It’s good to get your hands dirty in the garden

It’s good to get your hands dirty in the garden

It couldn't be easier to add life to soil, says Peter Dowdall.

You can feel the excitement when a family takes over its new home. Once the inside has been suitably designed and decorated, they head for the outdoors.

The wish list is created: A place for the kids to play, a lawn, somewhere to grow some herbs, fruit and veg plants, a hedge to use to define the boundaries, a few trees perhaps, shrubs and flowers, lots of flowers.

Amid visions of dining al fresco and entertaining on long hot summer evenings features such as aspect of the sun and shelter from prevailing winds are all thought about but how often is the most obvious thing of all, taken for granted and forgotten about: the soil.


Modern generations seem to have what can nearly be termed a fear of the soil,the thought of getting dirt on the hands or even worse, the new trainers, is simply unthinkable, anything is preferable.

Is it the result of popular culture and watching too much Love Island or is it something deeper?

Do we connect soil and working the land with our feudal past when the majority of Irish Catholics were kept down, and the only job available was to farm the soil to produce food?

The land and the soil may have become the focus of much of our struggles in history but it is not the soil, that was the problem.

The land isn’t a noose, it shouldn’t force us all to run for the shiny streets of cities for it is the land, the garden, that magical few inches of energy which covers this planet and we call soil which holds all the answers for the problems we face now as a global civilisation.


Soil needs life, soil creates life and soil is constantly, if slowly, changing. Before you go planting in your garden you do need to check the aspect of the sun and the direction of the prevailing wind.

And you should check the pH of your soil and also of the water that you will be hosing on to the garden.

Before all that, you need to add life to the soil and it couldn’t be easier. There was an old saying that for every €10 you spend on plants you should spend €100 on the soil.

I beg to differ, however, and regard that as marketing talk for making your soil great, is free. The ingredients are all around us.

Soil is made over millennia and comes from the weathering of the parent rock,with layers of subsoil and topsoil above this rock.

The most important part of the soil for us in the garden is that top horizon, made up of organic matter. Simply adding organic matter to the soil will bring the most tired of patches back to life.

Over the centuries the people of Ghana and Liberia have added all their compostable waste to the soil, including ash and char from cooking, bones from meal preparation, by-products from processing handmade soaps, and harvest chaff.

Their soils now contain high concentrations of calcium and phosphorus, as well as two to three times more organic carbon than typical soils of the region.

Today, we see such magical ingredients as waste products to be disposed of in landfill or by incineration.


How does it work? Well, nature does it, we don’t have to lift a finger or a shovel for that matter. You can, if you wish, incorporate the organic matter by digging it into the soil but the no-dig ethos is that by digging we are damaging soil structure and the organisms within.

Fungi will slowly break down much of the organic matter and the powerhouses of the process are the bacterias which instantly get to work on decaying matter and turn it into rich, crumbly black gold.


Earthworms are one of our greatest allies in the garden, working as mini ploughs to munch on the soil humus, covering the soil surface with their casts and aerating the soil as they do so.

Charles Darwin was fascinated with how they worked and his last book, about the action of earthworms outsold The Origin of the Species at the time.

The earthworm was declared sacred and protected by law in Cleopatra’s Egypt and no one was allowed to remove or to harm an earthworm.


The addition of organic matter in the form of homemade compost, leaves, dead, woody material, bark mulch, wood chippings, manures and straw increases the activity of soil microbes and organisms along with improving the structure of the soil, the nutrient content and the ability of the soil to retain nutrients and water.

So before you rush out to plant your new plot, pay a small bit of attention to that magical life force into which you will be placing their roots.

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