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Sort Out Your Soil

What is soil?

Soil is a complex material and is made up of organic matter and minerals. The organic component is made up of dead organisms while the minerals come from the rocks underground. A healthy soil supplies plants with water, air and nutrients.

What type of soil is in my garden?

There are many different types of soil and these can affect what you're able to grow in your garden.

• Sandy soils are light and drain freely. Although they're easy to cultivate, they dry out and lose nutrients quickly.

• Peaty soils are packed with organic matter, dark in colour and are highly moisture-retentive.

• Clay soils are heavy and can become sticky as they hang onto water. They are usually high in nutrients but are slow to warm in spring.

• Chalky soils are free-draining and quite high in nutrients. However, they can be shallow and stony and aren't suitable for acid-loving plants.

• Silty soils are moisture-retentive and quite rich in nutrients but may compact easily

.Get your soil in shape

Taking over a new garden or bringing a neglected allotment back into cultivation requires different techniques. Here is a guide to tackling differing plot conditions.

• Land covered in bramble, woody plants Cut back to ground level. Rake off cut material. Leave ground for a couple of weeks to await regrowth. Spray with SBK Brushwood Killer, Dax Root Out, Bio Glyphosate or Roundup weedkiller. Ideally continue applications for six months or a year before planting.

• Garden of new house covered in builders' rubble Remove as much debris as you can. Site will have been badly compacted by machinery and top soil mixed with subsoil. Dig over to improve compacted areas and blend parts where sand or cement may have been mixed. Buy in some good topsoil to cover these parts.

• Problem weeds covering soil (for example, ground elder, mare's tail, couch grass, bindweed) Apply glyphosate or Dax Root Out weedkiller in spring or summer and a second application if there is regrowth. Avoid planting in the first year. Dig over ground in the autumn removing roots as you find them. In the second year during spring apply more weediller if weeds emerge. At this stage some light planting can be done. Apply more weedkiller during second summer. By autumn of the second year you can plant.

• Weedy ground (for example, annuals and perennial weeds) Apply glyphosate weedkiller in spring or summer and then dig over ground. Alternatively, cover with black permeable membrane or old carpet for a year to smother the weeds.

• Cultivating grassland Spray off with glyphosate weedkiller in spring or summer. Dig over ground. Alternatively remove turf by hand cutting square pieces and lifting with spade. You can also hire turf lifting machines for big areas. Dig over the ground well as it may be compacted.

• Well-tended ground. In the autumn dig the ground to expose pests to the birds. It opens the ground to allow autumn rain in and frost to break up the clods. Winter: Keep off the soil unless you have very free-draining soil and still need to do further digging. Spring: Hoe over ground that has been dug in autumn. It should break down into a crumbly surface. Summer: Hoe between plantings to prevent a hard pan forming.

Soil Conditioners

Garden compost: A great soil conditioner but variable in nutrients. It depends on how old and well composted the materials are, plus what was put in the compost bin.

Worm compost: Composting worms make an excellent job of breaking down vegetation creating a fine crumbly compost that is rich in nutrients.

Horse manure: A good soil conditioner and safer to use than cattle manure due to less likelihood of disease or chemicals being carried in the muck. Does not have a high nutrient value.

Green manure: A quick-growing crop that is dug back into the soil to improve fertility and soil texture. Examples: lupins, vetches (these increase nitrogen). Hops Spent hops from the brewing industry are not high in nutrients but make a good soil conditioner. Poultry droppings Good levels of nitrogen and phosphates. Break down relatively quickly. Do not use fresh poultry manure. Store undercover for a few months before applying 8-12oz per sq yd. Seaweed A good conditioner if you can get it. Rich in potassium: good for flowering and fruiting plants. Mushroom compost It is sterile and perfect for soil improving but high in lime and the nutrient content is variable.


Compost is nature's way of fertilizing and improving the soil and is a wonderful way to recycle garden waste. It can make a great deal of difference to a garden's productivity by supplying nutrients, increasing the soil's water, air and nutrient- holding capacities and improving the drainage. Good quality compost will also add beneficial organisms to the mix and these are essential to keep the soil healthy.

Make your own compost

The best time to make some is in Spring, because it will rot down faster.

You can use a heap or a bin - many local councils run recycling schemes, so give them a call, or make your own “bin”.

What you need for a simple heap:

1.        Coarse draining material, garden waste, fresh manure and soil

2.        A piece of carpet or tarpaulin

For a “bin” you will also need:

1.        Four x 1.2m (4ft) high fence posts

2.        Wire netting or planks

3.        Galvanised hooks and eyes

First prepare the compost area

Hammer into the ground four 10cm x 10cm (4in x 4in) posts to enclose an Area about 1 m sq m (40sq in.)

Then bash the soil with the back of a spade to consolidate it.

Next either tack wire netting to the posts, or nail planks around them, leaving the front side easily detachable so you can get the finished compost out.

   Add the drainage material

   In the bottom put a 10cm (4in) layer of coarse material, such as straw or twigs

   Make the sandwich

   Put in a 15cm (6in) layer of garden waste and water if it’s dry. Put in alternate layers of different materials,   like a sandwich. It must also be layered to     

   heat  up effectively. On top of each layer add a sprinkling of manure or soil to activate the rotting process.

   This helps to introduce the bacteria and fungi (or “heat'”) needed to break down the organic material,                                                

  These can go in:

   Shredded paper (although not shiny magazine type paper) cotton and wool fabrics Uncooked vegetable trimmings, peelings and tea bags. Annual weeds, 

  tops of perennial weeds, old bedding plants, soft hedge clippings, dead leaves, lawn mowings.

  These can't:

 Woody material like prunings and Brussels sprout stems. These need to be put through a shredder first. Synthetic fabrics. Food scraps, meat or bones. Diseased plant material. Soil pests. Any weeds with seedheads. Perennial roots. Dog or cat waste 

 Slow rotters

 Autumn leaves, tough hedge clippings, woody prunings, sawdust, wood shavings

 Activators Comfrey leaves, young weeds, grass cuttings, chicken manure, pigeon manure, moisture, proprietary compost activators like Garotta

  Cover it up

   Compost has to heat up to work properly. To do this it needs to have a certain critical mass, a metre cubed is good. Cover it with a sheet, an old bit of

   carpet, polythene or tarpaulin and leave it for about three months to rot down.

   Then uncover, open the front, take all the compost out, then put it back again. This process adds air to the mix and helps it rot down faster.

  After a further three months your compost will be brown, crumbly and sweet-smelling and ready to use in the garden.

Man-Made Fertilisers v Organic Feeds

Just like humans, plants need nutrients to grow and stay healthy. The most important are: Nitrogen (N) important for leafy growth,

phosphorus (P) required for rooting. and potassium (K) encourages flower and fruit production and helps ripen young stems.

Most plant feeds will show a ratio of N:P:K and this indicates the levels of these nutrients in the fertiliser. As a general rule, a high-nitrogen fertiliser

encourages leafy growth. A fertiliser high in phosphorus is good for root growth and hardening of the stems. Potassium is important for flowering

and fruiting. Other important nutrients are magnesium, calcium and sulphur.

Plants also need minor nutrients or trace elements in smaller quantities and these include iron, manganese, copper, boron, zinc, molybdenum and chlorine.

A good proprietary fertiliser will contain all of these in varying quantities depending on what it has been created for. A balanced feed will contain equal amounts of N:P:K and also the other minor nutrients. A basket and container feed will usually contain more potassium as it is formulated for plants that are being grown for their flowers.


Man-Made Brand Name                                            NUTRIENT VALUE                                                                  USES

Chempak Soluble Food No 2 (Chempak)            High in nitrogen                                                                           Encourages foliage growth


Growmore                                                                    Balanced feed. Equal amounts of N:P:K                                  Ideal for the whole garden


Feed-all Plant Food (Westland)                             Good nitrogen and potassium levels

                                                                                        plus the other essential nutrients                                                Ideal for the whole garden


Phostrogen                                                               A good fertiliser blend with all essential nutrients                       Ideal for the whole garden


Miracle-Gro All Purpose Plant Food                   Contains a blend of all essential elements                                  Ideal for the whole garden


Tomorite                                                                    High potassium and added magnesium                                       Tomato feed but also for other fruiting

                                                                                                                                                                                                crops and flowers                             


Westland Ericaceous Concentrated                  A balanced plant food also rich in iron                                         Formulated for acid loving plants like

Plant Food                                                                                                                                                                           azaleas and camellias


Baby Bio Original                                                   High percentage of nitrogen but also the

                                                                                    other main nutrients and trace elements                                         Houseplants: Helps to green-up leaves



Sequestered iron                                                    Iron in a form that can easily be taken up                                        Good for greening up plants and as a

                                                                                     by plants                                                                                             general tonic


Sulphate of potash                                                  Potassium fertiliser                                                                          Sprinkle around fruit trees or flower beds in 

                                                                                                                                                                                                  late winter    


Sulphate of ammonia                                             A fast-acting nitrogen fertilizer                                                         For borders and vegetable plots: Fast          

                                                                                                                                                                                                  acting, ideal for borders in spring to 

                                                                                                                                                                                                  encourage growth


Organic Fertilisers

Organic fertilisers are made from animal, mineral or plant sources and are popular with gardeners who prefer to use more natural plant feeds. Unlike some of the man-made chemical feeds, many of these organic products take a while to break down in the soil and so release their nutrients gradually.

Those that have been processed and made into proprietary organic feeds will have been tested for nutrient content and have been sterilised, so you can be sure you are getting a good quality product that is consistent.

If you choose to use raw organic materials, such as chicken droppings, then the nutrient content can be variable. Fresh chicken manure is also very strong and will require storing for some months before you use it - and even then it should be used sparingly or it could damage plants.

FERTILISER                                                                                   NUTRIENT VALUE                                                                            USES

Bonemeal                                                                                      High in phosphate, contains small amounts of nitrogen                     Perfect organic feed to add to soil when 

                                                                                                                                                                                                      planting. Phosphate encourages root   


Blood, fish and bone                                            High in phosphate but not as much as straight bonemeal.                Makes a reasonable balanced feed

                                                                                   Also contains nitrogen and good amounts of potassium                   for   many uses, especially borders in spring


Hoof and horn                                                        High in nitrogen                                                                                                               Ideal early season feed for plants that need a 

                                                                                                                                                                                                  boost to growth

Rock phosphate                                                                   High in phosphate and some potassium                                          A mineral alternative to the animal-derived 


Autumn Lawn Fertiliser                                        Low in nitrogen but higher in phosphates                                        Encourages root growth rather than top 

(The Organic Gardening Catalogue)                                                                                                                              growth, ideal late in the season


Natural Gardening Tomato Fertiliser                High potash levels                                                                               Ideal for feeding tomatoes from flowering 

(The Organic Gardening Catalogue)                                                                                                                               stage                                  



Pelleted chicken manure                                    High in nitrogen but contains other nutrients and trace elements   A good all round feed for borders and  

(for example. Rooster)                                                                                                                                                        vegetable plots


Organic Tomato & Vegetable Feed                Good percentage of all main nutrients plus trace elements.              A good liquid feed for all vegetables



Maxicrop Original                                                Eight per cent soluble seaweed solids,                                                Works like a tonic and is a great plant

                                                                                 such as growth stimulants and trace elements                                     "pick me up"



Nature's Answer Natural Liquid Plant           A good balance of the main nutrients plus trace elements                   Ideal for all flowers and vegetables

Food (Scotts)