The holy grail of gardening is soil that's fertile and high in biological activity, has good water-holding capacity, is well aerated and drains freely.
Whether soils are sandy or heavy clays, a little work now will pay dividends in the future - get the soil right and everything else will follow.
Soils vary as much as the gardeners that cultivate them. They are composed of five major components, each in varying degrees, which influences how well soils will perform to support plant growth.
The inorganic matrix of soils is derived from minerals of weathered parent material, such as sandstone, basalt or granite. The type of parent material determines the texture of the soil, sandy, clay etc.
Organic matter originates from the decomposing parts of plants and animals, it plays an important role in increasing soil fertility and improving soil structure. It aids in soil drainage and aeration, while increasing microbial activity and water-holding capacity.
Soil water is important to keep plants growing and as soon as water is applied to soils, chemical reactions begin releasing nutrients in a soluble form for plants to access.
Organisms occur in their billions in soils, from microbes such as fungi and bacteria, to macro-organisms such as worms, ants, fly and beetle larvae.
Gases in soils fill the pore spaces when drainage has ceased and provide the oxygen required by plant roots to respire.
All soils require some improvement to grow exceptional crops, and organic matter is the answer to achieving a fertile well-structured soil. The key is to use a diverse range of organic matter to achieve good results.
Home compost, mushroom compost, recycled organics, chicken, cow, sheep, horse manure and worm castings are all ideal soil improvers. Some of these materials can be purchased bagged and milled at your local nursery or garden centre.
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Organic soil improvers should be incorporated into soil thoroughly to develop a fine tilth. Once initial cultivation has been achieved, rake over the area removing any stones or hard clods and level the surface in which you will soon be planting.
Cultivating garden soils now through the addition of organic matter will get new spring plantings off to a great start. Leave newly prepared soils for a few weeks before planting and check the pH, it might need amending, but that's another story.
- John Gabriele is a horticulture teacher with a love for green spaces.