Monday, 17 July 2017

The Soil

Anyone who gardens the same plot for any length of time acquires an intimate knowledge of their soil; where it dries out a bit quicker, more moisture retentive patches, the area that is a little more stoney. The condition of the soil becomes a pre-occupation and there is a concern with improving it whether it is the heaviest clay, shallow and stoney or light and sandy. We have a hungry, dry, sandy soil. An island of sand bordered by the familiar black fen peat evident just a mile away.

The last glacial incursion 10,000 years ago deposited glacial tills of sand and gravel from the melt water of the receding ice. It is these localised sandy deposits that form the soil on our smallholding. This deep sandy soil is easy to work but dries out very quickly. When I dig a hole for a fence post, at about 2 feet depth the soil turns to orange builders' sand. 

These conditions present some real challenges for crop growing. The local arable farmers grow wheat, sugar beet and potatoes. Not surprisingly, amenity turf is also cultivated on the flat fields close by. You don't see many acres of yellow oil seed rape which prefers heavier soil.

Fen Blow
The sandy top soil combined with the flat landscape gives rise to the phenomenon  of the 'Fen Blow' when high winds create a sand cloud dense enough to stop traffic. Farmers lose some of their top soil when this happens but crops can also be damaged by the abrasive action of the sand. They sometimes grow a cover crop, to protect the main crop, which they eventually spray off to minimise the risk of damage. Great arching sprays from the crop irrigators with water pumped from the nearest drain are deployed during the summer months.

The main way I manage the soil is by adding large quantities of bulky organic matter in the form of compost and manure. I'm now virtually self-sufficient in compost and manure because of the various livestock we keep. Our sandy soil can take as much compost as I can supply. The usual rules found in horticultural guides of manure-potatoes-brassicas-roots and manure again in the third year do not apply. Similarly, the practice often advocated of rough digging in the autumn leaving the winter frosts to break down the clods is irrelevant; we don't have clods. I manure all growing areas every year and some crops get an additional mulch. I also have to irrigate by way of a sprinkler for some of the plantings. In this way it is possible to be productive with most crops. You have to do the best with the soil you have got, or move house.


  1. Hi Philip, I found your blog through An English Homestead. I look forward to following your journey on your smallholding.

  2. Thank you Janice. We are well into it now but it will always remain a journey.