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Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, once remarked that “It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion on them. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever.”

He was talking about a horse, but I'm sure that if soil was sentient, the same could be said about being stood on all day.

 

Of course soil isn't a someone. Generally we think of it as dirt. The thing that we stand on when we aren't inside a building or standing on concrete. The weathered remains of rock ground down.

 

But soil is actually is much more than this. And despite looking relatively boring, is crucial to our existence on this earth.

 

 

The Basic Ingredients

 

Soil is basically a mix of small particles of minerals, organic matter, air, water, and a whole host of living organism, including lots of beneficial bacteria and fungi.

 

Different types of soil are largely described in relation to the size of the mineral particles in the soil. In sandy soils the particles are quite large, and as a result they are incredibly free draining. Clay soils have an incredibly small particle that stick together. Thus they have poor drainage, structure, and tend to dry our easily or become waterlogged depending on what the weather is doing.

 

Yet despite the different problems posed by both these soil types, the solution is oddly similar. Adding organic matter helps improve the soil structure, which increases the ability of the soil to retain nutrients and moisture, as well as doing what you can to stimulate the beneficial microorganisms, encourage worms, will help you to create a healthy and vibrant subterranean ecosystem.

 

 

Green Manure Crops

 

While bringing in organic matter is certainly a good idea, a great way to protect soils, improve their structure, and add nutrients is to grow green manure crops.

 

Green manure crops are basically cover crops that are grown when the soil would otherwise be empty, and then dug in while they are still green. In Auckland we are lucky that we can grow cover crops in our empty beds over winter, and then dig them in while they are still green before planting the beds up again in spring.

 

The Advantages

 

Growing green manure crops over winter helps to:

 

Prevent soil erosion

 

When exposed to the wind and the rain bare soil will start to wash away. But the compost crop helps by improving structure and physically holding the soil there with their roots, while protecting the soil with their foliage.

 

Suppresses weeds

 

Bare soil is a great way to grow weeds. But compost crops ensure that there isn't enough space for weeds to take a hold on your bed. This should also help you next year as it means there should be less weed seed to germinate.

 

Fertilises

 

You add an array of different nutrients depending on which crops you use.

 

Helps beneficial microbes

 

Digging the organic material into the soil helps stimulate soil biology by providing many of the beneficial microbes with a flush of food. This in turn helps the plants, as a soil rich in beneficial microbes is less likely to harbour diseases and makes it easier to keep your plants well fed.

 

Makes your life much easier

 

In the long run growing compost crops should help you save time and money, as you won't need to weed as much, use as many weed killers or pesticides, or use as many fertilisers.

 

What to grow

 

Lupins

 

Bacteria attaches it's self to the roots of Lupins and takes nitrogen from the atmosphere, locking it into the soil. It is also great at accessing phosphorus from soil minerals, which will become accessible to other plants after they have been dug in.

 

Sow Late Summer/Autumn

Dig in October/November

 

Mustard

 

Fast Growing cover crop that helps bring in beneficial insects. Helps control wireworm, nematodes and other pests in the soil.

 

Sow Autumn/Winter. Dig in while they are flowering, before the seeds set.

 

Green Manure Mix – a mix of lupins, mustard and oats.

 

The oats accumulate potassium and nitrates from deep down in the soil and then capturing these nutrients in the topsoil. They are also great for the structure of the soil and when grown with mustard, very effective at suppressing weeds.

 

Sow Autumn/Winter. Dig in while they are flowering, before the seeds set.

 

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