Dig for Victory: Soil I

gardening basics soil

Dig for Victory is a primer for the kitchen gardener. Every few weeks or so we’ll publish a new post to build on our technical knowledge of gardening. You’re under the capable hand of Steve here. Let me know what you think and if you’d like anything in particular to be covered. Enjoy!

Part one
It’s beneath our feet, it’s our planet’s namesake and when we die, we return to it. Don’t call this life-supporting substance dirt, for that belies its significance.

Soil is central to organic management. It provides raw minerals, gases and water; has complex relationships with micro and macro fauna for everything aboveground; and anchors flora into the ground. In many ways, it’s more of a relationship than a “thing”.

Soils come in many layers—called profiles—that change the deeper we go. It develops when living things die and fall to the ground. If you look upon a forest floor you’ll see animal bodies, branches, old nests and feathers. Dig through the humus layer and it becomes dark and moist; all sorts of bugs and creepy crawlies will scatter away from your hand. Bacteria, slaters, centipedes, flies and other “decomposers” have broken the organic matter down; it’s now more homogenous and crumbly. And lower still is topsoil—inorganic minerals and organic stuff—mixed by worm activity. This nutrient cycle can take a very long time, depending upon the climate and region.

This is the process we mimic when—in the suburbs or city—we decompose organic waste into fine, crumbly and slightly sticky compost. Yet it need not take months or years; we can use our knowledge of bacteria, slaters, worms and insects activity to turn over useable compost within weeks. Managing soils to minimise loss to erosion, and to build up fertility and biological activity, is the primary aim of organic agriculture and animal husbandry.

Soil type
Understanding what type of soil you have a good first step. Is it clay, loam or sand? It’s quite possible that your property contains several different soil types that require slightly different management. Here’s a simple test. Take a small handful of soil, wet it a little bit and roll it between your fingers and your palms—if it’s clay it will roll out to a long sausage, if it’s sand it will fall apart, whilst loam will do something in between. Afterwards feel the residue on your hands; does it feel smooth or gritty? Clay is composed of very fine particles and feels smooth against the skin whilst sand feels like… sand. A loam will feel like something in between.

Improving soil
You can improve your soil by feeding it. Sandy soils need an enormous amount of organic matter to hold the nutrients and water. They tend to drain very quickly and are prone to wind erosion if they don’t have surface mulch. Some growers introduce clay into their sandy soil to slow the leaching of nutrients; conversely, growers with clay soils can add sand to improve drainage. Yet no matter what type of soil you have, it will benefit with the generous addition of organic matter, in the form of compost.

Soil health
To determine the health of your soil you can do a simple worm count. Dig up a shovel load or three—not too deep—and count how many worms you see, the more the better. While there’s no definitive number 30 – 40 is a good starting point. Worms are indicative of overall soil health, as they are sensitive to a range of issues that impede good crop development like acidic or alkaline soils, compaction and excess chemical residues.

In refusal of cheap fast food at university, Steve Fleischmann began growing vegetables. He is pragmatically organic with 20 years’ experience in Australia and overseas. Once a bush regenerator and project manager for youth environmental projects, he now works at Mamre Farm in Western Sydney with refugees, people with a disability and youths. Building soils, encouraging biodiversity and growing heritage varieties allows Steve the opportunity to feed his family, develop small scale enterprises and pass on knowledge and skills. Follow Mamre Farm on Facebook.

Dig for Victory
1. Soil I: soil type, improving soil and soil health test
2. Soil II: soil compaction and ph test
3. Soil III: Nutrients
4. Plants and naming
5. Adapting to a new climate
6. Dig for Victory: Planning for the win

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