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Soil Health

Interview with Steven Bailey, Soil Scientist.

Interview with Steven Bailey, Soil Scientist.  

1. What is your background and soils expertise?

I am a Soil Scientist, retired but still dabbling in the art. I started out by taking a degree in Soil Science at Newcastle upon Tyne University, then took a Master’s Degree in Soil Science and Plant Nutrition at the University of Queensland, Australia.

I’ve worked in Soil Science all my life, briefly with archaeologists in Scotland, but mostly in agriculture and horticulture. Firstly, this was with the consultancy ADAS and then with the government agency Natural England. In ADAS I spent a long spell at the old Woodthorne office, on Wergs Road, in their Plant Climic. Here, in a team including a Plant Pathologist and an Entomologist (a specialist in insects and other creepy crawlies), we ran a service diagnosing all sorts of plant problems for farmers and growers. These ranged from, “I have 10,000 Poinsettias ready for Christmas and they’re dying of something,” to “Someone is poisoning my hedge!”

2. Why is knowing about soil important?

As gardeners, soil is our most precious resource. If the soil is sick, our plants will be sick. But if the soil is healthy, gardening is so much easier.

3.  What is the top thing a gardener needs to know about their soil?

In the absence of any laboratory analysis, which can be very expensive, I would say the two things which affect a soil’s management most are  its texture and its structure. Texture is how heavy (clayey) or light (sandy) the soil is and it profoundly affects workability and moisture retention. But structure is equally important, because it is a measure of whether the soil is in good heart, ie. does it readily break up into small, stable pieces, (“aggregates”). Good soil structure is necessary for good root growth, drainage and aeration, whatever the texture.

4. How is digging beneficial to soil structure?

This is really topical. The surprise answer is – it isn’t beneficial! Recently, people have realised that, contrary to traditional practice, inverting or deeply cultivating the soil is often bad. “Soil Health” is the buzz-phrase at the moment, along with Climate Emergency. If the soil is inverted or deeply cultivated

· many of the soil’s beneficial organisms, (from worms, to beneficial fungi and tiny predators that eat pests), are  are harmed

· the loss of soil organic matter by oxidation is increased, releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and

· long-term, stable soil structure is reduced

Using these principles, more and more farmers practice “Regenerative agriculture,” in which the soil is disturbed as little as possible and a green plant cover always maintained. Of course, you can’t do this for all crops – root crops especially – but for others, such as brassicas, try cultivating the soil a little less.

5. What are your tips for keeping soil in tiptop shape?

o Only dig when it is essential, eg before root crops, or to incorporate manures

o Encourage the soil’s biology by keeping a living plant cover for as long as you can, using cover crops and green manures

o Keep off the soil as much as you can – a compacted soil doesn’t breath or drain freely.

With thanks to Steven Bailey for kindly taking the time to write this wonderful article!

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