Your soils fertility is the key to successful organic vegetable growing. Not only does the soil provide a mooring for roots, it allows roots to breathe, supplies water for the roots to soak up and most importantly food for your plants. Types of soils can vary in the Mediterranean but there are four main classifications and its well worth the time in finding out your soil type. We are within the Lefkara formation of Cyprus and our soil was formed during the palaeogene period, millions of years ago, when sea levels dropped forming land with high carbonate and siliceous deep water sediments and this accounts for the whiteness of our chalky soil. The disadvantages of chalky soil are that is free draining and loses nutrients easily and ours is slightly acidic with a pH of 5.5. Fortunately, unlike some chalky soils, it has a good depth and has benefited from generations of adding organic matter which has improved its fertility. It does, however, bake hard after very heavy rain, if followed by strong sun, and needs loosening to avoid seedlings being crushed. Our challenge is to continue improving its fertility, structure and gradually improve its acidity. The best way to improve a soil is by adding as much organic material as possible, over many years, as part of a rotation cycle for growing vegetables. Animal manures, compost, seaweed or green manures will all add humus and goodness to your vegetable beds.
The pH needs of individual plants are important for the health of your plants and cannot be underestimated. Basically pH measures how acidic or alkaline your soil is. The pH range is from 1 to 14 and less than 7 means soil is acidic and over 7 that it is alkaline. The level of pH affects a plants ability to take up nutrients and generally a range from 6 to 7 allows most nutrients to be readily taken up by plants. It is well worth the expense of purchasing a test kit to analyse your own soil and then monitor changes over time as the addition of slow acting ground limestone, during your rotation cycle, will gradually alter acidic soil towards neutrality. Monitors are easy to use and come with full instructions.
Digging soil enables soil to be raked into a fine tilth for seed sowing or planting. It gets air into the soil, exposes weed seeds and allow you to break up any compacted soil. It is also an opportunity to add any organic matter available and remove are large stones or weeds.
The process of establishing deep beds involves heavy digging to start with but once built light forking is generally all that is needed. Beds may, however, benefit from deep digging every four years. Start by marking out beds to the size required and double dig the area. Double digging is essentially digging to a depth of about 40cm and is made easier if you place the soil at the start into a wheelbarrow and return it at the end which allows space to turn the soil as you progress along your bed. Fork the bottom of each dug area and add any organic matter available before proceeding to the next trench. Although hard work your plants will benefit from the deeper soil which will allow roots to penetrate deeper and find water at lower levels which is important in the Mediterranean climate.
Weeds are one of a organic gardeners main problems. They compete with crops for nutrients and water and unchecked they will completely take over a garden. Some can be eaten, such as wild leeks and young nettles, but most need to be destroyed. Weeds can be annual or perennials, the former will germinate, flower and die but the latter produce deep roots and can be very hardy and tough. Annuals can be dealt with by hoeing or hand weeding and is most important to avoid seeding as some weeds can produce thousands of seeds which may take many years of weeding to eradicate.Perennial weeds require more work as ideally these should be completely dug out, as even leaving a tiny bit of root may allow some to regenerate.
Effective watering is very important in the Mediterranean climate to ensure plants survive and grow. Regular watering, sometimes twice a day, is needed to keep the soil surface damp and as plants grow increase the water provided, especially for fruiting vegetables such as peppers and tomatoes. Timing is critical to allow water to soak into the soil and avoid baking dry the surface and is consequently most beneficial early morning or early evening. Different crops have differing water needs and these are discussed in more detail under each crops information.
We are very aware of the need to conserve water and minimise its need by: continually adding organic matter to our soil which increases its ability to hold water; by mulching to reduce evaporation; by avoiding digging in the summer months which brings any stored water to the surface; by keeping weeds to a minimum as they compete for any water available and by growing natural windbreaks to reduce the rate of evaporation during dry hot winds..
We use an irrigation system and timer which allows watering times and duration to be set and allows us to get on with other gardening tasks - a real time saver and well worth the expense. The piping is very cheap and nipples can be inserted with a tool to ensure drip watering where you want.
We are fortunate enough to have a continuous supply of water but we still recycle our domestic water for use in the garden and this may be more important if your supply is restricted. Our solar panels are very efficient at meeting our hot water needs but quite a few litres run before hot water flows and we use this for watering by keeping buckets by the sink and shower. We also recycle water used for washing fruit and vegetables and water from steaming or boiling (which is usually contains nutrients). If you use a biodegradable washing-up liquid and store this water for two days it can be used without harming your plants. If you have guttering on your roof also consider capturing rain water in a holding tank.