for the faint-hearted.  What is easier to understand are the actions can damage the soil food web.

  • Digging the soil will break up the rhizosphere, the hyphae on the fungi and destroy the structure of the soil created by the micro-organisms.
  • Chemical fertilisers, insecticides, pesticides and fungicides affect the soil food web being toxic to some organisms, warding off others and changing the environment. When plants are fed chemically, the bacterial and fungal relationships with the plant are not formed, the microbial populations reduce as a result and the plant then needs constant chemical feeding.

If you are interested in the soil food web, Dr Elaine Ingham is the queen of this science and her How it Works videos explain the processes much more clearly than I can.

I am going to have to read the other book written by Lowenfel and Lewis – Teaming with Nutrients.

April 1

Keeping busy …

Gosh, it’s a difficult time at the moment. I have been holed up in my house for about 15 days now and can see this going on for months and months – in fact, until we get a vaccine for Covid19. We are still able to walk around so I can get down to the allotment but have been thinking for some time about growing some vegetables in my garden. In the past, I have wanted to keep the flowers and vegetables separate but found myself wondering what would happen if we went into a ‘total lockdown’ like Spain or Italy and I couldn’t get to the allotment even though it is only 5 minutes away.

Over winter, I removed a hedge as I wanted to replace it with fruit trees and have started to plant some – a cherry bush Porthos and an apple, Christmas Pippin, which I am espaliering.  However, I have now decided to use the space to grow vegetables as well.  I have become more and more interested in saving my own seed and so have decided to grow only open pollinated seeds in the garden where they will not cross with F1 plants which I have on the allotment. I have started to create the beds and planted out my Ailsa Craig onions under fleece yesterday. I grew these from seed, sowing them mid February, and am hoping that they don’t bolt as easily as sets sometimes do.

The other thing that I have become much more interested in is Permaculture and its principles.  I had started to tidy  where the hedge had been but had three tree trunks that were quite old and starting to rot down and wasn’t sure what to do with them. I can’t take them to the tip now and one is too heavy to move. I thought about putting them behind another edge on the other side of the garden to rot down but really they would just get in the way there.  Then I read about Hugel beds.

These are made out of materials that are generally lying around the land but have a core of wood at the heart. The idea is that wood, leaves, twigs, compost soil and turf are layered on top of each other to create a mound which rots down slowly over time.  Vegetables and shrubs can be planted into them and are reputed to perform very well.

Being an impatient sort of person, I started straight away. I marked out an area where the bed was to go. The advice says to put it so that the prevailing winds hit it sideways on to provide some protection for what is behind. I have managed to do that and therefore protect the vegetable beds behind it.

You have to clear the grass and then dig down so that the trunk is buried a little bit. This helps it to act as a water soak and to be in contact with more soil which will help it to rot down.  As a no-dig gardener, this part is proving to be difficult. It just feels wrong to dig and because I don’t dig, I have managed to rub blisters in several different places on my hands just removing the turf.

Once the grass was cleared and I had dug down 1 fork’s depth, I rolled the trunk into the pit and then packed all around it with twigs, old grasses I had cut down and then weeds.  I trampled all over these until they had all squashed down and were quite compact.  Then I laid all the turf over it again but across to try and hold the ingredients in.

I watered it thoroughly and then started to put the soil I had dug out back on to of the turf. You can see both in this picture. I have to admit, it is starting to look a lot like a burial mound.  This is as far as I have got for now but intend to top it with home made compost and possibly pin some twigs the length of it down the sides to act as little shelves for the plants because I am worried that when it rains everything will just run down the sides.  Then I will plant into it.  The far side in this picture faces south-west so I will probably put lettuces this side and more sun-loving things the other side.  I am also presuming that it will be damper towards the bottom of each side and drier on the top so need to plant accordingly. More photos of this in the next post. I have to say that this has taken me days and in the meantime, I made two beds that are bigger than this my usual no-dig way in 2 hours this morning. Just cardboard and compost on top of the grass. And I didn’t get any blisters doing it!

What are you doing in the garden to keep busy?

February 13

Harvest Monday 12/02/18

Stored vegetables

We grew a lot of winter squash this year; Crown Prince, Waltham Butternut  and Hunter – a type of butternut.

Here they are after we had harvested them in October . As you can see, the bench is quite full. We ate the Butternut squash first because they do not last as long as the Crown Prince which will still be going strong in May.  There were five Crown Prince in total and they all grew on one plant. Normally I have five plants each with one squash on so I do put the vigour of the one and only plant that survived the slugs down to no-dig. I have also just noticed that there is an Uchiki Kuri, the bright orange one, in there as well.


This is what the bench looks like today. Just the Crown Prince to go and they are probably the best-tasting of all of them.

New no-dig bed

I have created  a new bed for some squash this year on a slight slope. Being a no-dig gardener, I have put cardboard down first, watered it, and then manure and home-made compost on top  and covered it with black plastic that lets the rain through.  A new bed in 15 minutes. I reckon I will get three squash plants in it.

It is not essential to put compost on top of the manure but I have found that plants seemed to do better in that mix rather than just compost or just manure.  That could be more about my compost and manure than anything else. The compost I have is full of weed seed because it was made before I got on top of the weeds which is why I covered the bed with black plastic. Again, it isn’t essential to do this but beds that I haven’t covered, where I used my compost, do have weeds growing in them. I need to get the hoe out!

I am as desperate as everyone else to start sowing seeds but the weather is so cold at the moment.  I might sow some chilli seeds in a propagator on the kitchen windowsill but that is all until this cold snap disappears.

Multi-sown seeds

I really enjoyed Charles Dowding’s latest video about growing multi-sown module leeks. He certainly seems to grow a lot in a small space which is what I want to do. Leeks are one of the seeds I will be sowing soon.  I have Musselburgh which were free with the magazine Kitchen Garden and are ready from October onwards; Tadorna, which I have not grown before,  are ready in December  and Blue Solaise which are ready from November onwards.  With these three, I should be able to have leeks throughout the winter and into the early spring. I planted 50 leeks last year and they are just about to run out now so I would say I need another 20 at least.


And so to the harvest. I really can’t show kale again which doesn’t leave much to show this week.  I do have large clumps of parsley in the polytunnel and so a salad of parsley, cucumber and tomatoes all chopped really small would go well with my chicken tagine tonight.  I know people talk about the hungry gap starting in April/May but mine seems to start now!  I do still have a freezer half-full of blackberries, raspberries and black currants which we eat for breakfast every morning.

What is the best fruit or vegetable you have stored over winter?

December 3

Covering it all up

This is the month where I start to cover the beds that are empty and wonder how much more compost I need to make next year.

I have a mix of 2yr old manure and compost that I have made myself over this year and I am trying to remember what I put on each bed last year so that I can alternate: compost one year, manure the next. I don’t think this is necessary but I think each has its own type of goodness and the plants might benefit from a range rather than one thing.

The parsnips are ready so we have started to eat them. They are enormous – perhaps a little too big – so I think I need to sow them a bit later next year. I think May should be early/late enough. Perhaps I should sow some in April, some in May and some in June. I definitely need better notes than I kept last year about when I sowed things.

I sowed some broad beans in the greenhouse on the 10th of November and planted them out on the 4th of December. They are tiny in comparison with many other plots but should catch up. I also planted about 12 in the polytunnel which is not enough so need to sow more.

Today, I harvested parsnips, kale, leeks, sprouts, radicchio (not sure if I have spelt that right!) and parsley. I have a few peppers left on a plant in the polytunnel which I will need to pick soon or they will rot.

One of the things I will be doing this month is searching for other vegetable/gardening blogs to read and learn from.  So far I have found

Our Plot at Green Lane Allotments

Sharpen Your Spades 

What are your favourite vegetable growing blogs?





October 30

Warm and Dry

It has been unseasonably warm and dry. Having been away for a week, the tomatoes in the polytunnel continue to ripen and the lettuce has rocketed away with lots to pick again. The borlotti beans have dried on the plants this year although I did give them a final dry in the greenhouse.

image image

I have had some manure delivered and have started to use it straight away on new beds. I know you are supposed to use manure that is about 2yrs old but I don’t have any. It will be interesting to see whether I can grow in it next year. Perhaps potatoes.


I have covered it with black plastic and will leave it until April and then try planting in it.

How do people get enough compost etc that is 2yrs old? I am still not sure how I can get enough to save some for the next year. Anyway, I will keep going. More leaves gathered but the trees haven’t really dropped their leaves yet.

September 13

My plots

I have had my plots for about 12 years now but it is only this year that I have really had the time to give to them. I used to manage on about 3hrs a week but it wasn’t really enough time and they tended to look a little unloved.

Last year I visited Charles Dowding’s garden and marvelled at his no dig vegetable growing. The plants were in fantastic, rude health so I decided to transition to no dig. I say transition because I am finding it difficult to get the amount of manure/compost that I need for one plot never mind two. I do make compost but nowhere near enough and it is very weedy.

I do have one bed however, which I composted to a depth of about 5cm and covered in black plastic all winter and have grown potatoes followed by chard, leeks and endives which can be seen in the photo above. The potatoes weren’t great but the leeks, chard and endives are doing very well.