Guy’s news: Soil, analysis & hope

“Low pH, low or very low Potassium and Phosphorous … lime and adequate fertiliser application essential”. According to the soil analysis on my desk, my pumpkins should be dead, or at least stunted. I am kicking myself for not sending off the samples earlier when we could have limed, spread some muck or even chosen another field. I shouldn’t be surprised; this is thin, grade three land where no conventional commercial grower would dream of planting veg.

Too late now; the crop is in the ground. Yet the five-week old pumpkins are romping away with good leaf colour despite only 1cm of rain since planting. I suspect they are having to work hard to find their nutrients; a scrape at the soil shows roots already stretching over 40cm with growth of 2cm a day and accelerating. A little hardship can make for a healthier, tastier and more nutritious crop which shrugs off pests and stores well, though it may not produce the highest yield. It is a long way to harvest but, walking the field, I have a good feeling despite the lab’s suggestions of doom.

One would be a fool to ignore measurement of soluble nutrients (available to roots now) and total nutrients (possibly available later), but they are just one indicator of how well a crop might do and offer only a snapshot of a dynamic situation. Further information can be gleaned from leaf colour, how previous crops have grown, which ‘indicator weeds’ dominate and their leaf size/colour (if docks and chickweed look strong you can be pretty sure most veg will do well); the feel, structure, colour and even the smell of the soil also help. How easy it is for the roots to extend and form intimate contact with the soil is just as important as concentration of soluble nutrients. much will depend on the microbial activity breaking down and releasing the nutrients from the previous crop and mycorrhizal fungi that form a bridge between the roots and the soil. A soil analysis is one small indicator along with others that come for free.

Despite my confidence we have applied a top dressing of sieved compost and cultivated it into the top, most active, 10cm of soil with our first inter-row hoeing. Next year, I will get the samples done earlier. But ultimately, like a growing number of crops, what these pumpkins need most of all is rain.

Guy Singh-Watson

14 responses to “Guy’s news: Soil, analysis & hope

  1. Niels Corfield

    More reasons to abandon soil nutrient analyses
    Far better when looking at nutrients to have a plant sap analysis carried out
    That said what one would do about it or how they respond to that is another question
    However plant sap analysis has been shown to correlate closely with nutrient deficiencies

  2. All this analysis.

    Yet you still sell your soft fruit (raspberries, strawberries) in plastic containers; sweats in warm weather, poor shelf life, and that’s ignoring the plastic pollution.
    How about a bit of nous too 🙂

    • Susan Davidson

      Michael, I’m not up on the latest alternatives – what would work for soft fruit that will protect it in handling and transit to our houses other than the current plastic packaging?

  3. I just want to say Thank you to you Guy, and all the workers at Riverford,for giving me delicious organic food,no fuss but help when I need it.Socialism in action that’s what I value.You know some things are worth more than money.I feel priveledged to be able to be part of it too ,as a customer.I am interested in all details of what you do, but most of all keep doing it! Very Best Wishes Wendy Madden

  4. Daphne Windrum

    I am a veg with some meat lady and have been enjoying veg hat taste like they used to for many years now. Listing the contents of the box has been most helpful.

    The John Lewis partnership has worked well now and it is a website and supplier I trust. May Riverford continue to be so excellent.

  5. I have to agree with Wendy Madden, it is without doubt Guy’s passion for sustainable farming, his integrity to his values that keep me encouraged and engaged with Riverford.

  6. On the subject of plastic containers for strawberries, when I was a child, many years ago, soft fruit was sold in containers made of thin – approx 10mm wide by 1 or 2mm thick – woven wooden strips. Would this be a practical, viable option now?
    Alternatively, at the recent Devon County Show, one outlet was providing beer samples in biodegradable beakers made from organic materials, plant starches and other plant materials, in appearance exactly the same as the standard clear plastic product. Is that an option?

    • Hi Tony, all very interesting ideas. We experimented with biodegradable plastics a few years about but they weren’t all that they seemed to be. However, time has moved on and developments in the industry are fast. We are currently undertaking in-depth research on all our packaging and alternative options, to make sure we are using as minimal packaging as possible and using the best materials in the interest of the environment.
      You can expect updates and changes in the near future.

  7. Enjoying the delicious soft fruit available now but want to echo all of the previous concerns about plastic cartons – there must be workable alternatives – can’t believe you’re not thinking about this issue – please let us know.

    • Hi Lou, we are very much thinking about it – plastic is a hot topic on the farm at the moment.
      We now have a dedicated packaging technologist, Robyn, who is undertaking in-depth research so we can make changes where possible and be confident we are not using any unnecessary packaging and using the best materials in the interest of the environment.

  8. I’m sure if there were a plant based alternative to the plastic packaging that Riverford still uses, Guy Watson would be using it. Would it not be possible though to use returnable, reusable plastic boxes? After all we return the cardboard stuff.

  9. Susan Davidson

    I was thinking the same thing, Gwyn – I know Guy has written about plastics and alternatives before, and I believe many of them would make the fruit too expensive and people wouldn’t buy it. I’d also be happy to return plastic trays/cartons/boxes as I do with the cardboard boxes…

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