Organic gardening: Kick the chemicals (Google Alert / Telegraph)

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Organic gardening: Kick the chemicals

Look after your soil – and your soil will look after you, says Tom Petherick

Having dealt with slugs last time, I’ll turn to the heart of the organic garden: the soil. It is the most important element in any garden, for soil, in combination with the miracle that is photosynthesis, allows plants to grow. The priority for the organic gardener must be to have the soil in the best possible condition to act as a mechanism for growth, and to supply nutrients to the plants. This will enable them to grow strongly and help withstand attacks from pests and diseases. In modern-day conventional agriculture and horticulture, plants are fed directly by artificial means using systems that more or less bypass the soil as a source of nutrition, acting merely as a rooting mechanism. So it can come as no surprise that we see chronic soil erosion, appalling pest problems, poor food quality and an even deeper dependence on chemicals that has led, ultimately, to genetically modified crops.

OK, lecture over. But bear in mind, soil, the most precious element in the garden, is alive and filled with billions of organisms, from earthworms and slugs right down to microscopic fungi and bacteria. There are more of them in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on Earth and they need both protection and food. It is their constant cycle of life and death that creates a living soil.

Here is how to safeguard your soil and build fertility.

1 Try to stay off the soil and avoid working it when it’s wet. It needs to drain properly first.

2 Think carefully about digging and why you’re doing it, for this upsets soil life and, although we have been conditioned to dig through history, I don’t believe it’s always a good thing. No matter what your soil type, heavy clay or sandy loam, there should only ever be need for digging if the soil has become compacted. Rather than dig organic matter into the soil, it can be applied on the surface through mulches and when planting.

3 Keep the rotavator off the garden. I cannot stress this enough. There is no more efficient means of killing soil life. If you lay compost or well-rotted farm yard or stable manure (and it must be well-rotted) on the surface, the soil life will take it in naturally.

4 The mulch created by this action also protects the surface of the soil from the harmful rays of the sun and heavy rain, both of which cause erosion, which is simply another word for soil loss.

Naturally a little bit of forking over at planting, removing weeds or when creating seed beds, is fine, but digging for the sake of it is pointless, soul-destroying and bad for the back.

5 In the edible garden, employ a system of crop rotation. This has been in place since farming proper began some 6,000 years BC. It is still used because it works and is nothing more than moving annual crops around the garden to different sites each year, usually over a four-year period (though this may vary) in order to break the life cycles of pests and diseases and build soil fertility.

Using raised beds in the vegetable garden of, say, four feet in width will also help keep your heavy boots off the soil because all the work can be done from the path either side of the bed.

6 Remember that what you take out of the garden you must put back.

7 Recycling nutrients around the garden is critical to the health of the soil and therefore the plants. The best way to do this is to make compost throughout the year, thus returning all green matter to the garden.


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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