At this time of year I try to turn my attention to what’s going on in the ground rather than above it.


he hungry demands of plants and the elements can all deplete the vital nutrients in the soil and also ruin its texture.

Our soil is heavy clay.  This means the particles are very fine and the soil can quickly become waterlogged (which is the case with all the rain we have had lately).  A free-draining, sandy soil may seem preferable but the down side is that all those vital nutrients can be washed away or “leached” from light soils.  Clay may be hard work but it doesn’t dry out so quickly in a drought and it retains more nutrients.

The addition of organic matter – compost, leaf mould, horse manure or green manure – can break up the heavy clay making it easier to work and easier for delicate roots to penetrate.  It will also encourage worms which really are a gardener’s best friend.

Worms break down organic matter as they eat and excrete it ready for other organisms to continue the process and by doing so release nitrogen back into the soil.  Having plenty of worms in a compost heap rapidly speeds up the process of decomposition.  We ordered 500g of worms on the internet which arrived courtesy of Royal Mail and were immediately introduced to their new home.

We also collect all the leaves that fall in the garden and put them in the leaf pen where they very slowly rot down into leaf mould.  It can take up to two years for them to fully decompose into the sweet-smelling dark, crumbly matter that is such a good soil conditioner.  At the end of every summer we have to move the contents of the leaf pen into an empty compost bay so that the pen is ready for the next autumn leaf-fall.  Leaf mould is not as nutritious as compost but is still great for breaking up heavy soils, encouraging worm activity, suppressing weeds and conserving water.

You can either dig compost or leaf mould into the soil or lay it in a thick layer on top.  This is called mulching, is much kinder to your back and is my preferred method of soil improvement!  So far this winter we have mulched the asparagus bed, the pear trees, the step-over apples and the greenhouse border where the soil is particularly exhausted.  We now have a full bay (more than a cubic metre) of leaf mould ready to use and that is going to go on the flower beds.  It’s best to mulch soil when it is damp because it will help prevent evaporation should we ever get a prolonged dry spell…

Horse manure is probably the most nutritious of all organic matter.  Once it is rotted down it can be used to mulch roses and other plants which you want to encourage to flower.  We don’t have horses but our neighbours do and they kindly let us help ourselves.  

I filled the car boot up in the autumn so my roses are in for a treat!

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