Soil test (381)

by Max Akroyd

I love to hoe. It’s effective, but meditative too. As the blade slices through the weeds, the focus at soil level becomes almost trance-like. With spring sunshine on my shoulders, there’s few better places to be.

Only there’s a troubling thought that won’t go away. The growing year so far has been difficult, either dry and warm or dry and cold. For a garden on a south-facing slope this has been a trial and only certain crops have acquitted themselves well. The brassicas are doing nicely, netted and planted through plastic. The garlic, shallots, early peas and broad beans – all well established before the drought – are in good form. The potatoes were doing fine before the frost took them.


Not bad: cauliflowers....


... and peas


But all the other outdoor sowings represent varying degrees of failure: patchy, infested with weeds and generally a bit hopeless. Some, like the parsnips, sweet peas and onions, I might have salvaged by painstakingly removing the weeds and watering them regularly. But the beetroot, second peas and the onions from seed have plain failed. And I can’t just blame the weather… excuses are inedible. Before the new week brings a big new wave of planting outs there’s a reality check to be undertaken.


Terrible. Onions.


Fact is, my soil just isn’t good enough. By nature, wind-swept and rain-soaked Breton soil only welcomes trees and weeds. For one reason and another, I squandered any small natural advantage in the soil I inherited and accordingly, particularly in the raised beds, there simply isn’t enough heart in the soil to support early sowings in adverse conditions. Even onion sets withered and died. The soil has failed the weather’s test.

With the prospect of this soil entirely supporting my diet in future, the problem can’t be ignored any longer: for anything which can’t be planted in a trench or through plastic I need a soil remedy. The fact that most of the crops in question end up in raised beds doesn’t help much either, you can’t disrupt the structure of said beds with a spot of double-digging!

Ideally, I’d buy a ton of seaweed meal and the like and liberally scatter it around. Not an option on my budget. The books would prescribe a thick mulch of compost. But I don’t do compost, I have pigs! The contents of my compost bin would be a revolting mix of the banana and onion skins which my pigs won’t touch. But I do need a fibrous, rich and spreadable substance to mulch my raised beds with… 

After a bit of thought, these are my available ingredients for this magical, life-saving compound:

  • leaves
  • perennial weeds
  • grass cuttings and other garden waste 
  • manure & straw
  • cardboard and other compostable household odds and ends
  • comfrey

My plan for the week ahead, then, is to create a veritable compost laboratory in the corner of the hangar. Sure it’s going to stink a bit, but the pigs are in there already… The first two things, leaves and perennial weeds will need seperate treatment, thrown into big bins, soaked and left to rot down . The other ingredients will come available when the final trench has been filled on the field. I’m going to build two large, adjacent bays to compost and process this stuff, the idea being to combine all these composted elements together at the end to produce the final mix.

Right, that’s decided. Looks like I might do compost after all. But enough pondering out loud, where did I put that hoe?