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By Alisa Bryce, author of the Organic Soil Guide
As a child I couldn’t care less about gardening, especially azaleas. Mum loved them, but I thought they were the most boring thing in the world.
Whilst I was rather blasé about plants, I was fascinated with the soil. A single teaspoon of soil can contain millions of microbes, fungi and bacteria, and that’s just the microscopic life. Worms, ants, termites and beetles all live in there as well, happily coexisting with the plants we love to grow. Soil is life.
Since studying agriculture and soil science at university I have worked in across Sydney’s parks, gardens, golf courses and sports fields. I have been up to my elbows in every soil type from Bathurst to Bondi, and hundreds of soil assessments revealed one common theme – most people don’t understand their soil.
I was working with people whose job it was to grow magnificent plants and turf, but who also rarely checked their soil. It just didn’t make sense – the soil is where plants access the water and nutrients they need to grow. Poor soil quality translates directly to poor plant health.
Noting the large gap in general soil knowledge, I set out to learn as much as I could, and teach anyone who would listen about organic soil management.
The good news is, soil management is easy, and there are a couple of quick steps you can take to give your garden a running start.
Firstly, make sure you have enough soil! One very common problem in gardens is a shallow topsoil. Plants like at least 250mm depth of soil for their roots to establish and grow.
Over watering is another very common problem (and a little odd considering the water restrictions we were on for the last 10 years). Just because your plant is wilting, doesn’t mean it’s thirsty. On the contrary, many gardeners lose plants to Phytopthora, a root rot disease that thrives when plants are over watered. Before adding more water, dig a small hole and check if the soil is wet. If it’s already moist, more water is not the solution, and your plant is wilting for another reason.
The fantastic thing about organic gardening is you can make your own fertilisers. This can be done in a variety of ways, including composting, mulching and mixing up tonics. One of my favourite tricks is to mix up a tonic of Epsom salts and water. Epsom salts contain magnesium, which is essential for photosynthesis, and sulfate (a form of sulfur), which helps edible plants produce their flavour compounds. This tonic is a cheap and organic way to give your plants two essential nutrients they need to grow and make tasty produce.
These days I enjoy gardening, though I still don’t care for Azaleas. I do find stepping outside to pick ripe tomatoes off the vine, followed by a few basil leaves for a delicious Italian sauce amazingly satisfying.
A certified professional soil scientist, Bryce recently published an easily to understand e-book, the Organic Soil Guide, available for $29 (the cost of just two bags of gypsum) from www.organicsoilguide.com.