28 Aug 2015

Sow-now Know-how to improve your soil

~ Bees adore Phacelia! 


While you're thinking about your spring and winter garden (you were thinking about what to grow over winter, weren't you?), spare a thought for your poor, depleted soil. It's served you well all summer in providing food and flowers, now it's time to return the favour.

I'm currently re-reading Charles Dowding's book on growing winter vegetables so I suspect that I won't have much bare soil as autumn blends into winter. However, there are several (currently unused) areas in the larger community garden that defeat my planting because the soil is overused or poor and dry.

One such space is the north bed containing a few rose bushes.  These bushes have been there for at least a couple of decades. Whatever was planted on the other side of the border has long since gone and even weeds struggle to survive here.  (Surely a bonus!) If I want to make the best use of this space, I have to think about soil improvement.

I was reminded of this when I saw Phacelia tanacetifolia growing at the Skip Garden recently. It's a pretty plant with dainty purple flowers and ferny leaves. It has an extensive root system that puts nutrients back into the soil and helps to break it up thus benefitting the garden. Bees absolutely love the nectar laden flowers and it's gaining popularity as cut flower with a vase life of 5 days. Well known as a green manure, the leaves will bush up to crowd out weeds and provide ground cover shelter for beetles and other beneficials. (Possibly also slugs and snails, something to watch out for.)

Phacelia can be sown up to the end of August. The seeds should germinate within three weeks, then let the plants grow for two to three months. The decision then will be whether to dig the plants into the soil  in late November or let them overwinter for earlier flowers the following spring.  (If your soil is heavy, it will be hard work trying to chop and turn the plants into the soil in spring so best done in early winter.)

I'm going to assume that, like me, you'd want a green manure that wasn't going to make your garden or allotment look like a farmer's field or that the grass needed cutting. So, the other green manure that I would use is clover, either Crimson or Red, both of which can be sown up to the end of September. These are brilliant at drawing nitrogen from the air and dumping it in the soil via their roots. They also have a bulky growth that smothers weeds and pretty flowers in the spring.

As with all flowering green manures, if you don't want them taking over, it's best to dig the plants in before any flowers set seed. It may seem like hard work but just think of the benefits next year!

Seeds of both should be readily available from garden centres or online.

PS. If you're heading to the coast this weekend, seaweed also makes a great fertiliser. I collect washed up* seaweed from the beach after the tide has gone out, pop it into a bucket; back home, wash to remove the salt water, then chop it up and use to mulch around fruit trees and heavy feeders like brassicas.  If you don't want it on your beds, add some to your compost where it will add tons of micro-nutrients to the heap.
* NEVER take seaweed out of the water or from rocks. Once it's been washed up, mid-beach tideline, it's ethically okay to use this.

17 comments:

  1. I love phacelia, but it grows absolutely enormous here, and then flops all over the place! I really should do the seaweed thing though, I have absolutely no excuse, living right by a beach that is rich in washed up seaweed...

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    1. Wow, lucky you for having tall phacelia, it would be great in a vase! And yes, seaweed, another great reason to hit the beach! I love beachcombing after storms …. :o)

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  2. An interesting, and informative, post. I grow phacelia as a flower rather than a green manure. It seems that people have mixed views about these but it often appears that that they don't choose wisely or dig it in early enough. I don't grow anything over the winter and having roughly forked over the vegetable areas will leave them be until the spring. Flighty xx

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    1. I thought I'd let it flower and see what happens. I'd rather have a floral green manure than a grass one, especially as the bed I want to improve is in the community garden so muck spreading possibly wouldn't be so popular.

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  3. Phacelia sounds like a great green manure. I had a nasty experience with a very stubborn grass when I first took on the allotment. I dug it in three times and ended up weeding it all out, it just wouldn't die! Using seaweed is a great tip as well. I always fail dismally at winter vegetables. I shall enjoy seeing what you grow. CJ xx

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    1. I can totally empathise with your grassy frustrations, CJ. I had a small allotment garden when I first moved here and inherited it covered with grass and 3ft high weeds. The grass was the backache inducing bane of my life! Collecting seaweed from the beach is a great gloomy day outdoors activity to share with the kids too!

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  4. I remember my Dad going down to the beach (usually after a storm) to collect kelp to put on his garden. Not sure how effective it was in the garden, but it sure did wonders for the boot of the car...

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    1. I think there's more variety in the types of seaweed washed up after a storm (as well as other interesting beachcombing finds). I like to keep a couple of large plastic lidded boxes in the boot of the car for seaweed collecting - I can't imagine what the car would smell like otherwise - poor you, must have been most offputting to sit there as a child!

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  5. Some of my fellow plot holders sow phacelia Caro but I've always managed to miss the boat. I wonder whether I would get away with an early September sowing. Not quite the same but I've used a seaweed based plant food this year and have been most pleased with it .I'm convinced that it bought my ailing sweet peas back to life. Good luck with your plans for winter crops.

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    1. I would say yes to an early September sowing Anna. I always blur the boundaries slightly when it comes to sowing; I think it's better to use your judgement. The soil is still warm, it's wet but not yet too cold at night. Why not try it? I love that seaweed plant food and have a bottle of it sitting by my watering can - but it's also fun to collect seaweed from the beach which I use to mulch around the fruit trees. Thanks, I wonder what sort of a winter we're in for!

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  6. I bought Phacelia seeds last week and will sow as soon as the rain stops. I think I sowed them this time last year and they came through in September and flowered early in Spring.

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    1. I can't remember what the weather was doing this time last year, Sue. I think it was drier than we're having it now but, slugs aside, I think that's better for seeds. I'm looking forward to seeing the flowers in spring here, too. Will you use yours as cut flowers?

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  7. I've never thought about green manure before, don't know why! I shall certainly give it some thought now....and why oh why haven't I collected seaweed, we're only five minutes from the beach! An interesting post!xxx

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    1. Thanks, Dina! I didn't realise you lived so close to the coast, sounds perfectly lovely. I would imagine that you're far too busy to think about green manure and it may be more appropriate for a larger growing space but, as with my garden, I'm for anything that will provide a food source for the bees. Cxx

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  8. We have always meant to grow green manure over the winter but always left it too late. We first saw Phacelia tanacetifolia at River Cottage in May a few years ago.It looked fantastic in flower in one of their vegetable borders. I'm not sure if it was over wintered or grown in the spring. I bought some seeds from Sarah Raven and used it in the spring on an empty space Iwould have sown some this weekend if the rain hadn't stopped me! We have also collected seed weed and used as a mulch on our vegetable plot. Sarah x

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    1. This winter I hope I've given you a timely reminder, Sarah. I have to admit I've never grown it before but was very taken with the look of it at the Skip Garden recently. I love to collect seaweed from the beach, although I usually only collect enough to mulch around my fruit trees. Caro x

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  9. pretty blue flowers for you and the bees and it does good for the soil! what's not to love?
    your post is useful to me now as i'm emerging from winter - so i'm reflecting on what worked and what I should do next time. I didn't have much luck growing winter veg this year - my first attempt, and its been the coldest winter since the 1960s apparently - but it's making me think i'll just do green manures next year instead.

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Caro x

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