Improving soil from scratch

When our apartment building was finished, the contractors delivered a huge truckload of soil to fill in the gaps around the building left after the excavation. Of course, what they carted in was simply earth and rocks dug out of their next building site, soil that was devoid of any organic nutrients and which had probably been weighed down under an older building for decades. Certainly nothing had been grown in it for much longer than that. Making a garden on plots of land around new buildings is a daunting task, but it is not necessary to ship in large, expensive quantities of compost unless you want instant results. There are many things that you can do yourself to enrich poor soil organically, taking the first few months in your new home – or even the time before you move in – to prepare it for planting. Green manure If you are relatively lucky, as we were, the soil might sprout a thick carpet of nettles after the first rains (tsouknidha in Greek). A gold mine for gardeners, nettles are «nitrogen fixers» – plants that can convert atmospheric nitrogen into useful nutrients for the soil. Nitrogen is responsible for the vegetative growth of the shoots and leaves of a plant and, after oxygen, carbon and hydrogen, which together account for 96 percent of the elements required for healthy plant growth, leads the rest of the list that also includes phosphorus, potassium and less than 1 percent each of magnesium, calcium, sulfur, iron, zinc, copper, manganese, boron and molybdenum. So, after pulling up our nettles, we started feeding them through a mulcher to break them down into small enough particles to dig into the soil, until someone told us that putting them in a large bin filled with water resulted in a «nettle fertilizer tea» which could be poured directly onto the soil in undiluted form after a few days. For more long-lasting supplies, or to cover a larger area, it can be kept «stewing» for weeks, and then diluted before being added to the garden. The only disadvantage is that the brew has by then become somewhat malodorous, so it needs to be kept in the furthest corner of the garden (unless that puts it near neighbors’ windows!), and covered with a tight-fitting lid. The nettle dregs can be used again and eventually dug deep into the soil to enrich it further. Nettle tea is a great pick-me-up, but dry, crumbly excavation soil needs a lot more feeding if it is going to support a garden. Probably the quickest and least labor-intensive way to improve poor soils is to sow green manure crops (known in Greek as psychanthi and available at most seed stores). They should be dug back into the soil before they seed (so you don’t get another crop next year when you don’t want it) to add vital nutrients and convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil. These natural soil improvers, which grow in places that are not fertile enough for other plants and help prevent any nutrients in poor soil being washed away, include vetch (vikos in Greek) garden peas (bizeli) Vicia faba (winter field beans), Vicia sativa (winter tares), fava bean (koukia), chickpea (revithi) lupins (lupina), varieties of Trifolium (clovers, trifylli) and Medicago sativa (alfalfa). Annual rye, oats and winter barley may also be used for a cover crop. Nitrogen-fixing plants have a distinct advantage because they can flourish in places which are not fertile enough for other plant species, giving you the advantage of improving the fertility of the soil at the same time. In the autumn, the ones to plant are alfalfa, Trifolium hybridum (Alsike clover), Trifolium pratense (red clover), Secale cereale (grazing rye), Phacelia tanacetifoliaand Medicago lupulina, which can be cut in spring and dug into the soil. In spring, sow Lupinus angustifolius (bitter lupin), Fagopyrum esculentum (buckwheat), Trigonella foenum graecum (fenugreek) and Trifolium incarnatum (crimson clover), all of which need warmer temperatures. Compost heap Another important step is to make a compost heap or pit. If there is not much space, smaller compost bins are available on the market. Made of dark-green durable plastic, they have narrow air vents around the sides. A pit is less visible than a heap. Dig the pit at the furthest end of where a plant bed is to be, then, when the compost has broken down into soil, move onto the next section. However, this is a slow way to make soil over a large area. Compost piles can take grass and shrub cuttings, leaves, any soft plant matter, raw vegetable and fruit peel (apart from citrus fruits, which take forever to decompose), any uncooked vegetable or fruit matter, coffee grounds, tea leaves and tea bags. No animal products should be used. When it is rotted down, it should form crumbly, sweet-smelling fertile soil that can then be added to the garden. The leaves of deciduous trees should be raked up, packed into bin liners, and stowed away in a dark corner until well rotted down as another good source of nutrients for next year’s plants. Wood ash can be a valuable source of lime, potassium and trace elements, but it should not be used on soils that are alkaline (as most soil is in this part of the world). It is excellent for adding to the compost heap in between layers of other organic material to add nutrients and help maintain a neutral condition, the best environment to help microorganisms break down organic materials. Nature’s gardeners And to really get all that good soil into top condition, help aerate it and open up channels for roots to spread, no garden is complete without its earthworms. These wriggly creatures swallow great quantities of soil, digest it, extract its food value and expel the residue as worm castings, which are 5 times richer in nutrients than the top layer of soil. Earthworms are one of the most effective agents for loosening and aerating the soil. As they burrow, they open up passageways, lined with the earthworm castings, for roots to grow. They also create channels, which increase the capacity for the soil to hold water. Increased earthworm population and richer, more productive soil are mutually dependent. When the soil around trees, bushes, plants or in the garden or other growing areas is impregnated with earthworms or earthworm spawn, it should be also fertilized regularly. Earthworm spawn is found in a organic compost «Epi Gis» available at commercial nurseries, including the «Geoponos» Garden Center, Marathonos Avenue, Pallini, tel 210.666.6441.