Sunday, 2 March 2008


Last night I was talking to a friend of mine who lives in Hobart, Tasmania, and, of course, we got onto our vegetable gardens. Her summer is finished there and she has pulled everything out and is ready to put in autumn and winter things. But she wasn't sure what to do with her soil for a quick fix before the next planting.

This is the situation we all find ourselves in between seasons - impatience to get on with the next crop but knowing we should build the soil to get the best out of those new plants. This is not a post about leaving some of everything to go to seed or about having a look at nature to help you plan or about how you should have made everything into compost during summer so you don't have to buy stuff. This is a list of a few things that I know are excellent products, suitable for our soils and worthy of a place in our vegetable gardens. (Sorry Pattie for being hypocritical and for writing that comment on your post recently!)Ideally of course we wouldn't buy in anything and I feel totally inadequate when I do but there is no point growing pathetic vegetables either so be generous to your garden and it will be generous to you.

Blood and Bone : not all are made equal. I only use Manutec - the most expensive but the only one I know of that is pure 100% blood and bone - you can tell when you feel it and see it.
Bought compost: does not have all the microorganisms of home-made but adds organic matter to your soil. I only buy it from SA Composters (composts all garden refuse from the Marion Council area). There are several grades from the very fine, 100% organic, which I use for seed-raising, to a slightly coarser one that I buy by the cubic metre for digging into the garden and then there is a coarse one for mulch, which I have never bought. You can get a big trailer load for $32 from Lonsdale or have it delivered, if you want enough.
Minerals: these are things that come from rocks, generally. I use Alroc - crushed basalt, granite and all sorts of others that I can't remember. It adds all the things that may be missing from organic matter.This is available from The Norwood Garden Centre and their other shop at Fullarton, and no doubt elsewhere.
Mushroom compost: something I haven't had for a while but which is good to alternate with the SA Composters compost. It is a bit alkaline, evidently, but since I use so much organic matter in my soil, it all evens itself out and it is lovely stuff, I think.You can easily get this by the trailer load or have it delivered.
Pellets: There are lots of brands of pelletised manures and all sorts of things and generally I avoid them because of all the processing. However,they are good for adding annually to pots. The only one I would recommend is Neutrog's because it is made here for our soils, unlike some that have lime added for people in the eastern states (and maybe in the Adelaide hills too) who have acidic soil.
Bagged manures: Peter Cundall reckons they are the go but I pick up large, used bags, full of raw manure from the side of the road around some of the farms in the hills and bring them home and use them in my compost heap.

Here is what I would do when the summer crops are finished if I didn't have any choice but to buy some of the above:

Into a wheelbarrow full of SA Composters stuff or mushroom compost (or a mixture of both) add
1/2 cup Alroc and a large cup of blood and bone. Mix well with your hands so you can feel the warmth and texture and you can smell life, in the mix. Peter Cundall would also add 1/2 bag composted manure but as I said I always have some of my own available (oh really? No, you know what I mean!). Tip this on and spread out to cover a couple of square metres. Fork in. Water well, before planting anything. Coming into cooler weather I don't use any mulch because I want all the winter sun to warm the soil - I won't be doing this for a couple of weeks yet. Or, I do it now and don't plant out yet. All my early seedlings are being potted up until the heat is well and truly over....I need to do another few posts about some of these things.

Comments and posts by others about all this are welcome. There are many, many views and this is just one that is particularly suitable for those who live on city-sized blocks in Australia without the space or maybe the desire or fitness to be as hard-core as some others.

Here is some further information I thought I would add after reading Patrick's comment.

I totally agree with you, Patrick. But Australia has the oldest, most eroded and depleted soils in the world. That is why our country is so flat - time has weathered us down. Compared to Europe and the USA we are a total desert. Remember 7500 BC when everyone was sowing crops all over the world? Why didn't the Aborigines start in Australia? They probably tried and found that the soil wasn't good enough! After all, they lived here for 40,000 years before white people came. This is what the first settlers to Australia found too when all their crops failed and they literally nearly died of starvation. I like to sow green manure, make my own compost etc etc because here, especially in South Australia, we have to do something - always trying to keep up the fertility! We are a country of about 23 million people on a land mass the size of the USA and many times larger than the whole of Europe. Nearly all live in a few cities and towns around the coast. Why? The soil and the climate are not conducive to making a living for many people in the outback. Only around the coast and in certain fertile pockets can crops be grown or animals fed. This post was written for people local to me, it was not meant to be advice for the whole world! Funny how Australians know a lot about the rest of the world but the rest of the world knows nothing about us...Stay tuned for more history and geography lessons!


Erica said...

Kate, thanks for your words of wisdom. I'll go looking around and see what I can find, my soil can only improve and I want great vegetables!

Kate said...

Erica! The Hobart friend in person! Welcome back to Adelaide via this blog; I'd rather be where you are though!

Patrick said...

Hi Kate,

While I think we aren't too far off on the ideological divide here, I don't really agree with you that these things contribute much to a healthy garden.

When you have specific situations or problems that require attention you might use some of these things. For example if you are starting a new garden and need some organic material, I could see how you might buy some. If you have some specific information about other deficiencies like results of a soil test or you've 'read your weeds' ( than I could see adding manure, bone/blood meal, minerals, pellets or so on, as a temporary measure. I could also see feeding a potted plant.

Beyond these things or other specific issues you might address by adding something to your garden, adding the things on your list won't improve anything and could damage your garden. For example, most plants will be stressed and possibly killed if they get too much nitrogen.

Also like you mentioned to me a few days ago about dealing with pest problems by encouraging biodiversity and beneficial elements, you can also disrupt natural balances in your soil by adding things, that can cause other problems later on. People in the US sometimes call this feeding your soil (for example with homemade compost) instead of your plants.

I come across many gardeners that get wrapped up in adding these kinds of things, because they have always done it and are afraid to stop because they think they're necessary. In reality they have never tried not adding them, and don't know they aren't necessary. Especially when you have been adding a lot of nitrogen, then stop, everything is less green and you can easily think your plants are suffering when they're not.

It's easy to find another gardener who will tell you what to add to your garden. It's harder to find one who will tell you what not to add to your garden...

In my opinion, in the absence of specific problems, the only thing your garden needs your own homemade compost, crop rotation if you are growing annual food crops and occasional planting of nitrogen fixing plants.

I also never add manure to my compost unless I'm lacking nitrogen and I need to make it go faster, and then only the smallest amount possible. If I raised my own animals, it would be a different story.

Pattie said...

Oh, Patrick, I hope you're right because I like that minimalist approach. My head explodes tryig to remember all the stuff I'm supposed to be doing but aren't!

And Kate, I love your passion. You know that. And I know Farmer D will appreciate the input because he's always trying to do things even better.

Kate said...

I totally agree with you, Patrick. But Australia has the oldest, most depleted soils in the world. Compared to Europe and the USA we are a total desert. Remember 7500 BC when everyone was sowing crops all over the world? Why didn't the Aborigines start in Australia? The soil wasn't good enough!This is what the first settlers to Australia found when all their crops failed and they literally nearly died of starvation. I like to sow green manure, make my own compost etc etc but here, especially in Adelaide, we have to do something! Funny how Australians know a lot about the rest of the world but the rest of the world knows nothing about us...Stay tuned for more history and geography lessons!

Deb said...

That may be so Kate but with every moment the earth gets older and weeker. In the 1920's when the farmers approached Rudolf Steiner for assistance they did so because their organic farming systems where failing. New fertility needs to be created the substance, humus. when you make compost its not only a breakdown process but also more importantaly a build up process. Gardeners in general put far too many things to their soil. You also have to question where and how they are made and how far they have travelled to get to you.The challenge is to make your system selfsustaining.Sure you may have to import some fertility in the begining and this should be seen as medicine for a sick and week system.The quality of your soil also reflects in the quality of produce comming from it. There are many home gardeners whos produce I would not eat.
Lets face it we live in a consumer world , the larger picture of this is seen as those feeling compelled to buy in products for their gardens that the gardens don't need. If you listen to talkback gardening shows you can garentee that at least 2/3rds of the reasons for the problems is over fertilizing. Another well known TV show uses so much manure and fertilizer its truely wrong.
I don't know how to make a link here but check out my artical on dispelling organic myths Nirvana or garden,kitchen &veranda I don't rember exactly where it is.
Every gardener has their own ideas and ways but we should all look to developing a self sustainaing system asclose to a closed system as we can.

Patrick said...

I can see we're all in agreement here.

Kate, I'm looking forward to those geography and history lessons!