Mark Lane on why to feed your soil now

Feeding the soil is vital for good plant growth, tasty vegetables, fruits and herbs and for a rich healthy, nutritious soil. It also helps with water retention which is so important with our ever-increasing droughts during summer.

What do I mean by ‘feeding’, though. Many gardeners will talk about adding well-rotted, homemade garden compost, well-rotted manure or leaf mould to the soil, either working it in with a fork or simply adding it as a mulch in spring and autumn.

It’s not necessarily about the nutrient content in these circumstance (although good nutrient soil will result in better and healthier plants), but rather improving the soil structure. These organic additions will break down and be eaten by earthworms which will move through the soil.

Such additions are great for loosening heavier soils and also helping with drainage. If you have lighter sandy soil then the addition of bulky organic matter will help with water retention.

All plants need nitrogen for leafy green growth, phosphorous for healthy roots and potassium for lots of flowers and fruits. Organic matter, such as garden compost, manure or leaf mould, will also contain magnesium, copper and manganese.

Unlike artificial plant fertilisers which add soluble nutrients to the soil, which are washed away easily if not absorbed by the plants immediately, bulky organic matter breaks down over time and slowly releases the nutrients, which are absorbed more readily by the plants.

In addition to the beneficial nutrients found in organic matter, as they break down fungi, bacteria and other beneficial micro-organisms get to work and in turn help with plant growth.

Although you can go to the garden centre or DIY store and stroll along the aisles that contain shelf upon shelf of different artificial fertilisers, stop and think about how these fertilisers are made and whether or not the large carbon footprint used to make them are sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Most suppliers of such fertilisers rely on the fact that you haven’t had the time to add organic matter to your soil, so that plants become reliant on their artificial fertilisers. Most fertilisers that fall into this camp are made from ammonia or phosphate rock. Mining is required for the latter, but both rely heavily on fossil fuels to convert the raw materials into fertiliser.

If you’re starting a new border, veggie patch or allotment this year you might look at the cost of organic matter versus artificial fertilisers and think the latter is the better option.

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However, there is third option, known as green manures. You can buy these, such as crimson clover, Phacelia tanacetifolia or alfalfa as packets of seed. You would sow the seed in the autumn and then come the summer you can dig in the green manure, which, in turn, will add valuable nutrients to the soil and improve soil structure. There is no chopping down or wastage.

Green manures are a brilliant alternative to mulching, handling heavy, bulky organic matters and are incredibly cost-effective. Once you have worked the green manure into the soil, leave for three weeks before sowing or planting. Alternatively, rather than digging the green manure in, you can chop it back and leave it on the soil’s surface as a green mulch.

The earthworms will do the work for you, recycle the organic matter and aerate the soil at the same time. When green manures are growing, they enrich the local insect and pollinator populations and are also known as quick ‘fixing’ green manures as they help store nitrogen in plants which is released as the plants break down.

The following green manures can be sown between March and July: caliente mustard seeds, birdsfoot trefoil, fenugreek, sweet clover, even Lupin ‘Blue Sonnet’. Just remember, that the lupin should be cut down before it starts flowering otherwise it could self-seed and become a nuisance.

You could leave a few, however, to attract insects into your garden or on the allotment. In addition, lupins fix 25 percent more free nitrogen than clovers and 28 percent more than peas and beans. And, you can sow lupins as an intercrop, i.e. among long-growing varieties of vegetables such as cabbage and sprouts. They will add nitrogen to the soil (once dug in) and help promote healthy, nutritious growth in the vegetable crop.

Another cost-cutting, budget-friendly way of feeding your plants is to make your own plant fertiliser from nettles. Nettles are rich in chlorophyll, potassium, iron and nitrogen and will last for up to 6 months, seeing you easily through the spring and summer. Simply collect young nettles, while wearing some gloves, and place into a bucket.

Either chop up the nettles or lay them on the ground and run over with the mower to chop them up into small pieces. Place them back into the bucket, ensuring you have collected every piece, fill up with water from a water butt or from the tap and weigh the nettles down with a brick or something similar so that they are fully submerged.

After three to four weeks your nettle tea will be ready to use. It does smell, so ensure you keep it away from the house, if possible. Sieve off the nettles, recycle some pop bottles and fill them up with the nettle tea. The nettles can be added to the compost bin or laid onto the soil’s surface as a green mulch. In its purest form, the nettle tea will scorch plants, so dilute one part nettle tea to 10 parts water and then apply liberally.

For another cheap, homemade recipe for plant fertiliser, especially for houseplants, look no further than your kitchen cupboards.

Mix one teaspoon of baking soda with one tablespoon of Epsom salts, half a teaspoon of ammonia and 4.5 litres of water.

Simply adding bulky organic matter to your garden, sowing your own green manure or making your own plant feed will help attract more wildlife into the garden, more beneficial insects and pollinators and create habitats, improving the biodiversity of your garden.

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