Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Food Gardening for Beginners Part 3

Know Your Soil. Improve your soil.

OK, now we’ve planned, designed and know what you want to grow.
Now we get down and dirty.

Soil types
You may have heard or read references to different soil types.
Basically there are three main types of soil. Sandy, clay and a mixture of these, loam.

Loam is the ideal – an open, friable (easily broken up in your hand), free draining, humus rich soil is just what plants need to live in.

Unfortunately not many soils in Australia fit this description. We tend to have either sandy soil where the water quickly drains straight through without time for the plants to take it up or heavy clay where the water refuses to drain no matter how long it sits there.

Know your soil

You can tell what type of soil you have got by performing a special test…dig a hole and then just look at the dirt that came out of it. Pick it up in your hands and feel it. You should be able to tell what type it is.

These sites have information about different "Home soil tests"

Working with clay soil

Soil type test

Clay soil test

You can also do more extensive testing such as pH, moisture content etc etc but we really don’t need to involve CSIRO in our backyard veggie patch.

A sense of humus

Once you have determined your soil type you now need to make it perfect to grow your plants. You do this by adding humus (partially decomposed organic matter; the organic component of soil). It is the nutrient base, the water storage part and the part that makes your soil into a living substance that plants need to survive. Without it your soil is dead and so will your plants be.

All soil types will benefit from the addition of humus.

There are many ways of adding humus to your soil and they all take time to develop.

Green manure is one of the best and cheapest methods. This involves sowing seeds of legumes such as beans, peas, clover and lupins, and cereals such as oats, wheat, barley and millet. You can add a general organic fertiliser at the same time to help growth.

These plants are grown to their flowering stage or until they are about 30 cm tall and then slashed and/or dug into your soil.

About time (thyme?)

It will take several months (depending on the time of year and where you live) to grow these and more time is needed to allow them to break down.
It will take several months (depending on the time of year and where you live) to grow these and more time is needed to allow them to break down.

No, that was not a typo. I just thought the point was so important that it should be repeated.

Remember in Food Gardening for Beginners Part 1 we said that people don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan? Well, many people do not allow enough time for the green manure to be broken down completely. The soil then has to try to compete with trying to break down the green stuff and provide goodness to your plants at the same time.

That can be a struggle and guess who usually loses out…that’s right, your plants.

If your soil is at the extremes of soil type several sowings of green manure may be required before you can start that vegetable garden.

The wait will be worthwhile.


Whilst you are waiting for the green manure to break down it is the perfect time to start a compost system. Compost is broken down organic material that provides your soil with all the nutrients that the plant needs.

How to make Compost

Making your own Compost

Pt9 of this series Compost Making

Investigate the compost making method that suits your lifestyle and climate. Whether it is compost bays, barrels, tumblers, trenches or worm farms these too will take time to develop.

As your plants grow you will add mulch to conserve moisture and protect them from extremes in temperature. As the mulch breaks down it will continue to feed the soil and your plants so make sure it is a nutrient-rich mulch with manures or organic fertilisers to help it break down.

While you are waiting for all of the above to happen you can still grow stuff.

Check out ‘Fast Food Growing’ next.


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