GARDENING: MY FIRST ENCOUNTER
by Nayyar Hashmey
It was last year in the month of July that I changed my domicile from Lahore to Rawalpindi.
In Bahria Town, Phase VIII where I took up my residence, there was a heap of rubbish in the backyard [all sort of Katchra], lot of glass shreds, broken glass sheets, concrete pieces, [small and medium] , steel billet [sarya pieces] and above all a terrible stench of organic waste, weeds and thorny bushes.
Since this peace of land [abt. 715 sq ft] was adjacent to my bed room [incidentally I was the first resident to occupy this house. Phase VIII of Bahria Town anyway is a new locality, so everything is brand new, but naturally has some minor problems as well].
I had no other solution but first to get rid of this stench and to get off the rubbish, that had accumulated since long [thanks to construction workers and the mistris who had turned this open space into a free for all junkyard].
Fortunately we have here quite a reasonable maintenance service. So I rang them up and the maintenance guys comprising of Malis and general manual labour with their trowels and shovels, spades and wheelbarrows etc. arrived on the scene. It took them two days and I got rid of that stench with all the katchra removed from the site. For a few days the backyard remained as such without any utilization, when suddenly the idea flashed, why not a kitchen garden here! and thus I embarked upon this wonderful, hitherto undiscovered journey toward growing veggies of my choice in my backyard kitchen garden.
But as I said, am a dummy as far as the things called kitchen garden are concerned, so to start with, I bought some veg’s seeds from Islamabad’s Sunday Bazaar. These included the Japanese red radish. I don’t know whether it is really a veg of Japanese origin but here in Pakistan we always call it Japani Muli. So with the seeds of Japani Muli and some of white radish I came back home and planted these seeds straightaway in a corner of my backyard.
After six days I saw that the seeds had sprouted. Now I thought in one month’s time, that is, sometime in the month of September or October, I’ll pick up the radish roots and use these in my salad [fresh leafy icebergs with radish, some spring onions and leeks is something that I relish most]. Come September but I see only foliage and not radish [no root] but a thin root like strand. I thought may be I expected the fruit too early. So I waited for another three weeks to let the roots grow to get a size that could make the root thick enough to harvest and use it in my salad.
Came October, but still there are only thin, tail type roots which I thought were useless as I could not use it in my favourite salad recipes. Having gone bit frustrated with my veg’s. growing exercise, I tried to find what type of soil I had; and here was my first lesson: that the soil is the very first thing that dummies [like me] encounter and as I said it is the very first thing that can make or break your harvest bonanza.
LESSON 1: Know your soil
Ordinary soil comprises of three main components: the clay, sand and the silt. The ideal soil (or loam) should have equal amounts of all these three components making the soil a fertile medium that is free draining and easy to dig. In practice, however, we come across soils that have either a greater proportion of sand, silt or clay. Each of these has its own advantages as well as disadvantages. Different varieties of plants are suited to different type of soils. So to have a soil that may suit the particular type of veggies you want to grow, you’ll have to add or remove the deficient or the surplus component to the soil you have in your kitchen garden.
Let’s first take the soil that has got a lot of sand in it.
The Sandy Soil
Sandy soil is mostly sand and far less clay. Such soil has very good aeration which helps the plant roots to get air but problem with such soils is that they do not have the power of retention or the ability to entrap water in the soil to pass it on to the roots which require it for a healthy plant growth. So what happens is, that roots having no moisture, get dried up and ultimately the roots and consequently the plant dies out.
Sandy soils tend to dry out in the summer, but warm up quickly in spring (allowing seedlings a good start) and they are much easier to dig than clay-based soils. If your soil is sandy, you should have no trouble growing root vegetables (such as radish, carrots and parsnips), but you may struggle with nutrient-hungry cabbages and broccoli).
Clay soils or ‘heavier soils’ have small particles. This means water is less likely to drain away but the soil is more likely to become waterlogged. Heavier soils are fertile, but take longer to warm up in the spring and are harder to dig. If you have clay soil, you should find that brassicas will grow well, but root vegetables like radish, carrots and parsnips, mints etc are likely to struggle as they have to push through the heavy, often compacted soil.
Now the soil that I encountered here in Bahria Town Phase VIII was this clay type. But it proved to be the worst type of soil. Why? Because Pindi /ISD being part of the Pothohar plateau, have a tremendous amount of rocks in the soil. What happens is that in presence of moisture the heavy clay soil acts like cement and forms large blocks of stone hard soil clumps. Not only do these stony clumps obstruct the flow of oxygen to the roots but also obstruct the roots to expand. In this process the supply of essential nutrients to the younger roots is blocked, resulting in a highly stunted growth of the plants.
LESSON 2: Check your soil
You can check the texture of your soil easily by checking it in wet and dry conditions. If the soil is hard when dry and sticky when wet, it is likely to be clay. If it is light, easily drained and easy to dig, it is probably sand or loamy sand. For a more precise test, take a small amount of soil in your hand and wet it. Knead it into a smooth paste and then roll it about between your hands to form a ball. The following results will reveal the soil texture:
- Sticky and gritty – loam, the perfect soil
- Easily rolls into a ball, but feels rough – clay loam
- Easily rolls into a ball, shiny when rubbed, but still gritty – sandy clay
- Easily rolls into a ball and becomes shiny but not gritty – clay
- Doesn’t roll into a ball well, and feels gritty – sand
- Easily rolls into a ball but it falls apart easily – loamy sand
- Feels slippery and silky – silty loam
LESSON 3: Improve your soil
Whatever soil type you may be having, organic matter (such as compost) is a must to improve structure and nutrient content. Organic matter acts as a soil conditioner. It helps to break up heavy clay soils (improving drainage) or it binds together sandy soil (improving retention of water and nutrients). If added once a year, organic matter will improve your soil and overcome any problems associated with texture. Adding organic matter can also slightly lower the pH of the soil (see below) to a level perfect for most vegetables.
Soil pH is a measure of the soil’s acidity or alkalinity. Knowing the pH of your soil helps to determine which vegetables to plant. Blueberries, for example, only thrive in an acid soil (with a pH of around 4-6). So, if your vegetable plot has alkaline soil, they should be grown in pots with ericaceous (acidic) compost. If, on the other hand, your soil is acidic, brassicas (such as cabbages) benefit if lime is added a few weeks before sowing since they enjoy an alkaline soil and lime adds alkalinity. Adding lime also helps prevent clubroot disease, a major problem with the brassica family.
Alkaline soil has a pH of around 8.5 whilst the pH of neutral soil is 7. Most plants grow best in soil with a pH of between 6.5 and 6.8. You can identify the soil’s pH using a testing kit. These vary from a cheap soil pH meter, which is simply pushed into the ground and examined, to kits that include color charts and tubes. The latter provide more reliable results. For the best results, take a small amount of soil from the surface of various areas of your garden or vegetable plot. Avoid taking soil from waterlogged areas or frozen ground. Place each sample in a polythene bag and label it, stating where in the garden it came from. Allow each sample to dry out and then follow the instructions on your testing kit carefully.
Otherwise you can take your soil samples to the nearest testing lab run by the provincial agricultural departments in all the five provinces of Pakistan.
Once you have the results of these tests you can plan which areas to prioritize for soil improvement and where best to grow the more fussy vegetable types.