Happy New Year! The RenewEL team hope that you had a good festive break and welcome you back into the garden. Although it’s snowing, there are still things that you can be doing outside, should you be brave enough to face the elements. One thing you should do is start improving your soil. If you are looking for lots of fruit, veg and flowers this year, healthy soil is paramount.
And now is the time to enrich your soils, as it’s before the growing season and you have few seedlings or plants in growth that will be disturbed.
As we’ve championed before, it’s important to add organic materials to your soil. Organic additives include garden compost, animal manure, leafmold – in fact anything that has lived before can be decomposed and become an organic soil amendment. Not only will organic matter add fertility to the soil, releasing important nutrients that are taken up by your plants in their growth, but will introduce microbial organisms into your garden.
These microbes work in partnership with your plants. The plants produce sugars that helps the microbes and fungi grow, they in turn can reach deep down into the soil and draw up nutrients that the plant can’t reach for their and the plants benefit.
Moreover, adding organic material to your soil will help improve your soil structure. It will create spaces in the soil, forming channels for water and for air to circulate. It will also retain both moisture and nutrients in sandy soils and make heavy clay soils lighter and improve their drainage. One excellent additive is to combine biochar and compost on a 50:50 basis and integrate it into your growing beds. This is the basis of the terra preta, a dark, highly fertile, man-made soil found in the Amazon Basin.
You should also be laying out organic mulches. An organic mulch also helps to improve fertility and soil structure and should be spread in a thick layer between your plants. Mulching is generally used to save water, suppress weeds, and improve the soil around plants, but it also gives your garden a neat, tidy appearance and can reduce the amount of time spent on tasks such as watering and weeding. Mulches help soil retain moisture in summer, rain to penetrate the soil in winter, prevent weeds from growing and protect the roots of plants in winter.
Biodegradable, or organic mulches break down gradually to release nutrients into the soil and help improve its structure. Layers will need replacing when the material has fully rotted down. Among the best materials are garden compost, wood chippings, processed conifer bark, leaf mould, well-rotted manure, straw, spent hops and seaweed.
If you don’t fancy the (sometimes) back-breaking work of digging in organic materials, you can always consider no-dig growing. Leaving soil undisturbed encourages a thriving soil ecosystem which can enhance growth. No-dig growing suits narrow beds, like raised beds – all cultivation is completed from the sides. This ensures there is never a need to step on soil and risk compacting it.
Weeds aren’t a terrible thing to have in your beds right now. Winter is a season of storms, and many of the nutrients that have built up over the year can be washed away. Weeds help protect the soil from erosion. Usually, we recommend clients to sow a living green mulch – also known as a chop and drop mulch, or green manure – in Autumn. Green manures are fast-growing plants sown to cover bare soil. Often used in the vegetable garden, their foliage smothers weeds and their roots prevent soil erosion. When dug into the ground while still green, they return valuable nutrients to the soil and improve soil structure.
In fact, you should leave a small weed patch in the garden. Dandelions have deep taproots that draw nutrients from deep down in the earth, which it turns into its leaves and flowers. Cutting dandelions and then spreading their leaves and flowers (not the seeds!!!) on your garden allows your plants to access those nutrients.
Other great ‘weeds’ to learn to love are comfrey and nettles. Encouraging their growth in a small, controlled area can offer the opportunity to have a self-sustaining source of organic fertilizer year-round. To make fertilizer, steep the comfrey and nettle leaves in a sealed plastic tub with water for about three weeks and then decant the ‘tea’ and dilute on a 1:20 basis with water and use as a foliar feed or liquid fertilizer.
The RenewEL team looks forward to working with you in the coming year to make your outside spaces a great place to grow your own food, for you to relax and just enjoy a slice of nature in an urban setting