it keeps its quality much fetter.

Outdoor Soil in the UK

For the outdoor gardener the ecology of soil cannot be overlooked. Soil is everywhere and surrounds us all. Briefly I shall outline the geophysical, climatic and environmental factors that influence soil type within the British Isles.

By LazyStrain

By LazyStrain

Microclimate has a direct influence over the plant-life that a soil site may potentially support species and fungi. All things considered,


The transitory nature of the British Isles means that the visible landscape is ever changing. Dynamical geology concerns the nature of these changes. Structural geology studies the result of these changes upon the Earth's structure. Both disciplines are of paramount importance to the soil scientist, since she/he studies the relationships that occur between the nebula and the atomic. As the symbiotic link between bedrock and vegetation, soil acts as the fabric within which, mineral deposits and living organisms coexist. Geomorphic stratification within the British Isles did not happen overnight. Geological processes were some 25 million years in the making; a gradual process fashioned by the climate to create the rawest features within the visible landscape. To quickly generalize there are three major rock types in the British Isles. These are igneous rock (magma), metamorphic rock (deformation), and sedimentary rock (accumulation). Soil type is directly related to the underlying bedrock of a particular landscape.


The British climate is extremely temperamental. Where it is raining one day, it will be sunny the next. Average annual rainfall across the British Isles is 41inch, although periods of drought, exceeding 14 days without rainfall, are not uncommon. Areas in the West of the isles are generally wetter than areas in the East (which are sheltered from the Irish Sea and the Atlantic Ocean). In general winter temperatures are milder in the southwest, whereas summer temperatures are higher in the southeast. The 'North Atlantic Drift' maintains this fluctuation in climate by creating a gulf of warm air in winter. Ground frosts may however occur in southern Britain as late as the end of April, and it isn't unheard-of for it to snow in May and June.

Winter frosts play an important role in breaking down organic matter within cultivated soils. Likewise they help to control harmful soil organism and pests, including bacteria. Spring showers it is not surprising that the climate plays a major role in determining local soil conditions.

Soil profile and formation

Soil profile depends upon four major factors: parent rock type, climate, vegetation/ fauna, and soil age. When combined these factors constitute a soils overall formation or makeup. Soil formation is governed by a number of extra components including; available minerals, organic matter, living organisms, water and air. Soil structure is further determined by the constitutional components of sand, silt and clay, in varying parts.

The organic matter in soil derives from plant material and animal material (including manure) that is fresh, rotting, or decayed. Humus is also found in organic matter, although it's often difficult to identify.

bring soils to 'full capacity'; when all gravitational water has been removed and water-drainage has stopped. Soils are at this stage holding the maximum amount of water possible. Summer conditions reverse this process by drying soil, cracking its surface, and allowing air to penetrate the soil structure itself. Autumn winds blow leafs and other organic debris back into the soil, therefore adding to the constant cycle of decay and renewal. The mild climate of autumn also gives rise to a host of anaerobic soil activity, including those of primitive alga

Sandy soils contain large mineral particles and do not absorb water. For this reason sandy soils are drought prone, free draining and cold in winter. These soils are easily cultivated, but have a poor structure, poor nutrient holding abilities and are naturally infertile due to an absence of organic matter and available nutrients. Theoretically, silt is the sediment deposited by rivers and seas. In horticultural terms however, silty soils sit partway between sand and clay.

Therefore relative amounts of sand and clay constitute silt soils (which are often described as loam).

Clay soils contain small mineral particles and are water retentive. Clay soils are therefore drought resistant, glue-like in character, and slow to warm in spring. These soils are difficult to cultivate and are easily compacted; yet they have a stable structure when dry. The negatively charged surfaces of clay particles do however hold positively charged plant foods, which are freely available under certain conditions.

Calcareous soils that are based on either chalk or limestone bedrock are alkaline, free draining, and sometimes prone to drought. Due to their distinctive character and natural fertility these soils were cultivated by early agriculturists. Large quantities of organic matter are however required in order to keep these soils in good condition.

Peaty soils are presented in two types, Sphagnum moss peat and sedge peat. These soils are rich in organic matter, low in pH and high in available N (nitrogen). Fenland peat (a sedge peat), once drained and cultivated becomes excellent soil.

Organic matter

The organic matter in soil derives from plant material and animal material (including manure) that is fresh, rotting, or decayed. Humus is also found in organic matter, although its indistinguishable (almost jelly-like) character means that it is often difficult to identify. Organic matter provides soil with a source of nutrients, which are later made available to plants. These nutrients are gradually released when organic matter breaks down. The bacterial activity within soil is dramatically improved with increased levels of organic matter because bacteria live in and eat upon organic debris. Likewise, in frequently cultivated soil, organic matter decomposes quicker due to increased levels of oxygen. This is because oxygen directly aids the aerobic bacteria within soil. In this way there is a close relationship between organic matter and soil life activity itself.

To measure the organic matter level of a soil, a soil sample is first weighed. Then burnt in a muffle furnace. The weight lost equates to the amount of organic matter present. The typical range of organic matter content in soils in the British Isles varies dramatically depending upon landscape. This difference may be between 5% (normal soil) and 40% (peat bog). In general however, soil structure can always be improved via the introduction of increased amounts of organic matter (in the form of compost). As a rough guide the darker the coloration of a soil, the greater its ability to hold plant foods. These darker soils also warm quicker in spring.

Soil acidity and crop tolerance

The tolerance of crops to particular pH's depends upon the soil type and the relative availability of plant foods.

In other words, soil condition is the most important factor in determining a plant's 'ability' to either fail or succeed within any given environ. Successive generations of plants may however adapt to the specific acidity or alkalinity of a particular location. But generally speaking most plants prefer a pH that is relatively neutral. However the availability of ALL major nutrients is increased when an acid soil is limed. This alone, accounts for the biggest benefit derived from liming soil.

An intensive commitment to the earth reaps its own rewards

Plants requiring medium pH (5.5 to 6.5) such as wild carrots, raspberry and rose indicate a preference for having originated in habitats of this particular soil pH. Soils with a lower pH (4.0 to 5.5) may often support Calcicoles (lime loving plants) that require a higher pH (6.0- 7.5), whereas in contrast, soils with a high pH are never suited to Calcifuges (lime hating plants).

The pH preferences of common native species may be used as a rough guide to identifying the pH of a particular soil. Acid loving Calcifuges include; Birch, Bog myrtle, Wild cherry, Heather, Rowan and Scots pine. Alkaline loving Calcicoles, on the other hand, include Alder, Crab apple, Elder, Hawthorn, Whitebeam and Yew. When several of these species are found in one location, there is a strong likelihood that the soil pH is similar to that preferred by these same plants. Thus an area containing Crab apple, Dogwood, Elder and Yew will have a soil pH around 7.5. A quick observation of the local landscape will therefore give you an approximate idea about the surrounding soil pH.

Soil alterations and amendments

Every now and then you will be required to make alterations and amendments to soil sites. Basically, reasonable quantities of organic matter are needed in order to keep most soils well maintained and healthy. Under sandy soil conditions, for example, large amounts of organic matter can help prevent erosion by binding sand particles together. In contrast, under hydromorphic conditions the addition of sand to clay soil will aid drainage and make cultivation easier.

One of the most valuable sources of organic matter available is manure. When adding manure to a soil site it is always advisable to use old manure that is well rotted. If possible avoid adding lots of straw alongside the manure, since this often has a negative effect upon the soil structure and takes several years to decompose. Manures should be applied at least six months prior to planting. The only exception to this rule is the use of powdered guano and guano tea. Guano may be applied to soil sites as and when required. The use of rabbit manure (which is available anyplace there are rabbits) can also be extremely beneficial early on during the growing season. Both manure and guano applications, are however, in the long term, short lived. Whilst manure and guano do add some structure and nutrient content to outdoor soils, their major disadvantage is that amendments are only ever temporary, and available nutrients are easily leached.

Green manures, on the other hand, are rich in available nitrates and hold for a long time in soil substrates. Legume crops are often cultivated with the express purpose of being worked back into the soil. This does two things. Firstly, it enriches the soil structure. Secondly, once decomposed legume crops encourage symbiotic organisms (rhizobia). Wild cultigens that directly fix nitrates back into the soil include nettles (dead/hemp/ stinging) and clover. It is also worth noting that non-legumes (those with high amounts of carbon) consume nitrogen in large amounts. As companion plants such species should be avoided!

Soil sterilization or 'pasteurization' is another option, although the use of chemicals such as Basamid and Methyl Bromide, must be seriously balanced against the natural ecology of a given environ (not to mention their effect upon the ozone!). Another method of sterilization involves steam heating soil to 65 c, but for obvious reasons this is impractical on a large scale. Interestingly a release of nitrates takes place in the period following sterilization. Beneficial soil organisms are also given the chance to compete with (and take over from) harmful organisms during this time. The disadvantages of soil sterilization are however plain to see. Sterilization results in a major loss of beneficial bacteria, fungi and insects, all of which contribute to the individual morphology of a particular soil. Root toxins are also released which without aeration is damaging to plant life.

Perhaps the best way to aid both the structure and the nutrient content of a pre-existing soil site is to add compost. Composting is free and nontime consuming (not to mention an environmentally friendly and ecological way of revitalizing old soil). Suitable composts may be purchased from the local garden center, but the dedicated horticulturist prefers to make his or her own. The secret to composting is to 'layer' the ingredients evenly. A little bit of kitchen waste one day, some grass cuttings the next. Then some shedded-paper, some old indoor soil, hedge-clippings, pistachio shells, some kitchen waste, and so on. In about a year's time the compost will have a rich texture and will be ready for use.

A note on weeds and rhizobia

A weed is a plant that grows in the wrong place or where it is not wanted. Weeds take nutrients from soil in large quantities and may suffocate surrounding plants with their extensive root systems. They compete for light and underground water. Several weed species play alternative host to a plethora of local pests and diseases. The presence of weed seed in soil may also lower the quality of a crop. On the plus side however, many weed species such as singing nettles, gooch grass and clover, encourage beneficial soil bacteria, most notably rhizobia. Rhizobia particularly invade the root nodules of legume plants; directly fixing nitrogen compounds into soils in exchange for plant sugars. These beneficial soil bacteria convert ammonia into nitrate and require the following conditions: air, warmth, organic matter and moisture. Interestingly, many nitrogen-based fertilizers contain ammonia, which is in turn converted into nitrate and made available to plants.

Choosing a site

When choosing a planting site, there are several issues that need to be considered. Firstly, What are the local soil conditions? How easy will the land be to cultivate and manage? Is the site situated in a suitable location? Secondly, What are the local microclimatic conditions? Microclimate has a direct influence over the plant-life that a soil site may potentially support. For this reason it is always advisable to avoid areas that are exposed to prevailing winds, hydromorphic (wet) soils, and areas that are prone to drought. Thirdly, we should consider the local flora that surrounds a site. Is the surrounding vegetation evergreen or deciduous? Are nearby crops annual, if so when are they harvested? Which noticeable features within the landscape are seasonal and which are not? All of these questions must be addressed prior to planting.

Finally, we must reflect upon the impact of our own activity upon the immediate landscape. As conscious ecologists it is important that people keep peace with nature; which includes minimizing any interference with local flora and fauna. Extensive systems of cultivation often have a negative effect upon the ecology of everything, including soil. For this reason, less is often more in the long term. The smart horticulturalist therefore balances the availability of materials against the pace of nature itself. They do not challenge nature. Rather they challenge their own ability to adapt to the prevailing conditions, and succeed, because nature always wins.

The best way to obtain a detailed analysis report of a particular soil site is to contact an agricultural college or specializing university. If you provide a soil sample, alongside an accurate account of the samples' origin, most soil scientists will happily conduct analysis for free, since this adds depth to their personal study. Remember to be polite (and discerning) if you expect results.

Final thoughts

At first glance the subject of soil science is a dull one. But until you've really got your hands dirty, conducted your own soil experiments, smelt your own compost, and generally had fun with muck, you haven't lived. If you see a child playing with soil, one thing is immediately apparent. The fact that they are happy getting messy. I suppose it is during these early years that some people develop a fascination about soil; the way it breathes, drinks, swells and then contracts. For some people it is the 'magic' of soil-life itself, the cosmology of invertebrate and bacteria that keep everything in flow with nature. For others, it is simply a medium in which plants grow.

Once we begin to understand the complex geophysical relationships that occur between bedrock and soil structure, between soil structure and plant life, we begin to understand the function of soil ecology itself. As horticulturalist, an intensive commitment to the earth reaps its own rewards: broadening our botanical knowledge, crafting our culture, fueling our imagination. In the long term, this adds an immeasurable sense of depth to our outdoor horizons.

Soft Secrets' Sedimentation Test

A simple ' Sedimentation Test' can provide very accurate measurements of soil particle size by calculating the time taken for particles to settle through a given depth of water. Thereafter an 'approximate' measurement of the constitutional components of sand silt and clay present in a specific soil sample may be judged.

To conduct a 'Sedimentation Test', take a jam jar and measure 5cm from the base upward, marking the jar at every 1cm with a pen. Then fill the jar with 5cm of local soil (you may need to sieve the soil a little first). Fill the rest of the jar with water and stand it on the side for 10 minutes. Place a lid on the jar and shake vigorously for 2-3 minutes. Stand again and watch what happens.

Remember sand particles are largest so they will settle first. Silt particles, which are marble shaped, will settle later just above the finest layer of sand. Clay particles will be held in suspension. Organic material floats to the water surface. After 20 minutes or so, you can then measure the relative parts of sand and silt (1cm = 20% approx.) Clay particles and organic matter represent the remaining percentage between them.

This is a low-tech test, but it is surprising how many reputable horticulturists apply this method to their 'high-science'. The major benefit of the 'Sedimentation Test' is that it can provide the outdoor horticulturist (and the backwoods-person) with the opportunity to conduct quick 'field-tests' over many different soil sites.

An intensive commitment to the earth reaps its own rewards

Until you've really got your hands dirty, conducted your own soil experiments, smelt your own compost, and generally had fun with muck, you haven't lived



Building growing rooms and installing all the proper equipment can be a time consuming matter. People not always think about safety. As a result, accidents happen, varying from a little current surge to a visit from the local fire brigade. That is why you have to pay major attention to the aspects of safety!

Organic Gardeners Composting

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