Saturday, 21 September 2013

Improving the soil...a developing quest!

When buying this house and land 3 years ago, we had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for. We just had this dream that we could produce all our own fruit and vegetables organically. We stupidly thought we would plant the seeds, plant out the seedlings and they would grow into healthy, happy, productive plants. Oh how wrong could two people be!
For starters we came from England, where it rains all the time and water is never an issue. The soil in my garden needed improving as it was clay, but nothing adding manure and compost wouldn't cure in a couple of seasons. However, we soon found out this garden was going to be a longer haul.

The first mammoth task was to clear the over-grown weeds. This was so that we could actually see the soil in all its glory! We laid down cardboard and weighted it with bricks. We waited two weeks and hey presto all the weeds had died! Great! How impressed with ourselves were we!
Now we needed to dig over the soil. Keeping in mind that it is now May and getting to 25-30 degrees and had not rained for two months, this was not an easy task. Adding to the hardship was the bedrock that was hidden 5cm below the surface of the soil.
During the two week wait we bought one ready made compost bin and soon realized it would not be big enough for our needs. We built another two out of old bits of worktop and bed frames that were left in the house. Not very pretty but functional and that was all that mattered.

We knew that we would never be able to grow anything in the soil as it was and we needed a quick fix in order to plant out all the seedlings we had grown on. We decided on making a makeshift raised bed that we could add compost and the like to. We used old telegraph poles and grey building blocks as the walls for the bed but needed something to fill it. Waiting for our compost to develop was not really an option.
Luckily, behind our house is where a shepherd leaves his flock over night. From December to April they stay at this corral.  We asked the shepherd if we could use the manure for our garden and he said help yourselves... so we did. About 50 barrows where wheeled up and down the slope to fill the raised bed. This raised the soil level to about 30cm so would easily be deep enough to grow most vegetables.

 Obviously we knew we wouldn't be able to plant the roots in this bed, as they hate manure. So we set about making a small patch for them. We just moved soil from different places around the garden and added it to our root bed so that it was deep enough that carrots, parsnips and beetroot would grow.
The first year we went mad and planted every vegetable known to man in our two beds we had created. In the photo above you can see they are growing really well. Then the summer hit us. Temperatures of 30 - 40 degrees during the day and 20 -  25 at night. To say the veggies suffered would be an understatement. We were watering them twice a day and still they withered and died.
The shepherd kept stopping his car as he drove past. He would get out and say..."It's too dry, too dry!" shaking his head. I think he just thought we were stupid English that wouldn't last the distance. It felt a bit like he was right.
As September came around and the temperatures dropped we realised that this would be a good time to plant, a second spring is what the weather was like. Unfortunately all that survived were the beetroot and brasicas that were hardy to the colder weather, but on a positive note, we had learnt a big lesson about when we plant our crops to maximise production and reduce watering.
In the Autumn of that year we built another raised be that we filled with manure too. This would be for the brassicas the following spring and the beans and 'others' as they are known would go in the first bed.

After the first disastrous year, we knew we needed to improve the soil to enable it to hold water when it was hot. Also if we wanted to grow crops during the hottest part of the year we would need to give the plants shade.
Kev built a load of planters out of palettes that we could keep around the back of the house. In the summer this part of the garden is always in shade until the sun starts to go down. This worked for the salad crops but we would never be able to become self sufficient on how much we were able to produce in planters unless we covered the garden in them!
When we planted the seeds that year we used cardboard tubes and paper pots made by yours truly. This was to enable the seedling roots not to be disturbed when planting out but also the card and paper holds water when buried. This worked reasonably well but still not well enough to keep the plants alive in the Summer.
Drastic action was taken this last Winter. We built two new rock planters, one in front of the shed and one in front of the water store. We used thick cardboard as a layer to suppress the weeds and the added paper on top. We added a mixture of garden soil and compost and planted the summer salads in them and crossed our fingers! We were hoping the card, paper and compost would help to hold the water and with shade constantly being on the bed, evaporation would be at a minimum.

This is the salad bed this summer. It has tomatoes and peppers growing up the trellis on the wall. Beetroot and spring onions at the front. As you can see everything in the garden is brown and dead but this bed produced all summer. So finally we had achieved our goal. Now we just need to make it on a bigger scale.