How to feed your plants

If you garden organically the aim is to increase soil fertility to a level that provides all the nutrients and moisture your plants need. There are organic fertilisers you can use (see below), but the best way to increase a soil's fertility in the long term is to add well-rotted organic matter which will encourage a build-up of soil micro-organisms and creatures that will, in turn, make the nutrients available to your plants. You can either make your own organic matter by recycling organic waste through a compost heap or 'import' the organic matter from outside in the form of well-rotted farmyard manure, spent mushroom compost, spent hops or even seaweed. A combination of organic fertilisers, regular mulching and organic soil enrichment helps to maintain fertility in my own garden.

Organic matter

An average garden soil contains between one and three percent organic matter, which feed the soil-borne creatures that are essential to maintain the long-term structure and fertility of the soil. The more organic matter that is present in your soil, the more earthworm, insect and micro-organism activity there will be. So it really is worthwhile applying as much well-rotted organic matter as possible – aim to add at least a bucketful per square metre every year. Manure can be bought in bags or in bulk. To find local suppliers try phoning around nearby stables, mushroom farms or allotment societies to see if they can help.

  • Animal waste. Animal manure mixed with bedding straw from stables needs to be stacked and composted for six months before it can be safely added to the soil. It should be brown and sweet-smelling before use. I get mine by the lorry load from a local stables, but if you want small quantities, branded bagged manures each are worth considering.
  • Timber waste. Composted bark each is the most widely available waste product from the timber industry and is ideal for enriching the soil each spring or autumn. Make sure that it has been thoroughly composted, because all uncomposted wood by-products including wood chippings and sawdust take months to decompose and can deplete the soil of nitrogen as they break down. Coarser grades are, for this reason, used as surface mulches rather than being dug in.
  • Brewers' waste. Spent hops, a by-product of the brewing industry, is a great soil improver and is pleasant to handle (provided you wear a peg on your nose!). Often it is given away free if you pick it up yourself, or larger deliveries can be arranged at a cost.
  • Mushroom compost. If you are lucky enough to live near a mushroom grower you may have a ready-made source of cheap organic waste. Bear in mind that it will contain pesticide and fertiliser residues as well as chalk, so is not suitable for lime-hating plants or devout organic gardeners.
  • Garden waste. Well-rotted material from a garden compost heap or from bins composting autumn leaves into leafmould are ideal for adding to the soil or using as a garden mulch. Check with your local authority for community compost schemes in your area if you have no room to compost your own material.

Home-made liquid manure

This is very easy, very nutritious and smart. Fill a metal or plastic drum with water. Half-fill a hessian sack with manure. Tie up the sack firmly. Suspend the sack in the water – an easy way to do this is by suspending the sack from a plank laid across the top of the container. Leave for two weeks, remove sack, put a lid on the drum and it's done and ready to use. This amount will last for a long time, so it's easy and worthwhile to make less. The liquid can be used neat, but the soil must be wet beforehand. This makes sure the liquid manure is easily absorbed into the soil.