There’s nothing tastier than fruit and veg eaten fresh from your own garden. If you are planning on growing your own this year, here’s how to find the right soil for the job.
What is the best soil for growing vegetables?
Gardening experts will have lots of advice about testing for soil pH and nutrient content. But when it comes to choosing soil for veggies, the one thing that concerns me most of my workload. I’m a busy person, I have a job, dogs, a house to keep, grandchildren to mind and a good sized garden. So I need soil that actually keeps my gardening chores down to a minimum.
When I’m buying soil for my raised beds, I want to know about possible contaminants, soil texture, water retention and colour. Here’s why.
How to avoid contaminated soil?
Good honest topsoil is hard to find. It’s not unusual to find someone selling soil through a local ad who has perhaps been doing some building work and had excess soil to deal with. Be careful. The soil could contain building debris, it might be subsoil or it may have accidentally been contaminated with chemicals.
The only way to buy soil is to go to a reputable dealer who can show you test certificates. You need to know that the soil is free from contaminants such as heavy metals. Also that it has been passed through a giant sieve (aka screened) to remove giant sticks and stones. Search for 20mm screened topsoil.
Soil texture that won’t break your back
Years of sitting behind a computer screen interspersed with lifting toddlers have left my back a bit weaker than it should be. Any heavy manual work is a shock to the system and leaves me aching and sore for days on end. And that includes digging the garden.
When I’m on the hunt for good topsoil, I’ll avoid anything with a lot of clay in it. If you happen to live in Essex, Hertfordshire or London, you’ll know why that it. Clay soils have some fabulous nutrient holding characteristics, but they are awfully hard to work with. If my own garden were heavy clay I would definitely opt for growing veg in raised beds filled with bought-in topsoil.
Any decent soil will have some weight to it but make life easier for yourself by choosing a nice loamy soil with a texture that is easy for you to dig over, make planting holes in and pull weeds out of. From the plant’s point of view, a nice open texture is easy to root into, doesn’t get waterlogged and won’t bake solid in hot weather.
The most time-consuming jobs in vegetable gardening are watering, harvesting and preserving the crops. Harvesting and preserving are a joy. But watering can be tedious, especially when I want to be out and about holidaying and enjoying life. And if there’s a hosepipe ban – watering becomes even more of a challenge.
So in my raised beds, I want a soil that is reasonable water retentive. Not soggy and boggy – plants hate that. But able to suck up any water I add to it and then keep it safe for the plants to use. Many vegetables are quite thirsty and if left to rely on rainfall they will be less productive.
A good test for water retention is to take a handful of damp soil and squeeze it tight. It will make a ball in your fist. Now open your hand. If the ball of soil stays in one piece and needs a really hard poke to break it down, it contains a lot of clay. It will be moisture retentive but as soon as the water is gone it will dry to a hard crust that is hard to rehydrate.
If, when you open your hand, the ball of soil falls apart of its own accord, it is likely to be very handy. Sandy soil is rubbish at retaining water. Mediterranean herbs love well-drained soil and so do some root vegetables like carrots. But for me, the constant need to irrigate is quite offputting.
When I do the hand-test on my favourite type of soil, it will hold its shape until I give it a prod with my finger and then it will crumble into a nice friable texture. For my garden, this type of soil will hold water but not become soggy. It will be strong enough to support big plants like sweetcorn, but forgiving enough for me to work it easily. Perfect
If soil sticks to your wellies like this, you can be sure it will be heavy and hard to work with
Soil colour is a good indication of nutrient content. With a few exceptions, the darker it is, the higher the organic content. The higher the organic content, the better the texture and the more nitrogen it contains. (Nitrogen is an essential veg-growing nutrient).
Use texture, colour and smell as your guide when choosing soil. It should smell slightly sweet and earthy with no nasty pongs or whiffs.
Where to buy soil for growing vegetables
I am a big fan of the screened topsoil from Turfonline.co.uk. I’ve never found a big stone in it yet and I love the texture and colour of it. I also like that it can be delivered to my home in a nice big builders bag. That means that I don’t have to buy a lorryful and I won’t have a huge heap of dirt sitting in my drive until I have the chance to barrow it round the back. I can do a little bit at a time. Which at my age is becoming more and more important.
The price is quite reasonable and the customer service team are always very helpful.