Gardening Tips – Soil Improvement, Soil Care and Soil Cultivation

Soil Improvement, Soil Care and Soil Cultivation

Soil is often taken for granted, yet it has a most profound effect on the plants we grow, and largely determines the range of subjects that can be grown successfully. Soil provides more than anchorage: for the vast majority of plants it is the reservoir of nutrients and water on which they have to draw for their growth. It is also host to a great number of micro-organisms — some beneficial to the plants, others harmful.

One of the most important components of soil is humus, the decomposed remains of plants and other organic material. This brown or black organic substance is beneficial to both sand and clay soils; it helps to create larger particles in a clay soil, improving structure, and acts as a reservoir of nutrients and moisture on sandy soil.

Increasing the humus content is the key to soil improvement.


Improving Your Soil

All soils can be improved by good cultivation and the systematic addition of suitable manures and fertilizers.

Improving a Sandy Soil

Although sandy soils are delightfully easy to work, they are hungry and have little in the way of food reserves. And because they have little moisture-retaining capacity, irrigation is always a problem.

The application of liberal quantities of organic material is the best solution for soil improvement here. Work plenty of compost, peat or spent hops into the top spit, but concentrate it in a small area of the garden if the amount is limited; it is better to achieve a significant improvement in one area than to spread the compost so thinly that no real benefit is achieved.

Improving a Clay Soil

Although double-digging is a chore, its benefits make the exercise worth while on a clay soil. Drainage is improved, and it enables compost or manure to be worked into the bottom spit.

Regular applications of compost, peat or manure over many years will steadily increase the humus content, and lead to a gradual improvement in structure.

Liming is a traditional method of improving a clay soil, and hydrated lime can be applied at 275g per sq m (8oz per sq yd) if the ground is not already alkaline. Never apply lime without determining whether the soil needs it.


The pH Scale

Soils can be acid or alkaline, and nature has adapted certain plants to thrive in one extreme or the other. Rhododendrons are a typical example of plants adapted to acid conditions, while dianthus revel in alkaline soils. The degree of alkalinity or acidity is measured on a pH scale, which extends from zero at the acid end to 14 at the alkaline end; these extremes are never encountered in general horticulture, and few soils fall below 5 or are higher than 8. Chemically, 7 is neutral, but 6.5 is considered neutral in gardening terms, for that is the level at which most plants thrive.

Adjusting the pH

To make soil more acid, use aluminium sulphate or sulphate of ammonia at 70g per sq m (2oz per sq yd). Sulphate of ammonia is also a nitrogenous fertilizer, and over-use can affect the balance of growth.

To achieve a similar effect with organic material, use about 1.5kg (31b) of peat or 7kg (151b) of garden compost.

Acid soils can be made more alkaline by adding chalk or lime. To increase the pH by about one step on the scale, use about 300g of limestone or 200g of hydrated lime per sq m (9oz and 6oz per sq yd respectively).


Manures and Fertilizers

Although plant nutrition is a complex subject, and many minor elements play a crucial role, the gardener is concerned primarily with three major foods: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. These can be applied as powders or liquid feeds, but should not be used to the exclusion of bulky manures or compost.


Nitrogen is an element which is needed for healthy leaf growth, and can be particularly beneficial for leafy crops such as cabbages.

Sulphate of ammonia is widely used; it is quick-acting and comparatively inexpensive. Its continued use can make soils more acid.

Nitrate of soda is suitable for most crops, and is particularly useful on clay soils. It is quick-acting and useful when a late fertilizer dressing is required.

Nitro-chalk is a granular product, easy to apply by hand. It is especially useful on land deficient in lime. Its rapid action makes it suitable as an autumn growth booster.

Organic nitrogenous fertilizers include dried blood, hoof and horn, and shoddy (wool waste). The fertilizer content in these varies, and sometimes the nitrogen is released slowly (which can be advantageous).


Phosphorus is associated mainly with root redevelopment, and is especially useful for rootcrops such as turnips. It acts as a counterbalance to nitrogen.

Superphosphate is widely used. It tends to be available to plants over a long period.

Basic slag can be used as a slow-acting fertilizer, and is normally applied in autumn or winter for the following season. It contains a little lime, and is useful on heavy soils.

Bonemeal is a popular organic phosphatic fertilizer. It is slow-acting, and contains a small amount of nitrogen.


Potash helps the formation of fruit and storage material in tubers such as potatoes and bulbs such as onions. It also counteracts soft growth and helps to create sturdy plants.

Sulphate of potash is usually used, particularly early in the year.

Wood ash is the main organic source of potash, but it must be kept perfectly dry until used.

Mixed Fertilizers

For most purposes, a ready-mixed and balanced fertilizer is best. National Growmore is adequate for most purposes but for particular crops, such as lawns, pot plants, tomatoes and chrysanthemums, there are many special fertilizers. Foliar feeding often brings rapid results, but it is important to buy a suitable formulation.

Bulky Organic Manures

The value of farmyard manure is legendary, yet garden compost is often as good. The value in these materials lies more in the bulky fibrous and humus-forming material they contain than in the nutrient value. Almost any soil will benefit from well-rotted manure or compost.

Farmyard manure is excellent, but it is not worth paying high prices; if it is not available at the right price locally, use alternative materials.

Garden compost can be made by anyone, although it is unlikely that the average household can ever generate enough to meet all needs. Garden compost is good for many of your garden requirements. A compost heap need not be an untidy, smelly mess; there are many compost bins that are pleasant to look at and efficient in operation.

Spent hops are sometimes available, and these are excellent — clean and pleasant to handle, and adding water-retaining bulk to the soil while decomposing.

Mushroom compost is another source of bulky organic manure. It normally contains farmyard manure, and plenty of straw. Do not use it on limy soil, or where lime-hating plants are grown, as it contains limestone.

Green manuring involves growing a quick-maturing crop such as mustard, rape or annual lupins, then digging this in before it flowers. It increases the organic content of the soil, but is only feasible in open areas of ground such as a vegetable plot.

Soil improvement and soil cultivation is the key to gardening success. You will need to assess your soil type prior to soil cultivation.


04. September 2010 by admin
Categories: Soil Cultivation | Tags: | Comments Off on Gardening Tips – Soil Improvement, Soil Care and Soil Cultivation


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