Category Archives: Growing herbs

Samhain garden musings

A few photos from recent days. Recognize anything there? Any idea of what’s edible and what’s poisonous? This is a beautiful time of year and there is plenty to do in nature, whether that be watching it change or transforming parts of it into foods and medicines. Most important of all, I think, is to actually get out and enjoy it!

It is time to take stock. Time to dig deep and reflect on what’s going well, what’s going less well and what to work on next. I did a lot of thinking about my garden (volkstuin) today. I’ve been quite down about it recently because each time I’ve visited, there’s been very little opportunity to actually work with the plants in the way required, to keep it manageable. Since the start of the whole COVID business, the garden has been getting too out of control for my liking. It is still a wonderful wildlife haven and I love to retreat there but a lot of work needs to be done to make it into the incredible herb garden that it should be.

Grapes at the volkstuin 2020

Everything seems to thrive there. The soil is peat-rich and moist making it a nourishing place for all. Valerian, meadowsweet, sweetwoodruff, lovage and gypsy wort are a few of my favourites there. However, the trees are also nourished so much by the location that their sprawling canopies now give little space for light to hit the ground. Less light breaking through means less healthy ground herbs, so I need to take action before the whole garden becomes a woodland. Woodland is great of course, in fact it is fabulous but I would like to continue growing a wide variety of interesting moisture and sun loving herbs in the main part of the garden, rather than only woodland herbs. There is space enough for those at the entrance of the garden. The intention is for lots of people can learn from these special plants and for them to thrive and be periodically harvested from and used as food and medicine, benefiting those who help with their care.

Blackberry root harvested at Samhain

Winter Work Days
Over the winter, I will be hosting a number of work days at my garden. The idea to bring the garden back up to scratch through winter, to allow light back in so that the herbs can flourish again come spring. If you would like to join me to do some energetic branch cutting, or lay some woodchip paths or prune back the elders, hazels, willows, apple and plum, then you are most welcome to join me! Maybe we will be moving the Fish herb – NL Moerasanemoon (Houttuynia cordata) or Selfheal that so loves to self seed between the terrace slabs or maybe there will be some pulling up of Brambles to utilise their roots, or keeping stinging nettle in a suitable corner or pruning back the Grapevine. And the Daylillies! The list goes on and on. Always something to do and something to learn about! Some great plants will be moved around at times and when there are too many they will be shared. Of course, I will brew up herb tea and soup to keep us going but do bring some bread if you need something more substantial.

Day lily at the Volkstuin

I have a wooden summer house in the garden and that has a woodburner, so we can get warm and shelter when needed. The loo will not be functional in the midwinter so the winter bucket arrangement will come into action when needed [Sorry, that’s probably too much information but better that you realize this fact beforehand!]

Spring and Summer Harvest
Then there will also be gardening days in the garden during the spring and summer, when the leaf and flower harvest can be reaped, plants will be propagated and sunny times in the garden can be enjoyed. I manage the garden along Permaculture principles, in case you are wondering. So in a nutshell that means that yes, it is certainly organic and nature takes the lead. Autumn will bring other treats, and there is always something to do and help with. I hope that this will build into a really mutually supportive gardening community, centered around the herb garden.

Herbal volkstuin – Mid- spring – Sweet woodruff, Wild garlic, Potentilla and Herb Robert

Herb knowledge
It is so important to share herbal knowledge and I very much hope that this helps to encourage more herb gardening and love of herbs. Because my head is always full of thoughts about herbs, you will surely learn quite a lot about them, whilst we garden together but the objective here is to learn through doing.

Dates and location
I will set some dates and advertise them here and then stick to those dates unless we have storms. The volkstuin is in Schellingwoude, Amsterdam Noord. Would you like to join in on making the garden a beautiful productive herb garden so that it can benefit far more people? If so, please get in touch with me!

Chalk and talk

Voor nederlands klik hier

Lately, a few friends and family have nudged me about this botanical street chalking that’s going on in Europe right now.

Ann from City Plot gave me a nudge last night which has proved the final straw –  it’s clearly time that we start to join in the fun!

Anyone in?

Here are a couple that we did today across town…

Green alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens)

Nothing like a name tag to help people realise what’s growing under their noses as they walk around the streets.

Smalle weegree (Plantago lanceolata) Ribwort

Many of us know the value of the plants which most people call weeds. We are passionate about people realising what can be done with plants growing around them and looking after the plants which naturally grow in forgotten spaces.

Grote weegree (Plantago major) Plantain

Mostly, we won’t want to harvest or forage from pavements but those urban herbs and veggies can be a source of free seed, cuttings, starter plants and teaching plants.

Lindenboom (Tilia sp.) Lime tree

Here’s a Greater celandine which I pulled from a pavement crack last week and now grows on my roof for a home remedy and teaching plant. The yellow sap inside has several uses.

Greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) Stinkende gouw

It you’re not sure of the name of the plant, feel free to send me a clear photo by What’s app or email and I’ll send you the plant name. 06 275 969 30

I’d love to see your labelled plants too and will happily post some photos here, and on the Urban Herbology FaceBook page.

Rosemary beetle

I had a pavement garden put in by the city council, beneath our Amsterdam apartment, soon after we moved here 13 years ago. Such pavement gardens are narrow strips, right up against the buildings, were the pavers get lifted and removed, making the sand beneath available as a planting area for residents. You need to draw up a plan and get written permission from your neighbours, when you request a new one – It was quite exciting I can tell you. Well, my neighbours approved my idea and after the council workers set it up for me, I poured in a couple of bags of compost and planted it up with Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), Purple Sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’), Rue (Ruta graveolens)and Lavender (Lavendula augustifolia). Everything in there grew really well, even though the little plot faces full south, is under a bay window and gets little rain. It was a lovely, simple Mediterranean herb garden. The herbs were resplendent and many neighbours would snip off a little Rosemary through the growing season, to add to their cooking. That shrub was enormous and very healthy.

Then last year, things started to go rather pear-shaped in the geveltuin. The mature Rosemary had some damage. More than a little damage, in fact it looked decidedly nibbled all over. Only a few flowers pushed through and the plant looked increasingly bedraggled. We also noticed very pretty, metallic striped beetles on the Rosemary sometimes. Often, when we brushed against the shrub, some of them would shoot off and bounce off the pavings making a characteristic crackling sound. We didn’t realize back then but our Mediterranean herb garden was under attack by the Rosemary Beetle (Chrysolina americana).

Rosemary beetles don’t feast alone! Photo credit: RHS

This week, enough was enough. The Rosemary looked barely alive and as neighbourhood Rosemary bushes were starting to really bush out with lush deep green new shoots, our looked downright grey. To make matters worse, the Purple Sage was almost gone, the Rue totally desiccated and the Lavender was a shadow of its former self. The beetles were more plentiful than before and my herb garden was no more.

Know your enemy
I read up on the Rosemary beetle and planned my counter attack; Hard pruning, taking a few insurance cuttings, enriching the soil and removing the thick blanket of dead leaves (which I was building up beneath the shrubs, out of laziness really). Finally a good drenching with water.

Part way through the pruning operation

Operation Revamp
As you can see in the video, I shook out the shrubs onto a bright blanket, placing tumbling beetles and larvae in a glass jar which became enormously interesting to local kids. We had about 30 bugs in there by the end. The leaf layer was totally cleared and I hard pruned all of the shrubs. The Rue had to go, sadly as I loved it and few people seem to grow it these days. However, I was delighted to find that it had spawned a few babies, growing between paving slabs so I hope they will make it in the newly prepared plot. My daughter and I scoured the geveltuin and surrounding area for more beetles and larvae before giving the remaining plants a really good watering and then enriching the soil slightly with a bucketful of spent compost (which I collect from my old rooftop pots). Later, I added a couple of lupin seedlings which I had on the roof, a few radish and beetroot seeds, some potted tulips from the kitchen balcony and some self-seeded Lemon balm, which was growing across the street in the gutter. A cheap and cheerful geveltuin makeover! The project took a few hours and I am satisfied with the result.

Rosemary beetle. Photo credit: Secret garden.

It took me a couple of years to give in to the fact that these pin-stripe armored beetles were beautifully munching through my herb garden and that I was providing them with perfect overwintering conditions. From now on, I intend to keep the plot more open and airy, more species rich and attractive to predatory and pollinating bugs and I will water the plants regularly, especially when they appear to be under pressure. I also plan to place a bird nesting box on the street tree across the pavement and will feed the plants with comfrey & nettle tea, when the mood strikes me.

In the hope that I can help others to spot Rosemary beetle and deal with it more quickly, I made a short video, which you can see here. My daughter and I had fun editing this one so we hope that you find it useful.

Squish or Release?
So what happened to the collected beetles and larvae in the glass jar? Well, I did squish one on the pavement in frustration, the day before the clean up operation and I felt really bad about it. Killing them didn’t feel right at all and I knew well that these bugs were here for a while and I had allowed them to get out of control. I needed to help nature to restore beetle balance. After a chat with a gardening friend, I decided that the best solution was release these little beasts into a more bio-diverse area, away from aromatic herbs and where natural predators could feast on them or they had a chance to escape and live among other species of insects. This morning, we took them to a grassy area, close to water and let them go.

Have you got a beetle problem? If so, how are you dealing with it? What would you have done with the captured beetles? Do you have other herby-pesty problems and can you think of better ways for people to keep their herbs healthy? Do let me know as I would love to hear!

Midwinter Malva

One thing that I really miss when I am at school all week, is a long, relaxed, morning walk. I really need to start weaving more walks into my work week schedule. In any case, I certainly can’t complain as I am now on school holiday for a couple of weeks so started with a leisurely walk today. Taking in the air, sights and plants as I wander for 5km or more through Amsterdam east, is a great way to start the day.


This morning, my walk took in a long stretch of the Weespertrekvaart. On one side, a cycle path, sport fields, allotments and Amsteldorp (with plenty of Christmas lights at the moment). On the other, a mix of new villas, tower blocks, boats, businesses and the old Bijlmerbajes prison buildings. In between, a wide stretch of canal which a few ducks, gulls and a morning rowing team were enjoying. Between the canal and the cycle path is a footpath and parts of it are edged with reeds and wild herbs.

At this time of year there is a lot of green to be found in Amsterdam but due to midwinter’s reduced light and temperatures, most plants are not in flower or in good shape for foraging. At this time of year, it’s best to look but not touch, unless you find a big area of something quite special which is clearly loving the reduced competition for light, which midwinter also brings.

This Malva patch caught my eye. Not only is the plant quite prolific in places along the footpath, but here and there it can be found in flower. Plants are much easier to identify when in flower so this is great for foragers. Even if you don’t fancy foraging during midwinter, it is a great time to build your knowledge – of plant ID and where the plants like to grow.


Yesterday in school, one of the classes ran an assembly about different foods eaten to celebrate Christmas around the world. One mention really caught my attention – Malva Cake in South Africa! Malva – in a cake – what a great idea!

I tend to eat malva leaves, of all sorts, in salads or I cook them gently and eat in savoury dishes. They can be chopped up into a tasty falafel mix, fried, stuffed, cooked like spinach and then sprinkled with feta type cheese. The options are endless (so long as you are sure to wash dust off as they can be quite hairy). Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) is in the malva family, so is the Lime tree (Tilia spp) and they have ever so unctuous leaves. The malva in this photo looks like Common mallow (Malva sylvestris) to me. In my experience, it has less unctuous leaves than lime and marshmallow but they are mild tasting, very palatable and quite abundant in the greener parts of Amsterdam. More importantly, Common mallow is neither endangered here in The Netherlands (the Marshmallow plant is) nor is it out of reach (as Lime tree leaves certainly are in winter). So I became more and more pleased with this find on the footpath edge. One of my favourite Amsterdam plants is Hollyhock. That is also in the Malvaceae family and the leaves look quite similar to Common mallow. And while I think of it, some other Malvaceae members are cacao, cotton, durian and okra. This family of plants has high economic importance around the world.

Found these cacao pods growing from the trunk of a Theobroma cacao tree in Costa Rica (2016).

Malva cake sounds great to me and also brings to mind the big packets of dried Malva leaves sold by my local Turkish supermarket (Yakhlaf on Javastraat). I googled recipes for malva cake and was a little disappointed that most contained no malva at all and looked distinctly similar to sticky toffee pudding. I found one reference to a Dutch cake with malva in the name but no actual malva in the recipe. So I am now on the hunt for a recipe which contains enough malva leaf to make a delicious unctuous cake – and preferably without carb-rich flour (as I am trying to avoid carbs). If you know of a recipe, I would love to hear! In the meantime, I will start experimenting with almond flour and malva leaves.

malva pudding cake
David Lebovitz’ Malva Pudding Cake (click for link) – I know, it’s not exactly disappointing but where is the actual malva leaf in this mouthwatering recipe? Photo credit: David Lebovitz

Do you have any uses for Malva leaves which you would like to share? If so please let me know in the post comments or through my contact page. Malva leaves seem to be very widely used in other parts of the world and right now, they are looking good in both Turkish supermarkets and winter footpath edges here in Amsterdam.

Forage lightly and happily, my friends!

Next Urban Herbology walk in Amsterdam – Tomorrow! 21st December. Check out my meetup group or What’s app me on 0627596930 if you would like to join the Winter Solstice walk.

My Online+ Apprenticeship course is open to newcomers for just 5 more days (until end of 25th December). Then it will be closed to new members until Imbolc (February 1st 2020). For more information see here or contact me.

Chilli Children

I’m growing chilli peppers from seed this year. They are growing in pots on my bedroom windowsill because that’s the sunniest spot in our apartment and our cat can’t get into the room to munch the seedlings.

I am hoping for a tidy crop from the varieties that I have sown. So far, sturdy little seedlings of Purple Jalapeno and pale green Lombardi Pepperoni are leading the way. They look great! I also selected some heatless varieties with my daughter (from the South Devon Chilli Farm) as she loves the plants but not the spice. So I’m interested to see how it all works out.

Actually, I’m not really interested, I’m beyond excited about my chilli plants!! I’m checking them all the time and I wonder how many other people are out there, living in apartments, tending similar little beauties and getting equally excited!

Today, whilst trawling YouTube for timelapse chilli plant videos (yes, there are many and many people watch them!), I discovered the Clifton Chilli Club which is very informative, which in turn led me to the Dutch Chilli Fest (September 8-9, near Eindhoven). The festival looks great, full of all things chilli. It looks quite a “who can eat most of the world’s hottest chilli pepper” style of event but it looks very interesting.

It got me dreaming of a chilli harvest celebration in Amsterdam. Perhaps there is such a thing? Please let me know if so – I’ve no idea. Anyway, if you would like to share your chilli growing love with me, feel free! Maybe we could meet later this year to admire each other’s chillis, salsas and pickles and swap a few choice seeds?

I’ll add updates as my Chilli Children mature.

Free food !

Want to grab a bag of hyper-local organic herbs in grateful return for a couple of hours light gardening? Sign up through the Meetup link to join the River of Herbs volunteer gardening team on Monday morning. Details are on the meetup event information.

I won’t be teaching here – doing that in the afternoon and the walk is full. This is for gardeners – no experienced required – everyone is a gardener because we all need to eat 🙂

Sign ups must be through meet up please and did bring along a bag to take your herbs home.

Some of the herbs available to volunteers in the foraging gardens pantry this week (in varying quantities) are:

Stinging nettle tops

Wild garlic (Daslook – Ramsons)





A walk alongside the Wye

Last week, I visited my family in the UK. My parents live in Chepstow and my Dad is a great walker so one afternoon, the two of us headed out to a beautiful spot along the Wye valley, just off the Offas dyke trail at Lancaut Lane, a few miles north of Chepstow.

It is the site of an old village, of which the only remains are derelict lime kilns, some interesting earth mounds, stones and a beautiful ruined church.

The setting is outstanding. The ruined church is found down a steep winding path from the road, in a clearing, close to the banks of the River Wye, as it makes a sharp bend beneath steep raw cliffs. It’s a lovely walk, with wild flowers, catkin-laden hazel trees and greenery all around even in February.

St James’ Church, Lancaut is now cared for by the Forest of Dean Buildings Preservation Trust. It was still used monthly until the 1830’s and there’s a displayed photo as you approach, of the walled graveyard and already ruined church, completely packed with church goers. I imagine that those monthly services were quite something!

Dad found this informative blog post, written 12 years ago by Mercurius Politicus. It traces the history of the location and is certainly worth a read. Here’s a pre-1865 photo of the church, taken from that website.

We loved looking at the old gravestones, a couple of which are now used to mark the graveyard boundary. Within the church can be seen two very interesting headstones from the 1600’s which show a heart in the middle of the text. Other engravings around the church seem to match this flowing, curvaceous style. It is quite beautiful. Can you see the ladybirds on this headstone?

We spent some time sitting a top a mound, watching the River Wye flow strongly by, spotting plants, observing birds feeding in the mud on the opposite river bank and wondering if two distant rock climbers would really make it to the top of a cliff face.

I made a podcast whilst walking around the church, looking for signs of the herb Elecampane. If you’d like to listen, click the link. My Dad features quietly here and there, as the guest Yorkshire accent. I must take a second microphone next time 🙂 We talk about Bramble buds, Hazel, Elecampane, the beautiful views and such like.

Episode 3 – Walking around St James’ Church

We found some lovely plants on our walk including the catnip in the photo below, apparently scampering up an exterior wall. The plant doesn’t look much in February, the dead flower stems gave it away, but it will be stunning in a few months time.

I definitely plan to return to this place. It’s a real treasure. The area is part of a nature reserve and is registered as being of Special Scientific Interest. It is said to be home to over 300 plant species so a visit when more of them emerge from the ground is needed.

The derelict church is now used as a place of worship once or twice a year by Tiddenham parish. It is easy to find from the road and has a strong pull.

I’d be very interested to hear in the comments below from anyone who frequents the place or has tales to share about it. Perhaps you’ve worshipped there or have actually found the elusive Elecampane of the monks?

Foraging Wild Garlic

Three beautiful blades of Wild garlic / Ramsons / Daslook (Allium ursinum), plucked from the River of Herbs orchards in Park Frankendael today. I made some pungent daslook sauce from these, by blending them with olive oil and a little apple cider vinegar.

And here are a couple of year old wild garlic bulbs which I removed from the orchard path. The reason for this is discussed in the podcast. Have a listen and let me know your uses for the plant and if you have had any success growing it. The paths are edged with fallen branches. In this photo you can see how the plant spreads into the paths.

I only forage wild garlic when there are huge swathes of it and the leaves are a few inches long.

I’m off to make some dinner using a little of that sauce now. Perhaps you would like to listen to my latest podcast, about ethically foraging Wild Garlic and how to use it.

Green spirit

Gardening is good for you. Whether inside or out, spring, summer, autumn or winter, it is not difficult to see why. Being in contact with earth, plants, air and water feeds the soul, tones muscles, lifts spirits and aligns us acutely with the cycles of nature. As research about biophilia, horticultural therapy, woodland bathing and related topics mounts, I wanted to share a few thoughts about the importance of gardening in the city.

Some of my earliest memories are of gardens – growing lupins and marrows, following snail families, the smell of radishes, cut grass and just pulled potatoes, cress heads, apples, maggots and bee stings, blackberries, sweet blackberries, weeding, muddy nails, stone scratched skin, daisies and rose petal perfume. I think that I have been a gardener since birth. And I think that you have too.

People speak about gardeners having green fingers (or thumbs), about knowing what to do with plants, about experience, having a feel for it and so on. Experience amongst gardeners is most certainly wide ranging but I am sure that we all have green spirit within us and that spending time in nature helps it to grow. I love to see that spirit grow within those around me. It can manifest as a quiet self confidence, improved physical coordination, lightness of touch, imagination, appreciation of others, interest in life, a desire to learn more and a need to be to nature – often. When green spirit reaches the level needed, I see people literally blossom. It radiates from them, they appear bigger, bolder and more connected to nature. It then touches those around them and invariably causing the creation of more beautiful green places and a deeper respect for nature. Green spirit is a wonderful thing!

Bench crafted by Bobby van Vliet

Due to my somewhat selfish desire to fill the world with green spirit, I began a project in 2012 called River of Herbs. The aim was to help more people, plants and wildlife to flourish in the city. Over the years, I have run free courses for individuals, schools and groups, in the name of the project and I have trained and built up experience in Horticultural therapy. The aspect of the project which I have loved most is the herbal orchards of Park Frankendael. I adopted them from the city council in 2014; four fertile patches of land, occasionally mowed, care homes for old fruit trees, shady retreat for dog owners. They are behind the grand old Huize Frankendael. Beneath the trees were about 20 sorts of wild plants, some edible, some not, all ‘weeds’. The aim was to create a garden base for River of Herbs, to teach people about wild herbs – how to grow them and use them. From the start the orchards have been blessed by incredible volunteers. Some come and go. Some come, connect and stay for a long time.

All of the volunteers amaze me.  We have welcomed research students, chefs, job seekers, couch surfers, retired people, dog owners, cat lovers, busy people, tourists, translators, writers,  teachers,  herb people, psychic people, IT people, number people, tired-out people, life/law/loved – struggling people, new people, local people, energetic people, artists, actors,  jewelers, designers, whirlwind people, tranquil people, mature people, young people… so many people have volunteered and made their mark on the orchards. Together, we have laid paths, grown herbs and good friendships.

Japanese wineberry taste so good!
Japanese wineberry taste so good!

Lots more edible and medicinal herbs have been added to the orchard ‘borders’. Saffron, Sweet cicely, Japanese wineberry, Valerian, Motherwort and Sweet violets are probably my favourites.  We have planted cherry trees, made Elder cuttings, nurtured seedlings and re-homed poisonous plants. We have built benches, a willow hut, a barefoot path, stung our arms and legs on nettles more times than I like to remember and drunk a lot of herb tea.  We have worked together in the green, we have made a community garden and green spirit radiates from each of the volunteers. And how many of these volunteers arrived calling themselves a gardener?  None. Well actually one,  a wonderful chap who helped us to lay woodchip paths in 2014. But that’s not many is it?

Volunteers River of Herbs orchards July 2017
Volunteers River of Herbs orchards July 2017

The measure of a good gardener is not how well they clean their tools, how long their runner beans grow or how weed-free their flower borders are. To me, the measure of a good gardener is how far green spirit radiates from their being and strives to improve the world.


River of Herbs orchards are open to the public 24/7 all year round. 

We generally meet there every Wednesday morning, 10.30 – 12.00 unless the weather is stormy.

Address – Behind Huize Frankendael (Middenweg 72, 1098 BS Amsterdam).

Email – or 



Great soil for amazing herbs

​​My friend Madelon Oostwoud has written a wonderful book about growing amazing edible perennials in small gardens. Now in its second print, Een Kleine Eetbare Tuin is an absolute treasure trove of gardening information, perfectly tailored to small urban gardens. Her book is published by the KNNV and is widely available to purchase. I highly recommend it!  Madelon has kindly sent me the following extract in English to help urban herb gardeners develop a meaningful relationship with their soil.
Knowing your Soil
Garden soil differs from region to region, district to district and sometimes from garden to garden, and even from one end of a big garden to the other. Top soil is built up from small particles of sand, silt and clay, depending on the deeper layers of the ground below. Changing a garden on barren sand into a garden with fat clay is obviously impossible. Gardeners today know that you have to choose plants that suit your ground, and not vice-versa. The mineral material defines the choice of plants. The plants influence the organic material, and together they influence the soil. Improving your soil is certainly possible but should not be confused with changing the soil. Soil improvement is to improve the structure of the soil in your garden. It can be done in different ways.
Know your soil
Every ground or soil is suitable for an edible garden but not every plant grows everywhere successfully. Also, one soil may be easier to work then another. But complaining about unworkable soil has everything to do with wrong assumptions made by the gardener and little to do with the soil being unsuitable, a pet subject of one of Holland’s best known gardeners Romke van de Kaa.
Mineral material
Soil quality is determined by the ratio between the different particles of mineral material. Sand has the coarsest grain, clay the finest and silt is located in between. A loamy soil has sand, clay and silt, and is clearly a mixed form.
Types of soils
The different soils in most of Europe are described in the Soil Atlas of Europe, an initiative of the European Soil Bureau. It consists of a large number of maps, with an introduction to soil that explains the role and importance of soil, how soil is created, how to identify the soil in your garden, the relationship between soil, agriculture, our cultural heritage, forests and as a source of raw materials. Soil mapping and classification are also explained together with an illustrative and informative guide to the major soil types of Europe. You can find the Soil Atlas of Europe online at the site of the European Commission. Search for if you are looking for information on the soil in your region outside Europe.
  • Sand
Sandy soil is light in weight, often also in colour and it feels grainy and loose. Sand cannot hold much water, neither many nutrients. Sand warms towards summer and stays cool long after the frost is out of the ground. Because sand does not retain nutrients we usually call it poor soil. Not all plants can grow on sand but it is easy to work and easy to improve using organic material.
  • Clay
Clay is heavy and compact. It holds nutrients and water well. Clay that is low on organic material is heavy, impermeable and intractable. Roots therefore have a hard time growing in clay. Working clay is heavy, as the particles literally stick together. Clay soils tend to dry slowly and do not easily warm up. Dry clay is hard and brittle. It freezes easily, which does generally not harm your perennials. A mix between clay and loam is loamy clay.
  • Peat
Peat comprises very few mineral ingredients. Peat is compact organic material that consists of plant remains. It is dark coloured – often almost black. Peat is moist and mostly low in oxygen. If your garden has peat soil on the surface, you have the most difficult ground with which to create a garden. It is in fact quite acidic, sticky when wet and crumbly when dry. This is also a reason to not purchase commercial potting soil because it consists mainly of peat. There is no food in it and it does not have a good structure. The structure is sponge-like. You are likely to recognise remains of undigested plants and roots. Dry peat is very flammable and used to be used as fuel in stoves and heaters.
  • Saline
The soil in extremely dry regions is usually brackish because of its high salt content. You’ll probably see a white layer coating the surface of the soil, your plants are growing poorly, and they’re suffering from leaf tip burn, especially on young leaves. Saline soil can stall plant growth, impede germination, and cause difficulties in irrigation.
  • Loam
Loam has an equal amount of sand, silt and clay particles, as well as organic material. It has the positive qualities of clay and feels soft and smooth. It is light structured. Loam is not lumpy, very fertile, well-drained without letting all water through and so often proclaimed the ideal garden soil. A mix between sand and loam is called sand-loam or loamy sand.
Improving your soil
If your soil is clayey, it is rich in calcium and minerals, and most likely alkaline. Apply a thick layer of compost or mulch (leaves, woodchips, biological cacao shells, freshly mown grass, hay or a few layers of cardboard or newsprint pages). This will improve soil life, and improve the structure of the soil. It also ensures that the soil can better retain heat, which can be especially important in the winter. Compost and mulch keep evaporation and the growth of weeds at bay.
Ideally compost will contain a large amount of soil organisms: worms, beneficial nematodes, woodlice, centipedes, bacteria, etc. These organisms and the plant-remains in the compost get the soil going. Therefore homemade compost is best. Commercial compost (in bags at the garden centre) is admittedly organic in composition, but does not have any bacteria and fungi in itself. Once you opened the packaging you will not be able to detect one single worm. In homemade compost there are always all kinds of insects and worms. Once outside the composter, they will get to work for you to improve your soil. If there is virtually no organic life in your soil it can easily be started in no time with your own compost. Divide the mature compost from the bottom of your compost bin and simply distribute it in your garden. The easiest way to do it is with a soil sieve. Simply sieve the compost over your plants, and tip the particles that do not pass through the sieve back in the compost bin to further compost. Mature compost can be divided over the ground with a rake or by hand. If you have a worm tower (also see chapter : Compost) use the compost when it looks dark, and you do not ‘recognize’ anything any more. To separate worms and compost – briefly put the compost out in the light. Worms do not like light, and will crawl away into the deep. You can view the contents of (part of) your worm tower also by throwing out worms and all the plants. They will be just as happy in the top layer of your garden as in the worm tower or compost bin. If your worm tower has a tap for the worm tea, dilute it with water and poor it over soil and plants.
Improving acid soils
Sand and peat are usually acidic. Sand is acidic and additionally nutrient-poor soil. You could add some lime to ‘ease up’ the structure of the soil. Lime is alkaline, the opposite of acid. Lime thus de-acidifies acidic soil. But be careful with the addition of lime. In sandy soil lime connects the sand particles, in clayey soil usually only enough calcium is present and lime would just reduce the structure. Acid soil is therefore best improved by adding compost.
Just spread compost on your garden and soil and let nature take its course. By ‘feeding’ the soil, it becomes healthy. Healthy soil can hold enough water and all other elements by which plants grow. Healthy soil grows healthy plants that do not suffer from diseases and pests.
Mulching with leaves (dry, coarse, old and brown material) creates a low pH, where fungi and bacteria feel at home. That’s good for trees, woods and spices. Mushrooms can also find their way there.
Mulching with compost (wet, green, young material) creates a higher pH with more bacteria than fungi.
Green manures
Another way to improve soil and structure of your ground is by planting green manures. Green manures are plants that ‘work’ the ground for you. They are almost always and everywhere successful.
Bare areas with new houses or vegetable gardens where the soil for a long time has been exhausted by monoculture, sowing green manure is an even better solution than applying compost. While the plants take root and grow, thousands of organisms underground start to give your soil a nutrient-boost. Even in winter, when the ground is bare and reflect on lies. In the coldest months, when your soil seems deep asleep and no the plants are yet stabbing their heads above ground level, the roots of green manure do a perfect job. They improve your soil simply by rooting, making ways for insects and small craetures, airing the soil with their burrows, feeding the soil with their feces.
Sow from spring to late September, work the seeds lightly with a rake and let the plants grow and do their job for you as long as you like. A mixture of natural plants works most effective and is additionally wonderful in your yet un-landscaped garden. You can leave the plants grow until after flowering, and even after being felled by frost. Over time you can mow them, leave them to ‘wither’ or rake them in.
Plants that you let ‘die’ and digest on the ground, such as alfalfa, mustard, winter rye, bring structure and humus in the soil. Real green manure! Legumes, such as clover and vetch, enrich the soil with nitrogen. Nitrogen is vital to plants and therefore to the success of your garden. Without sufficient nitrogen, plants will be unable to grow. Though nitrogen is abundant in the world, most of it is a gas and most plant cannot use nitrogen as a gas. They must rely on the addition of nitrogen to the soil in order to be able to use it. A few plants love nitrogen gas. They are able to draw the nitrogen gas from the air and store it in their roots. These are called nitrogen fixing plants. Besides being green manures they also fixate the nitrogen. Please note that each nitrogen-fixer is a green manure, but not every green manure is a nitrogen-fixer.
Examples of green manure
Below green manures are annuals. They did not return and will not proliferate. You can buy the seeds at any garden centre. Most are not suitable for consumption, so do not use them for it.
Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) Applicable to the poorest lands; Sowing: spring t / m summer. Growing rapidly and deeply rooted.
  • Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum graecum) For heavy and light drained soil.
  • Crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum) Suitable for all grounds and nitrogen-fixer
  • Lupine (Lupinus angustifolius) Especially on light, acid soils.
  • Alfalfa or alfalfa (Medicago sativa) Applicable on dry ground; sowing: Summer, let stand until the following spring.
  • Mustard (Sinapis alba) Apply to all grounds; sowing: March September.
  • Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia) Apply to all soils.
  • Serra Delle (Ornithopus sativus) as green manure especially on sandy soils.
  • Field beans (Vicia faba) to be applied on all grounds, seeding: September-October. Makes a perfect mulch after mowing.
  • Vetch (Vicia sativa subsp. Sativa, Vicia villosa) Suitable for all grounds and nitrogen-fixer
  • Winter rye (Secale cereale) Applicable on all grounds; sowing to November and leave until Spring.