What do you mean you don’t know the whereabouts of your nearest defecating horse?

The Sunday Telegraph
May 2006

Much excitement at gardening school this week since we were asked to bring in a sample of our soil. We plopped our precious offerings on the table and then had to do chemistry tests on them with white powder and tiny spatulas.
It was all rather Groucho club toilets circa 1990. The fabulous news is that I seem to have great soil so well done me. Apparently it’s a light sandy loam which means it drains well, is easy to cultivate and warms up fast so you can plant vegetables in it before other people can. My poor neighbour, on the other hand, had a heavy, claggy clay-silt that just wouldn’t settle in his test tube and made the table shake when he heaved it out of his bag.We were all sympathetic. Secretly, though, I was feeling quite smug. Did I mention I had a light sandy loam?

If you don’t have a soil testing kit, then there’s a lower-tech way to discover what you’re standing on. Pick up a handful. If it won’t form a ball and feels gritty, it’s sandy; if you can form it into a thick cylinder but not a thread, it’s silty; if you can form it into a ring, then it’s a clay; if you can’t form it into any shape at all, it’s a patio.

Whatever you discover, add well-rotted manure. I’m sure it’s more technical than that but all advice seems to end with ‘add well-rotted manure’. In fact, if you ever want to sound like you know about gardening, just pepper every other sentence with this phrase and you can’t go wrong. The experts can’t seem to understand that most people don’t wander around with a mental map of the nearest defecating horse. Surely there’s a handy pile of dung at the end of your garden… in south London. No? Well buy a horse. Or move to
the country and then buy a horse.

There is, however, one thing in kitchen gardening even more covetable than a good soil – something that has vegetable growers weeping with jealousy. A heated greenhouse. Preferably Victorian, with liftable bits in the roof and an ancient grapevine curling above the door. If you have such a thing, I
envy you and I hate you. If you only have a lowly unheated structure (or, like me, an ineptly heated polytunnel) you’ll be familiar with the dread,
particularly at this time of year, of frosts which can lay waste to a row of baby plants faster than Alan Sugar can point his finger. Frost anxiety –
which causes constant visits to weather forecast websites and an obsessive attachment to horticultural fleece – can be almost debilitating. If – and obviously this has never happened to me – you’ve ever considered cancelling a long weeekend in the south of France for fear of leaving a dozen Gardeners Delight tomato seedlings to the elements, then you’re the sort of floundering idiot experienced gardeners would accuse of knowing nothing whatsoever about anything at all. If so, advise them to add some well-rotted manure.

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