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Rescuing the raised beds – part 1

Excavating bed 4 2.16
This week, I’ve been working on raised bed number 4. Persistent overwatering from a faulty irrigation system had wreaked havoc with the soil over a period of months, if not a year or two. While the engineer and his assistant planted onions in about half the bed last month, I suspected that the soil needed a complete overhaul if any other crops were to thrive.
How right I was!
Excavating no.4 2.16
Clearly the sand, which I had once mixed with the black sedimentary soil of the Nile, adding a little compost, had filtered down to form a layer at the bottom of the bed. Meanwhile, the soil above had tended to set hard like baked clay, forming an almost impenetrable layer on top.

As I worked, I imagined this was akin to Schliemann’s experience excavating at Troy: working through layer after layer of soil, rock, bits of debris etc. A hardy plant like mint coped in the bed last year and sections of root were still there, but otherwise there were no signs of life. Not a single earthworm.

The tough nature of Egypt’s soil has been remarked upon by a number of experts and observers. Geographer Dr. Gamal Hamdan* noted the clay-like consistency of the soil deposited by the annual Nile flood reaching a total depth of up to 30 meters (over 90 feet) in parts of the country. Priest and social campaigner Henry Habib Ayrout** described it thus:

“It is an amalgam of fine particles carried down by the Blue Nile and the White Nile, consisting of coarse and colloidal clay, with an admixture of salts.”

(Note that the word “colloid” comes from the Greek “kolla” – glue – and “eidos” – form!)

For millennia, the Nile valley earth was enriched each year by a new, mineral-heavy deposit, unless the flood failed, so I presume that cultivating it was always a one-off event: plant, monitor, harvest, then wait for next year’s layer before repeating the process. And so on, always in “new” soil.

Well, I don’t have that luxury. So I dug out about one-eighth of bed 4, dislodging any number of truculent dark clods. Back-breaking and arm-wrenching as this was, I only managed a tiny bit of bed, or so it seemed:

Trench in bed 4 2.16

Next, following the practice of experienced cultivator and blogger Rebecca, in New Mexico, I started filling the trench with a) the odd well-dried log – of which I have very few – and b) armfuls of dry compost, topping it off with leaves and light soil (yes, really!) collected by the gardener while “cleaning” the herbaceous borders last month.

Dry compost fill 2

Once I got the bit between my teeth, I started adding dried debris from all over the garden:
Dry rocket compost 2.16

Now I am not one to go on about my age, but I’m no spring chicken and rescuing the bed really proved a bit too much for me. So, when they arrived yesterday there was a surprise in store for the engineer and his assistant: to complete the task I had begun. This meant digging out the rest of the section of bed and then, much to their astonishment, following instructions to fill it with all the dry debris we could find. No more logs available, sorry to say, and my husband had in any case pointed out that any apparently dried Indian laurels might just fight back and decide to grow again, but the drastic pruning of some basil and honeysuckle plants proved a godsend.

The lads made much better progress than I had done, and filled in around the plant debris with a mixture of finer particles of soil, sand and compost bought from outside.

I watched as they prepared the bed for planting, using a trowel to open a runnel for water and then inserting capsicum pepper seedlings. Small depressions in the soil were made, watered and then left ready for French bean seeds to be sown on Sunday. I made sure they watered carefully, without flooding – and watched with satisfaction as the liquid drained rapidly down.
Bed 4 after work 2.16
We moved on to bed 3, repeating the process in about a quarter of the bed, and planting more capsicum seedlings. Happily, while there were some Indian laurel roots in evidence, the problem was less serious than I had anticipated. The rosemary – planted as a cutting and mistakenly allowed to grow too big for me to move it – was hauled out with an adequate root ball and transplanted elsewhere. I hope she will settle happily, as I can’t bear to lose good plants.
Rosemary transplanted 2.16

As for the clods extracted from the raised beds, these were loaded into buckets and heaved up onto our gardener’s shoulders – brave man! – before being carried off to dry in the sunny garage area.
Unworkable soil 2.16

Question is: what to do with them? Usually, I try to break them up by hand when the soil is still damp, but according to advice from an engineer at the Ministry of Agriculture’s Agricultural Extension Services office, I should let them dry out and then whack them to bits using a hammer.

I need to think about this…

* The Character of Egypt (6 volumes) by Dr. Gamal Hamdan published under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture in Egypt.
** The Egyptian Peasant by Henry Habib Ayrout, first published in 1938 and translated from the French by John Alden Williams, AUC Press

For other bloggers’ experience of raised beds, try:

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. You’ve got a really tough job there! Have you considered using a green manure? I have planted some Phacelia to improve a stretch of border where I cut down an old lilac tree. The bees and pollinators love the flowers but some people dig it in before it flowers. You can even mix some green manure plants between vegetables. Amelia

    February 27, 2016
  2. That looks really hard work, my stony soil is very friable. Tuffo volcanic rock crumbles to make a very fertile but free draining soil that needs lots of organic matter to help it hold water. I think Amelia is right a green manure or any plants that can be dug in would be a good idea.

    February 27, 2016
  3. You both raise an interesting point. I tried a green manure once, in the form of clover, and both the engineer and I found it almost impossible to remove the stuff! (It set hard in the glue-like clay, after overwatering in one of the beds). Then I brought some grazing rye seeds from London but was too nervous to plant them. In tune with Charles Dowding, who practices a no-dig approach, I may now hoe in or compost the mustard and spinach after they have gone to seed; alternatively, he suggests broad beans as a good crop-cum-green-manure and I hope we may have success with these later this year. As noted earlier, last year’s planting failed completely. His idea is to choose plants that are useful as crops, enrichers of the soil, and good compost materials. Win-win – in theory!

    February 28, 2016
  4. Rebecca from New Mexico visiting…
    You have been working hard, and I’m not so young either. I take time to smell the roses.

    I had vertisol clay in Texas and you couldn’t break it with a pickaxe when it was dry. I kept it mulched all year long and it became awesome soil.

    In favor of Nile soil, it is nutrient dense with good minerals. It just lacks humus to be some of the best soil in the world. Adding sand turns clay into brick. If you add enough organic matter, it will work.

    I plant peas or beans in and around my other plants every year, then work them in after I harvest.

    One thing I did in Texas heat that burns humus out very quickly was I ran my vegetable and fruit paring through the blender with a little water and took it out to my garden. Dug a small hole anywhere and poured the stuff in. Covered up with soil. Very effective because the heat breaks the tiny pieces down quickly. Too cold here for that, but a hot climate will love it.
    looking good!

    March 4, 2016
  5. Your comments are very helpful and wonderfully encouraging! I’ve taken on board the humus treatment but most of the good work was undone by the Engineer recently (as you may recall). I did get back some of the material that was removed, and added it to the compost and raised beds. Will try using legumes as you suggest – they look very pretty when they flower, so would pass in herbaceous borders, and, of course, the root systems have all those magical nodules. I’m intrigued by your pureed instant compost: what a brilliant idea! Thank you so much for your encouragement.

    March 5, 2016

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  1. Rescuing the raised beds – part 1 | thejasminegate – WORLD ORGANIC NEWS

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