My next-door nieghbour is a knowledgeable soul. She says that what I need is ‘muck’, and when I seem bemused, explains that what she really means is manure, or compost, or both
I am truly an ‘amateur’ gardener, and didn’t know anything before I started on my enormous patch of elephant-grass and weeds, which constituted the back garden. I had the tools, and broke my back in digging over the heavy, clay-rich ground, but how was I to persuade a real garden to grow?
My next-door nieghbour is a knowledgeable soul. She says that what I need is ‘muck’, and when I seem bemused, explains that what she really means is manure, or compost, or both. Waxing lyrical, she even mentions ‘green’ manure, to ‘break up the soil’. With images of enormous piles of cow-pats flashing through my overloaded brain, I resolve to find out more.
She also said that earthworms are a sure indicator of how healthy the ground is.
The more there are the better. Their constant movement through the earth helps to break it up, as does ‘Green Manure’, which, it turns out, is truly organic composting.
Simply sew plants in the newly turned earth, which serve no other purpose than to be dug back in! Grazing rye, for instance, forms a weed-smothering carpet, with large root systems, which help break up the earth, and should be planted between September and November. Mustard helps put Nitrogen back into the ground. Plant between May and August.
Soil, it turns out, is not just a breeding ground for weeds, but a whole world of living things that feed off one another. Without healthy soil, plant growth is poor, so how do I make my clay-pit healthy? Humus is the main key to fertile land. Making up some 5% of soil content, it is produced by decaying organic matter, and the bacteria which help to speed this decay produce a sort of ‘gum’ which binds the soil together. Sandy, or clay soils may often be lacking in humus, but there is a lot that you can do.
Memory recalls that used tea-leaves ‘did the garden good’. Compost of sorts? Good earth should be brown in colour with a crumbly texture, as is the ready-made stuff from the garden-centre, but you’d need to win the pools to replace all your garden with it in one go, so why not make your own?
Composting needs to be an ongoing activity, and you need to build a compost bin. Made of something solid, like wood, it should be about four feet square by three deep. Lines of old bricks at the bottom help air to circulate ( Very important for the best results), and there should be two compartments, one for compost in current use and the other for fresh material.
Household waste, such as potato-peelings, onion-skins and old vegetables can be used, as well as grass-cuttings, dead plants and animal waste, especially manure. Layers of material should be about 8” deep, and ‘accelerator’ particles, available from any garden retailer, help to speed the process. When the compost-bin is full, cover with thick plastic, or old carpet, and leave to rot, but don’t forget to moisten it or to fork it over now and again.
On average the process will take 3 to 5 months in Summer, twice as long in Winter. There is a school of thought that you don’t need to wait so long if you use a ‘Tumbling-bin’, which is a large container, usually plastic, on a swivel-stand. By half-filling this and turning it right over every other day, apparently, you can have good compost ready in under a month.
Aerobic bacteria, it seems, do the work in such bins, and I couldn’t help seeing images of thousands of these tiny creatures, complete with headbands, vests and trainers, working out in a continuous frenzy of activity! Such bacteria need a higher level of Oxygen, apparently, than those in static bins, which is why they work so much more quickly.
Armed with so much information, I set about transforming my own private wasteland into something I could really be proud of, installing static compost-bin, tumbling variety, and large water-butts which are one-third filled with cow and sheep manure, before being filled with water. Wonderful liquid fertiliser in no time, rest assured, and it doesn’t stink if you don’t get too close.
By gradually introducing ‘muck’ to what was heavy clay, I began to see the change within months, and honestly never looked back. Apple and cherry trees thrive amongst the sea of hyacinths, tulips and dahlias, while the fences struggle under the wieght of burgeoning clematis and honeysuckle I am still very much an amateur gardener, but at least I now know that for a piece of land which looks at first like irretrievable stony ground, ‘muck’ really can mean soil-vation.