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!
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:
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.
Once I got the bit between my teeth, I started adding dried debris from all over the garden:
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.
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.
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.
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: