'Soil My Undies' challenge - the result

Last autumn I carried out an exercise to test the level of soil biology by burying some cotton fabric to see how quickly it would be consumed...

Cotton fabric buried in garden soilLast November, I carried out an exercise I'd seen elsewhere to try and ascertain the level of biology in garden soil. By 'biology' I  mean the 'mini-beasts', the tiny creatures that live in soils. I followed the example of exercises I'd seen, where people had buried pairs of white cotton Y-fronts for a few months to see what was left when they dug them up. Feeling somewhat miserly at the time, I had no intention of going out and buying cotton Y-fronts only to bury them so I got an old work shirt out of the rag bag, cut it into pieces and buried those instead, along with some old elastic from a long-forgotten needlework project.

I buried two pieces, one in the garden here and one in a garden nearby. My own garden, let's call it 'Garden 1', is organic and the main input in recent years has been mulching with home-made compost and spreading autumn leaves over the soil surface. I do this for the worms and soil creatures, to prevent winter compaction and also to avoid having to pick them up and compost them elsewhere. Not everyone's choice, but it works fine here and the worms mix in a surprising amount of leaves into the soil over winter. It saves me doing it and that's fine too. The other garden, 'Garden 2', where a piece of shirt was buried has been treated quite well. It has been fed with manure and mulched with compost, but it is tidier than mine and I know that the owner sometimes uses non-organic fertiliser. Those are the only real differences. Both pieces of fabric were buried at the same depth (around 12cm) in damp soil which gets plenty of sunlight. 


The 'Great Revealing'

Initially, I had intended to dig up the pieces of shirt in mid-February, but didn't get around to it and then the snow and freezing weather arrived, followed by another cold spell shortly afterwards. It is only now that I've dug them up for The Great Revealing. It was slightly nerve-wracking. What might I see? Would both pieces have been eaten or would they still be whole, a shameful reflection of soil not cared for? 

What was left of the buried cotton fabricI dug up the piece in Garden 2 first. It had some good sized holes in it, but not as many as I expected from such good looking soil which had had manure and compost added to it. Following Elaine Ingham's advice, I'd be inclined to add more fresh garden compost. Then it was onto the soil I tend in Garden 1. I dithered. The garden work I do is extremely important to me, it's personal and I didn't want to be disappointed.

I delayed seeing the result by doing some cutting back, until there wasn't any more cutting back to do, and then took a deep breath and dug up my piece of shirt. As expected, the elastic was unchanged, but, oh, blessed relief, just a few ragged bits of cloth came out of the ground. The soil creatures had mostly devoured it and what was left was decidedly thin and threadbare. My soil-related pride intact, the ragged shreds were re-buried so the denizens of the deep can continue eating them. It would be good to repeat the exercise now that warmer weather is here and I still have some pieces of that shirt to be used up. As ever, it will be interesting to see what happens.

The contents of this blog reflect the views of its author, which are not necessarily those of the RHS

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