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  • Foodwise Articles

    Building and maintaining your soil

    Author | Arabella Forge

    If you want to give your plants the best start, you need to begin with healthy soil ecology.

    This can be done by mulching, fertilising and removing surrounding weeds, as well as consistent upkeep and watering. Don’t feel you need to go out and buy a lot of products to achieve this; it’s actually a lot simpler than you might think. If you have a compost heap, worm farm or bokashi bucket, you’re off to an excellent start – many gardens get by beautifully with one of these and nothing else. Listed here are some other ways to build and maintain healthy soil.

    Each garden is different, and different fertilisers will suit different soils. An easy way to test whether a particular fertiliser is suitable for your soil is to take a teacup of worms and soil from your garden bed and mix in the new fertiliser. If the worms continue to wriggle around at the bottom of the teacup, they probably like the fertiliser. If they don’t like it they’ll go crazy, trying to get out of the teacup as soon as possible. This test is especially handy if you’re buying commercially sold fertiliser, which may contain traces of chemicals.

    Basalt rock This is a rock mineral sold at most nurseries. It contains important trace minerals necessary for plant growth. It can also be added to compost heaps or worm farms to facilitate growth and fermentation and balance out pH levels.

    Blood and bone This is full of minerals, including slow-release nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus. A frugal alternative to buying commercial blood and bone is to ask your local butcher for some bone shavings from the back of his workroom floor. This will do the trick just as well.

    Dolomite lime | Dolomite lime is a naturally occurring rock mineral that boosts plant growth and alkalises the soil. Dolomite can be added in moderate amounts throughout the plant’s life cycle. Read up on the plants you’re growing first, however, as some plants – namely those that prefer acidic soil, including azaleas and blueberries – don’t like it.

    Manure | Sheep, chicken and livestock manure are all useful fertilisers, but they need to be added to your compost heap first so that they can break down and ferment before being added to your soil. You can buy them from nurseries or from the side of the road in rural areas or near stables, usually for $2-$3 per bag. Some plants really thrive on animal products. Rhubard is a classic example – a little manure and you’ll have stems as thick and strong as tree stumps. The best time to add animal products to your soil is at the beginning of spring or autumn when you are about to plant new seedlings.

    Mulch | This can include pea straw, straw, lucerne hay, autumn leaves or even newspaper clippings. Mulch provides a protective covering for your plants against extreme temperatures and other climatic conditions. It also adds organic matter to the soil and encourages worms. Pea straw and hay are probably the best choices for their rich organic matter. Autumn leaves collected from your nature strip can also be added straight onto your garden bed, or mixed into the compost bin. If you are worried about autumn leaves or other forms of mulch flying away, you can weigh them down with a couple of sheets of newspaper and a brick. Alternatively, just alternate sheets of newspaper with soil from your garden. It won’t have the same nutritional properties as straw or garden leaves, but it will provide protection for the worms and encourage them to grow and breed. Mulch is best added during planting time, or at the beginning of extreme temperature periods such as summer or winter.

    Mushroom compost | This is the residual waste generated by mushroom farmers. It’s a great source of nutrients and is also a good soil conditioner. Only add mushroom compost in moderation as it can raise the soil’s pH levels and create too alkaline an environment.

    Seaweed | This provides the soil with important minerals, including iodine. When I was growing up, we used to rake this from the side of the beach, but I’m not sure if this is still legal. You can buy seaweed from most nurseries.

    Lead testing | One thing I didn’t take into consideration when I started my own garden, but which I now understand to be important, is lead testing. If you are establishing a garden for the first time and live in an inner-city area, it can be worthwhile testing your soil for lead levels. If your soil has high levels of lead, you will need to build your garden elevated from the soil or choose large pots to avoid contamination of your produce. Lead-testing kits can be bought from most major hardware stores.

    Long-term Maintenance

    Once you’ve got your vegetable garden established there is very little you need to do, other than providing your plants with ongoing care and maintenance.

    Regular weeding | This shouldn’t be a difficult job. Clear out all the weeds surrounding your plants, but be careful not to put them back in your compost or worm heap, as they may sprout and re-grow. We usually leave ours on the footpath to shrivel up in the sun, and only then put them back on the garden bed. Weeding is most important during winter, when plants are competing for sunlight.

    Regular fertilisation | The best time to add nutrients to your soil is just before you plant – i.e., the beginning of autumn or spring, when you are about to plant your new harvest for the upcoming season. After this, a little bit here and there whenever your plants look like they need a bit of love is always a good thing.

    Keeping bug-free | There are many different ways to get rid of bugs from your vegie patch. Here are a few I’ve learnt along the way.

    • Bugs can flourish when the soil becomes too acidic. Throw on some dolomite lime and some compost or fertiliser to boost your plants’ immunity.
    • Let your chickens loose in your vegie patch for a day or two. They’ll get rid of any bugs, but you may lose a few vegetables as casualties. Consider it a two-day blitz, after which you can re-plant and recover.
    • To exterminate slugs, place a ring of salt around the plants they seem to favour. You can also fill a small bowl with beer. The slugs will crawl into the bowl, become intoxicated and die.
    • Placing netting over plants can often solve the problem larger bugs (and also ward off birds).

    Protection against heat and cold | Some plants can’t cope in extreme climates – be it the heat of summer or the frost of winter. You can provide protection by draping them with a hessian cloth (which can block out sunlight, or insulate against the cold) or bringing them indoors.

    Water and drought-proofing | As our climate is becoming hotter and drier, we need to think of innovative ways to keep plants hydrated and cool.

    • Plants love to be watered regularly. In the heat of summer, vegetables really need a drink at least every couple of days.
    • Pea straw, straw or mulch are an excellent investment as they allow the plants to retain moisture around the roots, and hence not require too much watering.
    • You can also save your shower and bath water using a bucket and tip this over the vegetables after you’ve washed. Water tanks and recycling systems are also excellent investments.
    • Lastly get a citrus tree! If you are a frugavore with a backyard, a citrus tree is an essential water-saving measure. Not only do they look lovely and require only minimal watering, they also provide a staple ingredient for home-cooking. Imagine all those ripe blood-oranges you could grow, or those lustrious lemon trees dripping with fruit. Citrus trees thrive on nitrogen, and the best source of nitrogen is…wait for it…urine. If you can convince the male members of your household to pee on your tree, you will save a lot of water and get beautiful lemons for your cooking. Just think, if every flush of the toilet uses between three and five litres of water, imagine how much we could save just by peeing on our citrus tree every day. In no time, I’m sure, we’d be the marmalade and lemon-tart capital of the world…

    This information kindly provided by Arabella Forge from her book Frugavore: How to grow your own, buy local, waste nothing and eat well

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