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    GARDENINGorganicGeoff Hamilton

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    New edition, 2011

    Revised and updated by Nick Hamilton

    DK PublishingS Helen FewsterS Lucy ParissiM Esther RipleyM Alison DonovanP Joanna ByrneP Erika Pepe

    J Mark CavanaghDK Lucy Claxton, Jenny Baskaya

    A Liz WheelerA Peter Luff

    P Jonathan Metcalf

    US Lori SpencerA Kate JohnsenUS Liza Kaplan

    DK IndiaS Rukmini Chawla KumarE Nidhilekha Mathur

    A Mahua Mandal, Nitu Singh,Nishesh BhatnagarM Suchismita BanerjeeM Romi ChakrabortyP Jyoti SachdevDTP M Sunil SharmaDTP D Manish Chandra Upreti, Jagtar Singh

    First edition, 1987S Jemima DunneS Neville GrahamE Sophie Mitchell, Tim Hammond

    A Derek CoombesD Joanna MartinM Daphne Razazan

    Revised edition, 2008Additional text: Ian SpenceAdditional design: Nicola Liddiard

    First American Edition, 1993

    This American Edition, 2011

    Published in the United States byDK Publishing375 Hudson StreetNew York, New York 10014

    11 12 13 14 15 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


    Copyright 1987, 2008, 2011 Dorling KindersleyLimited

    All rights reserved

    Without limiting the rights under copyright reservedabove, no part of this publication may be reproduced,stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, ortransmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic,mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise),without the prior written permission of both thecopyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

    Published in Great Britain by Dorling KindersleyLimited.

    A catalog record for this book is available from theLibrary of Congress.

    ISBN 978-0-7566-7179-2

    DK books are available at special discounts whenpurchased in bulk for sales promotions, premiums,fund-raising, or educational use. For details, contact:DK Publishing Special Markets, 375 Hudson Street,New York, New York 10014 or [email protected]

    Discover more

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    Improving on nature 9

    12THE SOIL

    What is soil? 12Soil types 14

    Soil management 15


    The four phases of soilmanagement 19

    Applying soil conditioners 20

    Compost 21Animal manure 27

    Alternative soil conditioners 29Worm-worked compost and

    manure 31Green manure 32


    Acidity and alkalinity 35The need for nutrients 38

    Organic fertilizers 40


    Maintaining a healthy garden 44Companion planting 45

    Controlling birds and animals 46Controlling soil pests and insects 49

    General garden diseases 52Biological control 52Organic chemicals 53

    54ORGANIC WEED CONTROLClearing uncultivated ground 54

    Hoeing 57Mulching 58

    Recognizing weeds 60Useful weeds 62


    The physical characteristics of

    your garden 64Features to include 67Drawing up a plan 72


    GARDENPreparing the soil 75

    Hedges 76

    Lawns 78Trees 81

    Deciduous trees 84Coniferous trees 86

    Planting ornamental borders 88Choosing suitable plants 92

    Winter plants 94Early spring plants 96Mid-spring plants 98

    Late spring plants 100Early summer plants 102Midsummer plants 104Late summer plants 108

    Fall plants 110Cultivation of border plants 112

    Ponds and aquatic plants 121Alpines 123

    Cultivating wildflowers 125


    Types of container 126Planting in containers 127

    Hanging baskets 130


    THE VEGETABLE GARDENCrop rotation 132Preparing vegetable beds 135

    Sowing 138Protecting crops against cold 140

    Choosing what to grow 143Salad vegetables 144

    Cultivating salad vegetables 146Shoot vegetables 149

    Cultivating shoot vegetables 150Pod and seed vegetables 154

    Cultivating pod and seedvegetables 156

    Fruiting vegetables 162Cultivating fruiting

    vegetables 164Bulb vegetables 168

    Cultivating bulb vegetables 170Squash vegetables 172

    Cultivating squash vegetables 174Root vegetables 178

    Cultivating root vegetables 180Leaf vegetables 188

    Cultivating leaf vegetables 190Vegetable pests and diseases 198


    Selecting plants 203Planting and training fruit trees

    and bushes 204

    Cultivation of fruit 210Tree fruit 212

    Citrus fruit 214Cultivating tree fruit 215

    Soft fruit 224Cultivating soft fruit225

    Fruitpests and diseases 232


    Planning an herb garden 236An herb collection 238Cultivating herbs 240


    Choosing a greenhouse 246Heating a greenhouse 249

    Caring for greenhouse plants 252Maintaining a greenhouse 255

    Deciding what to grow 256Greenhouse pests and diseases 257


    Choosing the right tools 258

    Choosing garden equipment 261Cultivation techniques 262Watering plants 266

    Supporting plants 266


    Growing from seed 268Other methods ofpropagation 273


    Spring 279Summer 280Autumn 281

    Winter 282

    NB Latin plant names are giventhroughout the book where they differ

    from the common names

    Useful addresses 283Index 284

    Acknowledgments 288

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    A source of waterA pool , howeversmall, will attract all kinds of insectsand small mammals.

    Mixed planting schemeMix ingf lowers and veg etable s in the same bedcan look very attractive.


    O is a divisive subject.There are those who think that organicmethods of cultivation are the only remaining

    way to save the planet and, at the other extreme, thosewho think that organic gardening is only carried outby rabid, environmentally obsessed loonies. I believeneither. Fortunately, many millions of gardeners allover the world are now beginning to consider organicgardening methods and to evaluate them rationally.

    Even the long-skeptical scientists are having secondthoughts as the public demand for chemical-free foodand a safer environment increases.

    I have been a professional gardener for 30 years andI have to admit that, up to 10 years ago, I too wasskeptical about organic gardening. Of course, its hardto argue with the developments resulting from modernresearch: agricultural and horticultural science hasincreased yields dramatically, which has kept food pricesstable for years and increased the general well-being ofthe population of the Western world a thousandfold.Indeed it would be foolish to deny that science hasmade, and is still making, a tremendous contribution tothe art of growing both productive and ornamentalplants. However perfect natures methods may be, it was

    never intended that the land should be as productive aswe now demand. While nature may have intended onescraggy little wild carrot in every yard, we demand a bifat juicy carrot every few inches. So we have needed allour ingenuity to improve on natures methods.

    Research has helped in a variety of ways thatare more than acceptable to the organic gardener:

    varieties of both productive and ornamental plantshave been improved almost beyond recognition; qualit

    has been enhanced by finding ways of protecting ourplants against the worst of weather; yields have beenimproved by extending harvesting periods using glassand plastic. And, as a result of research into plants andthe way in which they grow, cultivation techniques havbeen developed to such an extent that the Westernworlds pantry is full to overflowing.

    THE MISTAKES OF MODERN TECHNOLOGYModern technology has its uses and cannot be broadlycondemned, but there have been many mistakes. Thedramatic turnaround from scarcity to plenty over thepast century has been achieved at the expense of amassive and ever-increasing input of chemicals andwith little thought for tomorrow.

    My father wrote this book more than 20 years ago and re-reading it toupdate this new edition has reaffirmed what a great gardener he really was. His

    knowledge, innovative methods, and easy-to-follow instructions make this book

    as invaluable to gardeners today as it was in 1987. Nick Hamilton, September 2010

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    Where corn has proven more profitable than cows,the practice of replacing organic matter on the landhas died out. The result is that soils are becominglifeless and, in many instances, simply disappearinginto the sea. Larger agricultural machines havedemanded larger fields and, as a result, trees andshrubbery have disappeared taking their dependentwildlife with them.

    Plants need a certain level of nutrients for healthy

    growth so, in order to maintain these levels, more andmore chemical fertilizers are poured on to the land yearafter year, filling the plants we eat with alien chemicalsand polluting our waterways.

    The traditional practice of mixing and rotatingcrops has been abandoned for short-term profit with theresult that pests and diseases build up to uncontrollableproportions. Killing them with poison sprays becomesessential and, as resistant strains of both pests anddiseases develop, more powerful chemicals have to beused. It is this aspect that is most troubling to us, theconsumers of food produced in this way.

    Every year, some chemical previously thought to

    have been safe is banned somewhere in the world. Oneof the early cases was the insecticide DDT. There is nodoubt that it saved many thousands of lives by killingmalaria-carrying mosquitoes, but it was also found tobuild up in the bodies of animals and birds, causinguntold losses of wildlife; it was banned in most Westerncountries before it caused any deaths in humans.This was followed by the soil insecticide dieldrin, theselective weedkiller loxynil, suspected of causing birthdefects, and, in most Western countries, the herbicide,trichlorophenoxy-acetic acid, or 2,4,5-T, which hasbeen linked with cancer. Not only have these chemicalsbeen shown to cause untold damage to wildlife, butsome have also been found in alarming quantities infood, even after processing and cooking.

    WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?For anyone with a garden, the solution seems simple:grow your own produce. But the chemical industry isbig business, so gardeners have, over the years, beenpersuaded that they too can benefit from researchcarried out by the commercial growers and farmers.

    After all, what is good for the professional must be goodfor amateursbut nothing is further from the truth.

    While we can certainly benefit in some ways from

    research, there is absolutely no need for the homegardener to follow commercial practices blindly.Remember the professional grows on a large scale forprofit, while we do so on a small scale for pleasure. Heneeds all his harvest to be ready at the same time, whilewe want to stagger it. Whats more, there is no need tosacrifice anything in terms of yield and quality. Let megive you an example.

    If a farmer has 20 acres of cabbages, he can almostcertainly expect an attack of cabbage white butterfly; noself-respecting butterfly could miss such an opportunity.So, to avoid the hungry caterpillars devouring the entirecrop, the farmer may have no alternative but to spray.

    The gardener, on the other hand, has perhaps only tenor a dozen plants. And, if he is an organic gardener,theyll be interplanted with other crops and so effectivelycamouflaged from the butterflies, who recognize themby sight and perhaps smell. The chances are thecabbages will be missed altogether but, if a butterflydoes see them and lay her eggs, there is still no needto reach for a spray. All you need to do is walk downthe row occasionally, pick off the offending caterpillars,and drop them into a jar of paraffin. You will get onehundred percent control and it will cost you nothing.Whats more, your cabbages will be perfectly clean andhealthy. Even better, if you grow the right kind of plantsin the ornamental borders and among the vegetables,the birds and the ground beetles will do the job for you.

    A variety of vegetablesPlanting a wide range ofvegetables not only produces a va ried crop, but also reducesthe risk of pest and disease attack.

    There is increasing concern about the useof peat as a growing medium. Peat is adwindling natural resource, and excavatingpeat bogs on an industrial scale to supplygardens not only destroys unique habitatsbut is damaging to the wider environment.

    There are many alternatives availablethat are either completely free of peat or

    have a reduced peat content. The majorityare made from bark, coir, or wood chips,with some even incorporating the materialproduced from green recycling centers.

    These products work well, with coir thepreferred choice for propagation whilethe others are more suited for growing plants.The move toward peat-free gardening hasgained momentum. Many amateur gardenersare already following the lead taken byprofessional growers and choosing, whereverpossible, a peat-free alternative.


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    or magicalabout organic gardening. It is simplya way of working with nature rather

    than against it, of recycling natural materialsto maintain soil fertility, and of encouragingnatural methods of pest and disease control,rather than relying on chemicals. It is in factfar less involved than the methods employedby the chemical grower.

    Organic gardening is much more than justa way of growing plants without chemicalsprays and artificial fertilizers. It recognizesthat the complex workings of nature have beensuccessful in sustaining life over hundreds ofmillions of years, so the basic organic cultivationprinciples closely follow those found in the natural

    world. Dont be misled into thinking that theseprinciples will have a detrimental effect on yieldor quality. In fact, you are much more likely toincrease both and, in doing so, you will beproviding an alternative habitat for wildlife,while being certain that the fruit and vegetablesproduced in your garden are safe, flavorful, andchemical-free.

    THE CHEMICAL GARDENERThe purely chemical gardener uses his soilsimply as a means of anchoring plant roots andof holding artificial fertilizers to provide plantnutrients. This approach does have excellentresults, in the short term.

    In the long term, however, it has two disastrousconsequences. Because organic matter is notreplaced, the soil organisms die out; without

    them the soil structure breaks down and the soilbecomes hard, airless, and unproductive. Attemptsat force-feeding the plants result in soft, sappy

    growth, which is prone to attack by all mannerof pests and diseases. In order to control them,chemical pesticides are used, often with short-termsuccess. But, in killing the pest, they also kill itsnatural predators so, eventually, the problem getsworse. Stronger and more poisonous pesticideshave to be resorted to, and so it goes on. It is a

    vicious circle that, once started, is difficult to break.

    THE ORGANIC GARDENERThe organic gardener has a more constructiveapproach based on an awareness that thereis a fine balance in the natural world which

    allows all the species to coexist without anyonegaining dominance.

    By growing a wide diversity of plants, theorganic gardener will attract and build up aminiature ecosystem of pests and predators sothat, provided the balance isnt upset by killingthem with chemicals, no species will be allowedto build up to an unacceptable level.

    The soil is teeming with millions ofmicroorganisms which, in the course of theirlives, will release those nutrients required forhealthy plant growth from organic matter. So,rather than feeding the plants, the organic wayis to feed the soil with natural materials andallow the plants to draw on that reservoir ofnutrients as and when they want them. Plantsgrown this way will be stronger and more ableto resist attacks by pests and diseases.

    Improving on natureLOOKING AFTER THE SOILIn nature, for example, soil fertility is maintainedby recycling organic matter (see next page).Gardeners, on the other hand, remove muchof the organic material from the productivegarden in the form of fruit and vegetables, andfrom the ornamental garden by weeding, pruning,mowing, and cutting flowers. This organic matterhas to be replaced through the compost heap,animal manure, and green-manure crops. Even

    Natural methods of sustaining plant growth werenever intended to support the kinds of demandswe make on our gardens. The technique itself isperfect, but, to produce a good crop, we have tointensify it.

    The main ways of doing this are quite simple:feeding the soil and improving its texture; protectingseeds during germination; making sure that theplants have adequate water; and being vigilant incontrolling pests and diseases.

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    then, our intensive methods may need furtherinputs of concentrated animal and plant residues.

    In nature, soil texture, aeration, and drainage ismaintained by the action of burrowing animals suchas worms and insects. Gardeners can improve onthis by digging regularly.

    SEEDING AND WATERINGIn nature, many of the seeds produced never

    germinate due to adverse conditions or predation,while in the garden, this no longer has to behaphazard. We can ensure that seeds and matureplants are protected and that the right amount ofwater is supplied in dry weather.

    CONTROLLING PESTS AND DISEASESWe can improve on natural methods of pestand disease control too. We can deliberately

    fill our gardens with a wide diversity of plants thawe know will attract and encourage the predatorsof the pests that threaten our cultivated plants.

    THE FINAL CROPOur plant breeders have produced varieties thatare resistant to pests and diseases and that will giveus bigger crops and more beautiful flowers, whilethousands of years of growing experience have

    enabled us to come up with techniques thatwill outcrop nature many times over.

    But, if we are to continue our success,we must stick to the rules. We maybe able to manipulate nature inthe short term by using chemicalmethods but it is folly to thinkthat we can ever assumecomplete control.



    In nature, dead or rotting vegetationand animal manure provide adequatenourishment for the soil. As man removesthe crops he grows, he must add compostand manure to improve the soil.

    DIGGINGDespite the activity of burrowing animalsand penetrating plant roots, untendedsoil is still relatively hard and compacted.Man can improve the texture by diggingto allow air and water through the soil.


    In nature, relatively few seeds germinatebecause of competition from other plantsand poor conditions. In the garden, mostseeds will germinate as they can be givenoptimum conditions and spacings.

    WATERINGPlants are dependent on water for theirsurvival. While adequate rainfallcannot be guaranteed in nature, in thegarden, additional water can be givento the plants in very dry weather.


    Nature maintains its delicate balance byensuring that pests and predators controleach others numbers. Man can encourageand assist this process while also protectinghis plants using artificial means.

    THE FINAL CROPLeft to its own devices, nature would notproduce a very abundant harvest, eitherin terms of quantity or the size of theindividual foods. The harvest from cultivatedground is richer and far more varied.

    The soilfeeds the


    Wormspplant reminto the ulayers of tWorm ca

    valuable fNature












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    In the gardenThe natural cyclecan be mirrored in your garden. Fruitand vegetables can be grown successfullyalongside a thriving natural community ofsmall animals and useful insects. Addingorganic matter from the compost heapand digging the soil imitates nature andmaintains the natural cycle of soil fertility.

    The natural cycleEvery elementof natureanimals, insects, plants,and soilall work together to createa natural cycle of events in the ga rden.This diagram helps to illustrate verysimply how each element depends onthe others.

    The plantsfeed theanimals

    The animalsmanurethe land

    The manurefeeds

    the soil

    Leaves, fruit, and othervegetable matter fal l to theground and decay, adding vital

    organic matter to the soil.

    Plant rootstake up nutrients whichhave been dissolved in the soil.

    Animalsfeed on the plantsand manure the land.

    Dead animalsdecomposeand return to the soil as humus.

    Burrowing animals,such as moles, worms,and insects, break upthe soil, helping aerationand drainage.

    Bacteriaperform a numberof vital functions, including thedecay of animal and plant matter.They also fix n itrogen from theair into the soil.

    Fungi and algae help torelease nutrients from the soil sothat they can be used by plants.

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    of thegardeners art. It should never be dismissedas a mere collection of mineral particles

    used to anchor roots, or worse still as dirt. Itis much more than that.

    Certainly, its basic structure consists of rockparticles broken down by frost and thaw action,wind and river f low, to produce the differenttextures that give us soil types(see p. 14).However, a large part of its makeup is organicmattervegetable and animal remains in variousstages of decayalong with air and water, whichare all essential for the support of plant and animallife. All of this provides a home for millions andmillions of living organisms such as soil fungi,algae, bacteria, insects, and worms, which work to

    provide just the right conditions for healthy plantgrowth. These organisms provide the plants withfood in a form they can ingest and improve thestructure of the soil by breaking it up and allowingmore air to circulate.

    It is perhaps in the treatment of soil, morethan anywhere, that organic gardening differsfrom other gardening methods. The very firstprinciple of organic gardening is to nurture andencourage this subterranean life so that it cansupport a much larger plant population thannature ever intended (see also Soil ImprovementandFertilizers,pp. 1842).

    THE FORMATION OF SOILSoil is formed over millions of years by thephysical or chemical weathering of rock. Clay

    soils are formed by chemical weathering, wherethe mineral composition of the rock is changedusually by the action of weak acids. Other typesof soil are the result of physical weathering,which does not involve any change in thechemical content of the rock, but graduallyerodes it mechanically. This physical weatheringmay happen within the rock or externally.

    In hot climates, such as those whichprevail in desert areas, the widely f luctuatingtemperatures of day and night cause rocks toexpand and contract regularly. Over a periodof time the stress caused by the continual

    expansion and contraction leads to the physicaldisintegration of the rock and the formationof soil particles.

    In colder conditions, like those that affectedmuch of the world during the last Ice Age,rocks are broken down by the action of waterentering cracks in the rock and freezing. As itfreezes, the water expands, forcing the rock tosplit open. The movement of giant glaciers wasresponsible for the formation of soil as it woreaway fragments of the rock below, and the actionof streams and rivers also serves to wear awayrocks to form soil.


    What is soil?wide range of living organisms, and it is in thislayer that the majority of the feeding roots ofplants exist. Topsoils can be improved and

    deepened by the regular addition of organicmatter (see pp. 1834).The second layer is the subsoil, which is

    low in nutrients, generally contains few or nomicroorganisms, and is therefore inhospitable toroots. Thus, when digging deeply, it is advisableto bring to the surface only very small amountsof subsoil; these can be mixed with organic matteand will, eventually, turn into topsoil. Doubledigging breaks up subsoil and improves drainagewithout bringing the subsoil to the surface (seeBasic Techniques,p. 264).

    The soil in your garden is a very complex structureand its cultivation depends on many differentelements. There are several different soil types that

    all have advantages and disadvantages. Forexample, the soil may be acid or alkaline; it maybe heavy or light; it may drain well or badly; itmay be very rocky.

    SOIL PROFILEWhat you see in your garden is simply the surfaceof the soil. Soil is made up of three layers: topsoil,subsoil, and the soil parent matter. Topsoil isformed over the years by the addition of organicmatter that follows the decomposition of deadplants or animals (see p. 11). It i s inhabited by a

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    If you dig a deep hole in the garden, the varyingcolor and textures make it easy to identifythe different layers. This is a valuable exercisebecause it enables you to understand the natureof your soil and therefore gives you a clue as tothe best way to work it. The depth of each layerwill vary considerably from one area to the next.

    The nature of the subsoil has a profound effect onthe water-holding capacity of the soil in general.If you have light sand or chalk subsoil, which drains

    very freely, you will need to increase the bulkyorganic matter content (see pp. 1617), and thus thewater-holding capacity, of the topsoil. On the otherhand, heavy clay subsoil, which drains poorly, maynecessitate the installation of an artificial drainagesystem(seeBasic Techniques,p. 262).

    The third layerthe parent materialis the originalmineral from which the soil was formed. This layer isnormally deep enough not to concern the gardener,but may, on high ground, be comparatively near thesurface. If this is the case, try to increase the depth ofthe topsoil by adding organic matter to the top layer.

    SOIL TYPESThere are five main soil types: clay, sand, silt, chalk,and peat. Generally, it is the nature of the originalrock and the size of the mineral fragments thatdetermine the soil type (see p. 14). It is important toknow what kind of soil you are dealing with in your

    garden because the way in which you manage it, thetiming of cultivations, and the plants you grow willdepend to a large extent on the nature of the soil.

    However, having said this, most soils containa mixture of minerals. If a soil is referred to as,for example, clay, then this indicates its majorconstituent. Soil mixtures are known as loams;for example, a soil made up of 50 percent clayand silt and 50 percent sand is a medium loam.Similarly, a soil which contains a high proportionof sand might be described as a sandy loam,while one which contains a relatively large amountof clay might be described as a heavy loam.

    PRACTICAL CHARACTERISTICSSoils can also be heavy or light. A heavy soil containsa much higher proportion of clay. This type of soilhas very small particles that tend to pack together,preventing free passage of water. Heavy soil is often

    very difficult to work initially because it tends to beeither very wet and sticky or very dry and hard.Eventually though, when it has been ameliorated bythe natural drainage afforded by plant roots and theaddition of organic matter, heavy soil becomes anexcellent moisture- and nutrient-retaining medium.

    Light soils, on the other hand, are easy to dig andwarm up quickly in the spring but allow very freedrainage, which has its own problems. Water andnutrients disappear through the topsoil, go into thesubsoil, and eventually out the drainage system. Lightsoils require constant additions of organic matter toform a topsoil that retains moisture and generallyneed more applications of fertilizers than heavy soils.

    ACIDITY AND ALKALINITYSoil may also contain lime, which will cause it tobe either acid or alkaline, depending on the

    amount. The lime content will make a considerabledifference to the fertility of the soil and will governthe range of plants you can grow because it hasthe ability to make some nutrients unavailable toplants (see pp. 3839). For a straightforward testto determine the amount of lime in the soil,see p. 36.


    The proportion of rocks or gravel in your soildoes not influence its texture classification, but mayaffect its fertility and drainage. Rocky soil has theadvantages and disadvantages of a free-draining soil(see pp. 1617) and it may need regular applications ofbulky organic matter to improve water retention. If

    you are lucky enough to have a heavy topsoil and avery rocky subsoil, you have the best of both worlds,with surface moisture and nutrient retention, plusgood drainage of excess water.

    TopsoilThis is thedarkest layer of soil. Itcontains the organicmatter, fungi, bacteria,insects, and wormsnecessary for healthy plant

    growth. The depth of thetopsoil can range from 2in(5cm) to 6ft (2m). Thedeeper this layer, thebetter, because plant rootshave more space to growand take up nutrients.

    Depth of rootgrowth

    SubsoilLighter in colorthan topsoil because itcontains no humus, thislayer is largely devoid

    of plant nutrients. Thestructure of subsoil affectsthe drainage of the soil.

    Parent matterThisconsists mostly of unalteredrock. It is the area leastaffected by any cultivationof topsoil. The depth atwhich this level startsdepends on the underlyingrock and the height of thepiece of land.

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    Soil types

    CLAYThis is a heavy, cold soil which feels sticky when moist andhard and compacted when dry. The mi nute particles are lessthan 0.002mm in size. This means that clay does not draineasily and is dif ficult to work in wet conditions. However, itis possible to turn it into a very workable fertile soil (see opposite).Clay soils are normally well supplied with plant foods and arecapable of supporting a w ide variety of plants. See p. 92 for a listof plants for clay soil.

    When seen together the fivesoil typesclay, sand, silt, peat,and chalklook very different.Remember that many soils area mixture of minerals; the soilsillustrated here are as near to

    the pure mineral as possible.Each soil type has advantagesand disadvantages, so each needsa slightly different managementtechnique and supports differenttypes of plants. This is discussedin more detail in The OrnamentalGarden(see pp. 74125) and TheVegetable Garden(see pp. 132201).

    CHALKA pale, ver y hu ngr y-looking soi l, chalk often contain s a h igh proportionof rocks and fl ints. The large particles make it free-draining and very quicto lose nutrients and water. Often, the topsoil is rather shallow, making itunsuitable for plants with deep roots. Worse still, chal k is very alkaline;in other words it contains a g reat deal of lime, maki ng it inhospitable tomany plants. See p. 93 for a list of plant s for chalky soil.

    SANDThis is a dry, light soil, which will feelgritty if rubbed between your fingers.Sand particles range in size from 0.2mm,for the very finest sand, to 2mm for thecoarsest. Sandy soil is easy to work andparticularly good because it warms upquickly in the spr ing and can therefore becultivated earlier than most soils. Becauseit is free-draining, nutrients tend to be losteasily so it wil l need to be supplementedwith a great deal of organic matter as wellas extra fertilizer. See p. 92 for a list of plants

    for sandy soil .

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    rain to break down. The large particles make itvery easy to cultivate to a fine tillage anyway, soit is best to dig it in the spring a short while before

    you intend to sow or plant. If you never ventureon the soil when it is so wet that it sticks to yourboots, you will not go far wrong.

    DRAINAGEDuring the year, sandy soil will tend to lose

    water, both through surface evaporation andfree-draining, and this could be detrimental tothe plants. To reduce the problem, spread organicmatter, or mulch, over the beds between plantsas often as you can (see p.20). This lowers theevaporation rate and improves the soil structure.

    ORGANIC MATTERIt is very important to improve sandy soils byadding substantial amounts of bulky organicmaterial each year. Because of the quick-drainingnature of the soil, the organic matter will workdown into the subsoil very quickly so, to save

    work and to put it in the root zone, dig the organicmatter into the top few inches or spread it overthe surface.

    Try to maintain a cover of vegetation overthe surface more or less all the time, and certainlyin the winter, when the leaching of nutrientsis at its most rapid. In the vegetable garden, it isa good idea to grow a green-manure crop duringthe winter when the beds are empty and to digit in during the spring (see p.32). This will notonly hold many of the nutrients in the soil duringthe winter, but will also add large quantities oforganic matter.

    ChalkThere are two big disadvantages with chalk soils.Firstly, they are thin, dry, and hungry. This isbecause the particles are very large, like those insandy soil, so water drains through rapidly, takingplant nutrients with it. Plant nutrients, in the formof organic fertilizers, will therefore need to beadded to the soil. Secondly, perhaps even worse,chalk is a very alkaline soil, and so unsuitable formany plants (see p.35).

    DIGGINGGenerally there is no need to worry too much aboutthe timing of cultivations. Like sand, chalk soils arenormally dry enough to work, even in the depthsof winter. It is not necessary to leave a chalky soilrough during the winter months for the frost andrain to break down. Instead dig it in the spring a fewweeks before sowing. Because the topsoil is usuallynot very deep, digging should be kept shallow and,if the area is fairly small, it could be worthwhileadding a layer of topsoil to the surface.

    DRAINAGEGenerally, drainage on chalk soil is too good andthe need is to retain water and nutrients. This canbe done by adding bulky organic matter that willalso help to acidify the soil.

    ORGANIC MATTEROn chalk, more than any other type of soil, it isimportant to try and keep the soil surface covered.

    Grow a crop of green manure during the winterand dig it in during the spring (see p.32). Duringthe growing season, it is even worth sowing a fast-growing green-manure crop between vegetables,

    just to keep the soil covered.Mulching, or spreading organic material on top

    of the soil between plants, is also important duringthe growing season. You should use acid materials,such as peat, grass cuttings, compost, or manure, inorder to counteract the alkalinity of the soil.

    PeatIf you are lucky enough to be growing on peatysoil, grow as intensively as you can, as it is alwayspotentially very fertile and usually easy to work.Youll find it easy to produce bumper crops andbeautiful flowers year after year. Properly managed,a peat soil is superb but, like other soils, it doeshave its problems. Most importantly, peat soils areliable to be acidic and will therefore need generousapplications of lime to restore the pH balance in thefruit and vegetable plots (see p.36). In the ornamentalgarden, provided you choose the correct plants, thisshould not be necessary (see p.93).

    Furthermore, when they are drained, peatsoils tend to dry out quite rapidly in hot weather.If they are allowed to dry out completely, theywill shrink and may be difficult to get wet again.To prevent this, some hand watering may benecessary in dry weather.

    DIGGINGThe timing of cultivation is not critical. It is notnecessary to leave peat rough during the winter.

    DRAINAGEMoorland and fenland peats are often badly

    drained so you may need to install a drainagesystem (see p.262).

    ORGANIC MATTERA major advantage of peat is that i t is notnormally necessary to add any humus-makingmaterials. Peat, unlike the other soils, is largelymade up of decomposed matter. It therefore hasa low mineral content but contains an excess oforganic matter. However, the soil is likely to below in nutrients to start with so you may needto add fertilizers (see p.35).

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    that you can employ to improve your particularsoil; these are discussed in the previous chapter.

    All soil types will benefit from the addition of bulkyorganic matter in the form of compost or manureor some other soil conditioner. This is the key to soilfertility, and a healthy, fertile soil is the basis of theorganic approach to gardening. In fact it is the basisof good gardening, whether you are committed toorganic principles or not. Organic matter will improvethe drainage or increase the water-holding capacity

    of your soil (see pp. 1719). It will also, over a period oftime, increase the depth of usable topsoil.

    I have a perfect example of the value of organicmatter in my own garden. My soil is a rich, darkbrown color, fibrous and full of worms, a reliableindicator of the presence of healthy numbers ofother less obvious life. Everything I plant seemsto thrive, and the soil is a pleasure to work. This isbecause it gets the benefit of hefty doses of manureand compost every year.

    Yet I need to walk only a few feet to thecornfield next door, which never sees any organicmatter from one year to the next, to f ind a soil thatis hard, compacted, and airless. Its difficult to forcea fork through the top layer of soil and, when youdo, theres not a worm to be seen. Granted, thereare monoculture farmers like my neighborwho still grow very good crops of wheat, yearafter year, without the soil ever seeing a forkful ofmanure. With no cattle on their farms it would bedifficult to supply the manure and, in the interestsof convenience and economy, they even burn thestraw after the harvest. However, they do so atthe cost of enormous inputs of chemicals andof a steadily deteriorating soil.

    WHAT SHOULD YOU USE TOIMPROVE YOUR SOIL?There is no doubt at all that, if you put on sufficientwell-rotted manure every year, your soil will remainfertile and your plants will prosper. But where isall the manure to come from, particularly if youlive in a city? The days are long gone when youcould follow the horse and cart with a shovel andbucket. And, if you live in the country, particularlyif it is a corn-growing area, the farmers childrendont even know what cows look like.

    So the gardeners alternative is compost. Butis that being realistic? Certainly it looks goodduring the early summer when you start to fill

    your compost container with grass cuttings. Aftera couple of mowings, it fills up to overflowingand you have to start another. Yet by the time ithas rotted down completely, it has shrunk to nomore than a few bucketfuls.

    USING STOREBOUGHT MATERIALIn fact a normal-sized garden with a productive

    vegetable plot will simply not produce enoughcompost. You will have to buy some formof organic matter, and be constantly on thelookout for suitable composting material.Naturally, the more you can gather, the better,because you will have to buy less. Even if youlive in a city there are ways and means ofdoing this (see p. 26).

    Unfortunately it is almost impossible to gardentotally organically, because virtually everythingthat you might use is polluted with some chemicalor other. Straw has been sprayed with weedkiller,fungicide, and insecticide; the cows have beenforce-fed with growth-promoting hormones; eventhe leaves swept from the pavements are pollutedwith lead from gasoline. So, if you are a puristand I amyou may feel safer if you compost allimported material for at least a year in the hopethat the toxins will be leached out.

    FEEDING THE SOILPlants need certain nutrients in specificproportions to be present in the soil (see p. 39).These nutrients will be supplied by the additionof sufficient compost or manure (see p. 20), but

    you may have to use organic ferti lizers as well toachieve the required balance. The techniques offeeding and the type of fertilizer you use to feedthe soil will vary depending on your soil type,where you are, and how much organic matter isavailable to you. In addition, the degree of acidityor alkalinity, or pH, of your soil will affect theavailability of some of these nutrients (see p. 35).So, you may find that, having established the pHlevel and taken measures to adjust it if necessary,

    you release more nutrients, therefore increasingthe fertility of your soil.

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    The four phases of soil managementFirst of all, it should be taken as given that allorganic material not actually used in the kitchen isreturned to the soil as compost, and that this shouldbe supplemented by manure (see p. 27) or some otherpurchased soil conditioner (see p. 29), as necessary.Organic matter should be dug in during the fall

    and spread over the soil as a mulch in the growingseason (see p. 20). This will increase the water-holdingcapacity of light soils and open up very heavy soils,as well as supplying all the nutrients. If you can putsufficient organic matter on to the soil, there may beno need to add any concentrated fertilizers. However,it is difficult to define sufficient because the amountneeded depends entirely on your soil, the weather,the plants you wish to grow, and so on. You need tohave a great deal of compost and/or manure if youare going to avoid using concentrated fertilizerscompletely (see next page).

    3 Adding generalfertilizerNot everyone can get sufficient supplies of manureor compost. This is, therefore, where concentratedfertilizers come in. If, for any reason, the manuringfalls below the recommended levels, you will haveto make up the nutrients out of the bag. Use ageneral fertilizer such as blood, fish, and bone mealor pelleted chicken manure. The application rates

    vary according to the soil and the plants you wantto grow, so I have made recommendations in therelevant sections of the book. In fact some crops,for example peas, can generally grow quite wellwithout the addition of fertilizer, so there is noneed to apply it. Others, such as potatoes, will needextra. Most fruit trees and bushes will need fertilizerin the spring whether or not they are mulched withmanure or compost, as will the ornamental garden(see pp. 74125).

    Where any trace element deficiencies haveoccurred in the past, I recommend that yougive the soil a light application of kelp meal orcalcified kelp pellets at the beginning of each

    season to make sure it does not happen again.

    4 Using specificfertilizersSome crops always need special treatmenteven when the manure and fertilizer levels aresufficient to start with. If, for example, youare growing tomatoes in the greenhouse, they willbenefit from extra feeding and a potash fertilizerto encourage flower and fruit formation. Leafy

    I divide soil management into four phases: thefirst phase is testing the soil; the second involvesthe general soil conditioning and replacementof nutrients with organic matter; phase threeinvolves the application of fertilizer; the fourthphase covers more specialized application of

    fertilizers for specific plant needs.If you have moved into an established garden

    that is obviously growing good crops, or if youhave decided to convert to organic methods andthere are no nutrient deficiencies showing up in

    your garden (see pp. 3839), s tart with the secondphase. However, unless you know the acidity oralkalinity, or pH value, of your soil, you shouldtest it before you start (see p. 36).

    1 Analyzing your soilIf you are starting out, especially on virgin

    soil, it is a good idea to have it tested at theoutset so that you know where you stand. Soilsthat have been uncultivated for many years areoften grossly deficient in one or other of theelements necessary for healthy plant growth(see pp. 3839). Chemical growers would thenrepeat this soil test every year using sophisticatedequipment to ascertain the exact requirementsof the next crop. I have never believed thatgardeners, however diligent, need to get involvedin this. Once you know what you are workingwith, I dont think that it is necessary; annualhome pH testing is sufficient (see p. 36).

    It is best to send a sample of your soil awayfor professional analysis. The kits for testingnutrient levels in soil that are available toamateur gardeners are not accurate enough tobe worthwhile. Used regularly, they will indicatea trend but no more than that. There are plentyof reputable companies who will analyze yoursoil. You will find them advertised in gardeningmagazines. They will be able to tell you theexact chemical makeup of your soil and, ifthere is a deficiency, exactly how much fertilizer

    you need to use to correct i t. Remember, though,

    when you send the sample, to ask them torecommend organic fertilizers.

    2 Using soilconditionersThis stage deals with the general soil improvementand replacement of plant nutrients removed byprevious crops. It is here that there will be variationbecause it depends on how much, and what type,of organic material you have available to you.

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    plants that remain in the ground for a long time,like spring cabbage, may need some extranitrogen fertilizer towards the end of the winter.Plants such as raspberries are particularly proneto iron deficiencies when grown in chalky soil;this can be corrected by spraying and liquidfeeding with kelp (seaweed) fertilizer. It is a goodidea to apply extra phosphorus, or phosphate,before planting trees or sowing, to encourage root

    growth. Again, all of these recommendations arediscussed in more detail in the relevant chaptersof the book: The Or namental Garden, The VegetableGarden, and The Fruit Garden.

    Applying soil conditionersThe amounts of organic matter required, and themethod by which it is appliedeither digging inor mulchingwill vary slightly depending on yousoil, the time of year, and the plants you want

    to grow. Ideally, you will need to use at least two2 gallon (9 liter) buckets of well-rotted compostor animal manure for every square yard/meterof soil in the vegetable garden. Use one bucketper square yard/meter as a mulch around treesand shrubs, or in the ornamental borders; thisshould also be sufficient for fruit trees and bushes.

    The quantities suggested are only a guide, ifyou can afford to use more, do not be afraid to doso. And you can always supplement your compostor manure with green-manure crops whenever thebeds are empty for any length of time (see p. 32). If

    you are unable to apply organic matter in sufficientquantities, you may have to use fertilizers as well.This is discussed in the next chapter (see pp. 3542).

    MulchingThis involves spreading a layer of organic matterover the soil where it cannot be dug into the ground because plant scannot be disturbed. Mulching is normally carried out in spring.

    Make sure th e soi l is moi st be fore you apply the mulch because i twill absorb surface water.

    Digging in manureThe most effective way to incorporateorganic material into the soil is to dig it in during the fall. Digout a trench, taking the soil to the end of the plot. Put a layer ofmanure in the bottom of the trench, then half fill it with soil dug

    from th e next trench. Add more manure, th en fi ll t he trench.

    Your soil management regime should be:Test the soil pH and, if starting a new garden,

    have your soil tested. Make up deficiencies.Use heavy applications of manure or compost

    wherever possible (see below).If organic matter is not available in sufficient

    quantities, feed with a concentrated generalorganic fertilizer (see pp. 3542).

    Give extra feeds for especially demandingplants or where specific deficiencies are noticed(see pp. 3839).


    The best materials to use to condition your soil aremanure and compost; they will improve drainage orwater-holding capacity and provide nutrients, but youdo need a great deal to maintain soil fertility levels.

    Well-rotted animal manure is the very best materialto use but it can be difficult to obtain. Compostcan be used as a substitute for manure but, if it isto be dug into the ground, it mustbe well-rotted.The alternative soil conditioners mentioned onpp. 2931, such as spent mushroom compost, greencompost, and spent hops, while they are superb soilconditioners, they should not be looked upon assources of plant nutrients.

    Dig your compost or manure into the top layersof soil during the fall and use it as mulch duringthe growing season (see below). If it is spread over thesurface of the soil between growing plants in thicklayers, it acts as a weed suppressant (see p. 58)andwill eventually be worked into the soil.

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    CompostConditions necessaryfor good compostingObviously, the f irst requirement is something tocompost. Then the pile needs air, nitrogen, water,

    bacteria, and sometimes lime.There are a great many old wives tales about

    what can and cannot be used, but the rule is, infact, very simple: anything that is entirely organicin origin can be composted, except for a fewthings that common sense tells you should beleft out, such as some diseased material, cookedkitchen scraps, and so on (see below).

    The list of organic material that can be usedis endlessyou should never waste anythingthat will rot. Do not just throw things onto theheap, but mix different materials together tomake sure that air can circulate through the

    heapeven if that means storing some materialbeside the pile until you have something else toadd to it. Grass cuttings, for example, if put onthe heap in thick layers, will form an airless massand turn into slime.

    AIR CIRCULATIONAir is of vital importance in the compost heap.Without it the material is worked on by a differentgroup of microorganisms, known as anaerobicbacteria. If allowed to develop, they turn grasscuttings and any other material into a stinkingslime that is worse than useless on the garden.

    The container should have air circulatingthrough it and a good variety of material willcreate plenty of natural air spaces, so never packdown the contents too much. This can also beimproved by mixing the fine material such asgrass cuttings and small weeds with larger weeds,shredded newspaper, or straw.


    Any material infected with a persistent disease,such as clubroot or blightthis should alwaysbe burned.

    The top growth of main crop potatoes. Theseshould be burned after digging the potatoesbecause they may infect the heap with potatoblight sporesa completely clean crop is rare.

    Prunings from woody plants, because they taketoo long to rot.

    Cooked kitchen scraps; they often putrefy andwill attract vermin.

    Roots of pernicious weeds such as couch grass(Agropyron repens), ground elder (Aegopodium

    podagraria), bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), and

    creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens). Thesemust be burned immediately as they will onlymultiply in the compost heap (see p. 60).

    Any weed seeds. You will often read that theheat of the compost heap will cook allthe weed seeds rendering them unviable.This is true only if the heap reaches a veryhigh temperature. In fact, a heap will onlyget hot enough to kill most pests and diseasesbut not seeds. They remain dormant until thecompost is spread and end up high enoughin the soil to be able to germinate. However,weeds pulled up before they seed, or evenflower, should be added to the heap.

    Every garden must have a compost heap. Thisis the ideal way to return as much organic matteras possible to the soil, following natures example.Decomposing vegetation provides a home formillions of soil organisms, it opens up the soil,improving drainage and easing the way for root

    growth, and it helps over-drained soils hold waterand therefore nutrients (see p. 16).

    The plant remains that you gather from thegarden in the form of waste leaves, stems from

    vegetables, grass cuttings, and annual flowersat the end of the season, all contain a great dealin the way of plant food and should not be wasted.However, dug in immediately, this material wouldinitially do more harm than good.

    The problem is that the rotting process iscarried out by bacteria. Millions and millions ofthem begin to feed on anything that has just beenremoved from the soil. In order to carry on the

    decomposition, these bacteria need nitrogen, avery important plant food (see p. 38). If the gardenwaste is dug in green, or in an unrotted state,the bacteria will draw the nitrogen from the soil fortheir own use, leaving growing plants desperatelyshort of food. If the plant material is turned intocompost before it reaches the soil, it will actuallyadd nitrogen. This is because, after the initialrotting, a species of bacteria known asAzotobacterisattracted by the resulting conditions. These usefulmicroorganisms can fix the nitrogen from theairthat is, they take it and convert it into a formthat can be used by plants. So good compost,though not especially high in nitrogen, will at leastnot take any nitrogen from the soil.

    The rotting, or composting, process takes timeand a successful, well-planned organic gardenshould therefore have at least two compost heaps.That way, the contents of one heap can be left torot down properly, while the other is being filled up.

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    NITROGENBecause the bacteria in the compost heap requirenitrogen as a fuel, you must add a certain amountto the heap. Ideally, use animal manure as yoursource. I keep hens in a movable henhouse with arun that is moved around the vegetable plotwhenever space becomes available. I use thedroppings from the henhouse to provide theadditional nitrogen for my compost heap. But I

    am lucky to be able to do this.If animal manure is unavailable, you can buy

    organic compost fuels, or activators, in most gardenstores. Alternatively, dried sewage sludge can oftenbe obtained from the local sewage companythis isideal not only for the compost heap but also for useas a fertilizer. Kelp (seaweed) meal is excellent anddried blood, the best form of nitrogen fertilizer,makes a very good, if slightly expensive, compostactivator (seeOrganic fertilizers,pp. 4041).

    Whatever you use, you dont actually need verymuchand not as much as the manufacturers wouldhave you believe. A fine dusting every 12in (30cm)

    of compost is sufficient.

    LIMEAdding lime will keep the compost sweetthat is,it will help neutralize the acidity. However, adding agood mixture of material will create a sweet heapwithout the need to add lime.

    If you have chalky soil, you may feel that it wouldbe better to omit the lime and use very acid compostto adjust the balance, and you can do this. However,the bacteria involved in rotting the compost materialactually prefer conditions that are not too acid so, if

    you do not add lime, the rotting process takes longer.All in all it is best to use it.

    You should apply a slightly heavier dusting oflime than of the nitrogen activator every 12in (30cm(see p. 25)

    WATERThis is an essential ingredient of any compost heap.Generally, there will already be enough in the green

    material you put on the compost heap. This is certainlthe case if you use grass cuttings. However, it ispossible, in a hot summer, for the edges to dry out, andthen you may need to apply extra water. The samemay be true if you have used straw in the heap. Strawmakes an excellent aerating material, especially whenused with grass cuttings, and it composts well, but youneed to wet it first. I have composted straw on its ownbut I found that I needed to put the sprinkler on theheap for half an hour at a time to wet it sufficiently.

    You may need to cover the compost heap withplastic sheeting in the winter, not only to keep theheat in, but also to prevent the compost from

    getting too wet (see below).

    HEATAlthough perhaps not absolutely necessary, there isno doubt that decomposition is much faster when thematerial is warm. In the summer youll have usablecompost in only two or three months where, in thewinter, the process slows down considerably and thecompost will not be usable until the spring.

    You can cover the heap with black plasticweighted at the edges; this will keep the heat in andprevent it becoming too wet, which can be aproblem, particularly in winter (see p. 25). I prefer tplace a piece of old carpet over the heap; it doesnot need weighting down and also breathes,allowing more air into the heap.

    BACTERIAFinally, you need the bacteria themselves. This isthe easiest job of all. There are millions in justone piece of soil, so there should be plenty in theclumps of earth that cling to the roots of theweeds you put in the heap. Some peoplerecommend that you add layers of soilthroughout the heap. In fact, this is completely

    unnecessary: not only is it hard work, but italso makes the compost less concentrated.

    Compost containersAlthough it is not essential to make your compost in containeryou can simply pile it up in the corner ofthe gardenthe advantage of a container is that thecompost rots right up to the edges of the pile. In anopen heap, the edges dry out so the whole thing hasto be turned two or three times during the rottingprocess to push the unrotted material into the center

    Woody material, such as prunings fromshrubs and trees, should not be compostedon the main heap because it takes a long timeto decompose. This is because bark containsa substance called lignin, which is difficultfor bacteria to break down. The rotting oflignin is primarily carried out by fungi, ratherthan bacteria. These are also present in thecompost heap, but their action is much slower.While the fungi do not require as much airas bacteria, they do need more light.

    You can speed up the process dramaticallyby chopping your prunings into smaller piecesthat are more readily rotted by the fungi. Youcan buy domestic chipping machines. Theyare small and do take quite a longtime to produce an appreciable number ofchippings but, if you can afford the timeand the initial cost, they are worth theeffort. The wood chippings can also be usedas a mulch in ornamental flower beds to helpretain moisture and to suppress weeds(see p. 59).


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    The size of your compost container will dependon the size of your garden. There are plentyof containers available at garden centers, manydesigned with the smaller garden in mindsomeeven suggest that it is possible to compost byadding material to the top while shoveling outthe well-rotted compost at the bottom. Frankly,this is not realistic; you need two containers, onethat can be left to rot down while the other is

    being filled up. The most useful is a solid-sidedwooden box (see below). You can easily add moresections onto the side.

    It is not difficult to make your own compostcontainer. Again wooden ones are the best, theylook good and they are cheap and easy to make(see next page). You can also make compost binsfrom bricks, plastic barrels, or stakes and wire(see below).


    Compost containers are useful not only becausethey keep the compost moist right up to the edgesbut also because they keep it tidy. Whether you

    Manufactured compost containers

    Homemade compost containers

    Wooden compost binCommercial wooden bins normallycome in kit form and you assemble them.Stacking bins, like this beehive model,enable you to build the heap graduallyone section at a time and allow easyaccess to the compost.

    Wire-and-post containerThis method is suitable only if you can

    put th e compost heap somewhere it cant beseen. Hammer four stakes into the ground

    to make a 3ft (1m) square. Staple about12ft (4m) of wire mesh, 3ft (1m) deep, tothe outside of the stakes. Tie large piecesof cardboard to the inside of the wire.

    Brick-built compost binThis method i s suitable only if you arenever going to move the heap. Stagger thebricks so that air can get into the compostheap. The front should be made of woodenslats like for the homemade wooden bin onthe next page. Fix wood shims down theinside of the walls and slide the slats in.

    Plastic barrel containerLarge plastic barrels used for fruitconcentrates make ideal compostcontainers. Cut off the top and bottomwith a sharp knife. Keep one of the cut

    ends and use it as a lid. Drill 1in(2.5cm) holes around the barrelaboutone hole e very 1sq ft (30sq cm).

    Plastic compost binThis type of bin is useful in a small

    garden. A small amount of air is allowedin through the bottom and a lid keepsthe contents dry and the heat in.

    build your own bin or buy one, make surethat it enables you to get to the compost easilywhen it comes to putting it on the garden.

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    This is a very simple procedureand one possible by eventhe most reluctant DIYer. Themost important factor toconsider when making thistype of compost bin is to takethe time to be precise, as thebin looks good enough to

    admire and not hide away.Make sure you buy roughsawn lumber as this will becheaper and look perfectlyfine. A pristine, smoothfinish to the bin is notessential. It is still possible tobuy suitable lumber from ademolition contractor, whichcan be half the price of new,but be careful not to slip intothe minefield that is reclaimedlumber as this is often muchhigher in value. I have to say

    that my favorite are old


    1Place two of the uprights onthe ground so that they are lyingpara lle l to ea ch o ther and 2f t 6in(75cm) apart. Place one of theside planks across them 3in (7.5cm)

    from th e bo ttom of each post and nai lit into position. Nail five more planksbetween the uprights, ensuring they allbutt up against each other, and then

    make another wall to match.

    2Stand the two walls up parallel to eachother and at right angles to a wall. Naila piece of wood to the top of each upr ightto hold them in position. Working fromthe bottom upward, nail six pieces of woodacross the back, level with those on each side.

    5Slide all the front panels into thebin to make sure they fit; cut downas necessary.

    3Remove the support panel. Thenturn the box around so that you canmake the front wall. Nail a board acrossthe front of the upr ights 3in (7.5cm)

    from th e bottom.

    6Paint the e ntire container, includingthe cut edges and the front panels,with a water-based wood preservative.Let air dry.

    4Nail two shims onto the side edge of eachupright, making sure that they are farenough apart to slide the front panelsbetween them. Nail a small piece of woodacross the bottom of them to prevent the front

    panels from sliding out when filling the bin.

    7Slide all the front panels into position.Tie a piece of string a cross the top ofthe container to prevent the sides frombulging outward when you fill it.

    floorboards, which areparticularly good for the sides,while 3 4in (7.5 10cm)floor joists make idealcorner supports.

    You need:

    4 3ft (1m) lengthsof 2 4in (5 10cm)wood for the uprights

    19 3ft (1m) lengthsof wood for the sides

    5 2ft 6in (75cm) lengthsof wood for the front panels( You may need to check thismeasurement when you havecompleted the main part ofthe bin.)

    4 2ft 6in (75cm) wood shims 2 small pieces of wood Strong nails, about four

    per panel

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    Managing your compostReally good compost is supposedly brown andcrumbly with the sweetest of smells, like the woodsin fall. In fact it very rarely is. If you have a reallybig heap and a supply of only the very best organicmaterial to rot down, you should be able to achievethat ideal during spring and summer. If your heapis small and youre using any organic material

    you can find, it often wont live up to that ideal.Generally, while some material is in an advancedstage of decomposition, other material will nothave rotted down nearly as much. The compostis more likely to be very variable, with a lot ofsemi-rotted fibrous material. But that doesntmatter. It will still improve the soil and certainlydo no harm; it will just take a bit longer for it tobecome humus.

    Getting good quality compost takes care,and each composting material needs differenttreatment. For example, grass cuttings shouldalways be mixed thoroughly with some coarser

    material such as larger weeds, shredded newspaper,or straw, before they are added to the heap toprevent them from turning to slime (see p. 22).

    Straw is a particularly good material to mixwith grass cuttings and, if you have the space, itis well worth keeping a bale beside the heap justfor that purpose. A word of warning though;straw is very dry, so it is very important to soakit thoroughly in a container of water for an houror so before adding it to the heap.

    Newspaper can be difficult to break down but it isworth using, particularly when mixed with grasscuttings. As a rough guide use about one partnewspaper to four parts grass cuttings. Never put iton the heap folded into a thick wad because therewont be enough air in it and it wont rot. I cut itup into 1in (2.5cm) strips and keep it in a plasticbag until needed. Then, before use, I put it in abucket of diluted seaweed (see p. 41). However, I

    use only a small amount and use the pages fromglossy magazines in smaller pieces so that it rotsdown better, now that they use inks that do notcontain lead. When I put kitchen scraps on theheap, I make sure there is nothing cooked on themto avoid attracting vermin. If there are any largepieces of root vegetable, I cut them into smallerpieces. I then cover the layer with grass cuttings orweeds to keep the rats and mice away. Potatopeelings often cause problems because those tinyeyes will develop into potato plants either in theheap or when the compost is spread. But theyrenot difficult to pull up and provide that much more

    material for the next heap. Any old clothes madeof natural fiber can be put on the heap as well. If

    you cut them into strips beforehand, they will rotdown faster.

    The amount of compost you can make in a yeardepends heavily on the type of material you use buteven more on the weather. From each bin youshould, in a hot year, get two good binfuls in thesummerone in early summer and another in latefalland another in the spring if youre lucky.


    Grass cuttings

    Horse manure or strawthen compost activator


    Leaves from vegetablegarden mixed withgrass cuttings

    Horse manure or strawthen compost activator

    Grass cuttings

    Horse manure


    Stand the compost containeron a level surface, preferablysoil. Start the heap off with a 6in(15cm) layer of coarse materialsuch as horse manure, straw, orlarge weeds to make sure there isa free flow of air at the bottom.Then add more material untilyou have a layer 6in (15cm) deep.Sprinkle some compost activatoror nitrogen fertilizer (see p. 40)over this layer, or add anotherlayer of horse manure; the

    nitrogen in it will act as acompost activator. Add another6in (15cm) layer of material,then cover with a dusting oflime, and so on. When you havefinished filling the bin alwayscover it with a piece of carpet orits lid to keep it dry. Compostrots down and shrinks quickly sothat which seems like a finishedheap one week still has room formore the next week.

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    ALTERNATIVE SOURCES OF MATERIALFOR COMPOSTINGFew gardens can produce enough waste organicmaterial to be self-sufficient in compost. But aremarkable amount of good stuff that is thrownaway can be harvested by the organic gardener.The local supermarket or farmers market is anexcellent source of green stuff. See if you canarrange to visit the shop or market after closing time

    on Saturdays to take any trash. A local sports fieldor golf club is also worth investigating. They oftenhave no means of disposing of massive amountsof grass cuttings and would be glad to have themcleared away.

    If you live in the country, in an area wherefarmers burn straw rather than bale it, it is wellworth asking if you can gather some straw beforethe rest is disposed of. As the farmers are no longerable to burn their straw and stubble, whatever isleft after harvest is plowed back into the ground.Some may spray the straw before this happens so itis important that you check this has not happened

    before collecting it.The best source of free soil conditioner I have

    ever found was a tomato grower that used growbags. At the end of the season they were facedwith an unwanted mountain of used bags. Thecompost inside them was once-used and full oftomato roots but still a perfect soil conditioner,even without composting. I did, in fact, stackthem for a year to ensure that any traces ofchemicals had dissipated, because the nurserydid not grow organically.

    Leaf moldLeaves are slow to rot because they contain lignin(see p. 22). Be prepared to wait at least a year, andpossibly even two or three years, before you have agood, crumbly compost that is ready to use. Whenthe leaves do rot down, however, they prove wellworth waiting for. Leaf mold is really much toogood to use for mulching or for digging in. Use itas a potting or seed-sowing compost (see p. 252).

    The decaying process is very different fromcompost making. While green compost is rottedpredominantly by bacteria, leaves are broken down

    by fungi which need more light and less air thanthe bacteria (see p. 22). So build the container in acorner of the garden where it can be left undisturbed.

    You will need at least two heaps because itmay be two to three years before the leaf moldis ready. You do not need elaborate containers,

    you can make them out of stakes and wire netting(see above). Pi le the leaves into the container as youcollect them, pressing down each time you addmore. The leaves may need a little water in a drysummer, otherwise, you can leave them to theirown devices.

    The local government is often a good sourceof leaves. The leaves may be polluted withcigarette packs or other trash but these areeasy to remove as you stack them. More concerninis the fact that they could contain lead from carexhaust emission, but all you can do is hope thatit is reduced to an acceptable level, if not leachedout entirely, by composting.

    Sheet compostingMaking good compost takes time and troubletimethat some busy gardeners might find difficult tospare. Nonetheless, as organic matter should neverbe thrown away, you may find it more convenientto sheet compost it.

    This technique simply involves spreading a thinlayer of organic matter on the soil between rowsof vegetables or on a vacant area, and allowing itto rot down where it is. Naturally this method isuseful only in productive parts of the garden wheraesthetics are not important. Sheet compost canbe particularly useful on areas where you walkregularly, like paths between rows, or it can be

    used as a mulch around fruit trees.If you are using weeds, its important to ensurethat they have wilted beyond the recovery pointbefore you spread them, or you may find themre-rooting and growing away in your carefullytended vegetable patch. As with weeds for thecompost heap, you should ensure that theyare not about to shed seeds. Grass cuttings areideal for sheet composting, but you are almostcertain to find annual meadow grass seeds inany sample cut during the summer, so watchout for unwanted sprouts.

    Building a leaf-mold containerYou need four woodenstakes th at are at lea st 3ft (1m) tall, and about 12ft (4m)of wire mesh. Drive the stakes into the ground to make a3ft (1m) square and staple the wire netting around the outside.

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    Whatever organic matter you use as sheetcompost, it will rot down into the soil muchmore slowly than well-rotted garden compost.There is also a danger of it causing nitrogendeficiency in the soil (see p. 21), so you mayneed to add a little nitrogen fertilizer beforespreading the sheet compost.

    An alternative method, which will certainlyspeed up the decomposition process, is to

    dig the sheet compost into the top inch or so.If you have a rotary cultivator, even better,because this will chop it up, after whichearthworms will take care of it. In this casethough, extra nitrogen will definitelybe necessary. As a preventive measure, beforecultivating or digging in sheet compost in thisway, sprinkle a handful of dried blood overeach square yard/meter of soil (see p. 40).

    Spreading sheetcompostSprinkle driedblood over the soilonehandful per square yard/meterthen spread an evenlayer of the green material overthe soil. Leave it to rot down.

    Animal manuredaylight. Their droppings are washed away through

    the slatted floors and disposed of as slurry. It is stillsometimes possible, however, to find a farmer whograzes cattle outside some of the time and bringsthem into yards in the winter. So if you live in thecountry, cow manure can sometimes be obtainedafter the cows have been turned out for the summer.Compared with other forms of organic material,its very cheap and excellent as a soil conditionerand source of nutrients. But it should be stored for12 months before use to leach out impurities andprevent scorching of roots.

    On the face of it, cow manure doesnt containa very high percentage of plant nutrients (see below),when compared with an inorganic fertilizer. But

    you will be using a far greater volume of manurethan you would of an inorganic fertilizer, so themineral concentration is less significant. Moreover,manure will hold water and maintain that highlevel of fertility that organic growers continuallytry to achieve.

    NUTRIENT CONTENTNitrogen 0.6 percent Potassium 0.30.5 percent

    Phosphorus 0.20.3 percent Trace elements Full range

    Coverage 2030lb (915kg) per sq yard/meter

    HORSE MANUREAn excellent source of organic matter, horsemanure is often more readily available near urbanareas. Large stables generally have a contractwith commercial mushroom growers to removemanure. But there are plenty of smaller stableswho are pleased to sell manure. You should usemanure only from stables where straw or peat isused as bedding; wood shavings may be a sourceof plant disease.

    Animal manures are the very best sources of organicmatter you could wish for on your soil, so they areworth getting, even though they are more difficultto obtain than compost. Manure can be used onany soil, not only to improve its condition, but alsoto feed it with nutrients. Some, like poultry manure,have to be used with care because of their highnitrogen content.

    Unfortunately, much commercial animal manureis likely to be adulterated with hormone fatteners,herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides. However, ifit is stacked for at least a year, there is little evidenceto show that these chemicals pollute the soil or maketheir way into our vegetables and fruit when theyare harvested. Leaving the manure for a year doesmean that some of the nutrients are lost, but thiscan always be made up in the soil in other ways.One day, the organic movement will be powerfulenough to persuade all farmers to produce healthy,unadulterated food. In the meantime, we simplyhave to use what is available. There is little point intrying to beg manure from organic farmers becausethey need it for themselves.

    USING MANUREAll manure is used at full strength unless otherwisespecifiedalthough you should avoid puttingit on young shoots because it will scorch them.General manure levels are given with eachdescription; recommendations for specific plantneeds are described in the relevant chapters.

    COW MANUREMany beef cattle are kept in the cruellest of livingconditions where they never move around or see

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    Fresh horse manure must not be used directly aroundplants since it can cause scorching of the leaves andstems. Also, if put on the soil in an unrotted state,much of the nutrient value will be lost and the strawmixed in with the manure will take a long time todecompose. There are two alternatives. If you haveaccess only to small quantities of manure, they arebest put on the compost heap where the high nitrogencontent will assist the decomposition. Large quantities

    are best stacked, if possible on a concrete base, and,since there is a lot of air space in the straw, and thusa danger of it drying out, you should mash down yourpile as you stack it. In winter, cover the heap withplastic to protect it from excess rain. Horse manurewill be ready for use in a couple of months unless youare concerned that any straw may be contaminatedwith pesticides, in which case leave it for a year beforeusing it.

    PIG MANURESomewhat colder and wetter than horse or cowmanure, but certainly not to be discounted for that, pigmanure has a very high nutrient content. It should betreated in the same way as horse manure but, since itis heavier, there is generally no need to mash it down.

    SHEEP MANUREBecause sheep are not normally stabled, you dontget a mixture of straw and muck in the way youdo with cow, horse, and pig manure. However,the manure itself is so high in nutrients that it iswell worth going around the fields collecting it. Halfa sackful will provide enough liquid manure to lastthe average-sized garden a whole year (see p. 42).

    CHICKEN MANUREThis is very powerful manure. It has an extremely highnitrogen content, and so should not be used undiluted.If you can find a farmer who keeps hens in an old-fashioned deep-litter house, where the hens are housedon straw, take as much manure as you can get andstack it as described for horse manure, above. If you

    have your own hens, use the manure as a source ofnitrogen for the compost heap.

    Chicken manure from a commercial grower canbe used to compost straw. Put a layer of straw in thebottom of a compost container, soak it with water,

    then cover with a sprinkling of manure. Add morestraw, water it, then cover with manure. Continue inthis way until the bin is full, ending with a layer ofmanure. Leave this type of compost to rot for at leasa year because the manure will contain hormonesthat are fed to commercially-grown chickens.

    OTHER MANURESPigeon droppings contain even higher concentrations onitrogen than chicken manure, so it is worth contactinglocal pigeon-racing enthusiasts. The manure can beused in the same way as chicken manure.

    Rabbit manure is also ideal, though likely to be

    available in only small quantities. Use it in the sameway as chicken manure.Goat manure is similar to horse manure, but of

    better quality. If you can find any, or better still if yokeep a goat yourself, compost the manure and use itin exactly the same way as horse manure (see above).

    Before leaving manures, I have one suggestionthat is not as crazy as it sounds. When the circusleaves town, it is often left with a manure problem,so it could be worth contacting it as soon as it arrivesI have actually used two trailer loads of elephantmanure that the circus delivered free of charge.


    Nitrogen 0.6 percent Potassium 0.4 percent

    Phosphorus 0.6 percent Trace elements Full range

    Coverage 2030lb (915kg) per sq yard/meter


    Nitrogen 0.6 percent Potassium 0.4 percent

    Phosphorus 0.6 percent Trace elements Full range

    Coverage2030lb(915kg) per sq yard/meter


    Fresh, wet chicken manure

    Nitrogen 1.5 percent Potassium 0.5 percent

    Phosphorus 1.5 percent Trace elements Full range

    Coverage 710lb (3.254 .5kg) per sq yard/meter


    Nitrogen 4 percent Potassium 1.5 percent

    Phosphorus 4 percent Trace elements Full range

    Coverage 812oz (2030g) per sq yard/meter


    Nitrogen 0.8 percent Potassium 0.4 percent

    Phosphorus 0.5 percent Trace elements Full range

    Use as liquid manure (see p. 42)

    If you live in the country, you may find itadvantageous to keep small livestock in thevegetable garden. Half a dozen chickens, forexample, require only a small amount of spaceand will easily keep a small family in eggsthroughout the year.

    To fit chickens into the vegetable-growingsystem, house them in a small, portable house

    with a movable wire-mesh run to restrict themto the area. As a crop finishes, move the hensonto the space, and they will devour all thegreen matter there, recycling it in the form ofa high-nitrogen fertilizer. They will also peckout any old seeds and soil pests that may belurking near the surface.


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    Alternative soil conditionerstype. These materials should be looked upononly as soil conditioners; although some containplant nutrients, they are not present in largeenough quantities.




    A mixture of horsemanure, peat, and chalkprepared by commercialmushroom growers. A veryuseful, if slightly alkaline,soil conditioner. Dont useit on acid-loving plants.

    This is a waste materialfrom the cleaning processesthat a fleece goes throughwhile being prepared forspinning and dyeing. Thenutrient content can varyconsiderably.

    This is an excellent soilconditioner because itsalginate content helpsbind soil particles together,thus improving structure.Kelp is particularly richin trace elements.

    This is normally sold partlycomposted and containsvirtually no nutrients. Itis best used as mulch,because it can cause asevere nitrogen deficiencyin the soil if dug in.

    If you have a brewerynearby, try to buy spenthops to use as a mulch

    or to dig inthey addorganic matter as well as asmall amount of nutrients.

    Useful for adding organicmatter, green compost haslittle nutrient value but is

    useful for improving soilstructure and its water-holding capacity.

    NUTRIENT CONTENTNitrogen 0.71 percent

    Phosphorus 0.3 percent

    Potassium 0.26 percent

    Trace elements Full range

    NUTRIENT CONTENTNitrogen 0.3 percent

    Phosphorus 0.1 percent

    Potassium 1.0 percent

    Trace elements Full range




    Trace elements




    Trace elements

    NUTRIENT CONTENTNitrogen 0.5 percent

    Phosphorus 12 percentPotassium 0.5 percent

    Trace elements Full range

    NUTRIENT CONTENTNitrogen 315 percent

    Phosphorus 0.510 percent

    Potassium 0.112 percent

    Trace elements

    Apart from compost and manure, there are manyother organic materials that can be dug into yoursoil or used as a mulch to help improve drainageor water-holding capacity, depending on the soil

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    30SPENT MUSHROOM COMPOSTThe waste product of the mushroom-growing industry,this can be used instead of manure, provided itslimitations are kept in mind. Mushroom compost startsas fresh horse manure that is stacked so that it heatsup. It is then sown with mushrooms and, finally,covered with a mixture of peat, or peat substitute, andchalk. After the crop of mushrooms has been picked,the compost is thrown away or sold either loose at the

    farm or packed into bales and sold at garden centers.By the time it has had a crop grown in it, the compostis quite well rotted. Nonetheless, its still worth leavingmushroom compost for at least a year before use toleach out the chemical insecticides used by the growersand to help get rid of the pests it may harbor, such asfungus gnats. After a year it should have theconsistency of coarse peat.

    Mushroom compost can be put directly onto thesoil around plants, but you should use it very sparinglybecause it can badly scorch young shoots. Remembertoo that, because it contains ground chalk, it will be

    very alkaline (see p. 35). Never use it on acid-loving

    plants such as rhododendrons, azaleas or heathers(Ericasp.),and some trees (see p. 82).

    Before using the compost, mushroom growersnormally add gypsum to it; when added to soil, thishelps to bind clay particles together. So, coupled withthe natural opening effect of the organic matter,mushroom compost is ideal for use on heavy clay soils.Coverage: 23lbs (11.5kg) per sq yard/meter.

    KELPIf you live near the ocean, the kelp washed up on thebeach can be a valuable source of organic material forthe soil. Kelp, or seaweed, contains a wide range of thetrace elements that plants need for growth as well assmall and variable amounts of the major plant foods,in particular potassium (see pp. 3839). Recent researchhas shown that seaweed also contains growth-promoting hormones, which can be absorbed throughleaves to improve plant health and growth. In the soil,kelp can release certain nutrients otherwise unavailableto plants, and its alginate content binds soil particlestogether, improving soil structure (see p. 16).

    Kelp is most effective if composted for awhile,although, because it will rot down very quickly, somegardeners prefer to dig it in fresh. The fronds contain

    alginic acid, which is very attractive to the bacteriarequired on the compost heap. So, apart from itssoil-conditioning value, kelp can also be used as acompost activator (see p. 22). If you can get aholdof only small quantities of kelp, this is certainly thebest use for it.Coverage: 23lbs (11.5kg ) per sq yard/meter.

    SPENT HOPSThe residue from the brewing industry, spent hopshave a distinctive strong smell, although this soondisappears when the hops are left out in the open.

    They make an excellent soil conditioner and areparticularly good for mulching. The problem is thatthey are very difficult to get, as many breweries nowsell on a contract basis to farmers. However, it is worthcalling a local brewery and asking for a few bags. Ifbought directly from the brewery, spent hops will bewet and can either be dug in fresh or spread over thesurface. They can be composted but it is not necessary.If you use them fresh, keep them away from the stems

    and leaves of young plants to avoid scorching them.It is possible to buy spent hops dry but, in this

    form, they are really more of a fertilizer that is highin nitrogenabout 2.53.5 percent.Coverage: 23lbs (11.5kg ) per sq yard/meter.

    WOOL SHODDYMade up of bits of fluffy wool, this is a waste productof the clothing industr