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20 February 2014

Improving Your Soil

If you have clayey, sandy, chalky or acidic soils in your garden or allotment you may want to try to improve it, so listed below are a few things for you to try.

Clay soils can be improved by the addition of bulky organic matter such as manure, or by digging in composted bark. This helps break up large particles so the soil doesn't crack, drains better and is easier to work, and is best done in the autumn.

Clay soils are best not walked on as this compacts the soil. Think about making raised beds which will remove the compaction and improve drainage.

Think about introducing a ‘no-dig’ regime, especially in raised beds, as these suit clay soils well.

Some clay soils benefit from extra calcium, which causes the soil particles to clump together. With acid soil you can apply lime, but elsewhere it is better to add gypsum, which is the main ingredient of many commercial clay improvers.

Using organic mulches around trees and shrubs will reduce the cracking of clay soils during the summer and help to conserve moisture.

You can try adding sand, grit or gravel to reduce the percentage of clay in a heavy soil, but in practise this means adding a large volume of material. It may be feasible for a small area of garden but probably not on a large scale.

For most gardeners, the easiest options are adding organic matter and choosing plants that like clay.

Sandy soils benefit from the addition of organic material, which provides material to hold nutrients and moisture, and are best dug in late winter or early spring.

Prior to planting prepare the site by digging in 1-2 buckets per square metre of moisture-retentive, well-rotted farm manure, garden compost, processed tree bark or leafmould.

When planting in spring add a slow-release fertilizer such as ‘Vitax Q4' or a controlled release material such as‘Osmocote’ to the soil. Then add 2-3 inches of mulch to help reduce water loss.

When planting in autumn use a surface dressing of fertilizer in spring before mulching.

Water thoroughly and regularly during dry periods as sandy soils drain quickly.

You could think about growing a green manure over winter which you can the dig-in during the spring. These are grown to protect soil structure and fertility.

If you have an acid soil, you can raise it's pH by adding ground limestone or dolomitic limestone in the autumn at a rate of 250g/sq.m. Very acid soil may need a second helping the following year but check your soil's pH first as the full effect is felt in the second year. Liming an acid soil helps to make certain plant foods more available, while raising it's pH will enable you to grow a wider range of plants.

It is more difficult to lower soil pH (i.e. reduce alkalinity) than it is to raise the pH (i.e. increase alkalinity). Consequently, lowering the pH is only practical in slightly alkaline soils and is impractical where free lime or chalk is present. In the latter case it would be easier to import some fresh topsoil.

Sulphur is the most commonly-used acidifying material but can take weeks or even months to take effect, especially if applied during the winter. Aluminium sulphate and ferrous sulphate can also be used.

As you can see from the above, there are measures you can take to improve your soil. Whatever your soil type though, dig in organic material to improve the texture of clay soils and to add nutrients to sandy soils.
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