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August 2009
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Dirt Doctor Advises Growing Number of Allotment Fans

Gone are the days when allotments provided much needed food for a war-hit Britain in the 1940s; recent years have seen a huge surge in popularity allotments thanks to people’s increasing interest in organic produce, food provenance, healthy eating and the environment. With the onset of the credit crunch, more people than ever are turning to these small plots of land to cut costs on their grocery bills.

As National Allotments Week gets underway this week (August 10 – 16), soil specialist Dr Jason Owen from the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute in Aberdeen – also known as the Dirt Doctor – shares a few tips on getting the best out of your soil. With nearly 14 years studying one of the earth’s greatest natural resources, Jason’s work has varied from helping farmers to make efficient use of their land to advising construction companies whether a specific area of land has the right soil consistency for building upon.

Jason says, “The interest in allotments, growing your own fruit and vegetables, has increased considerably over the last few years, and it’s not necessarily just people who have previous gardening experience; beginners are getting in on the act too. The most important things to know about the soil in your allotment or garden is the pH – whether it is acid or alkaline, the amount of organic matter present, the soil type and nutrient levels. Once you have determined some basic characteristics, you can manage your soil in such a way that it will reach its peak condition.”

Taking Matters Into Your Own Hands

Knowing what your soil consists of will help with managing it. Pick up a handful and roll it into a ball – if it feels gritty and falls apart, it is a sandy soil. If it contains clay, it will roll into a ball and stick together. Peaty soil is almost black and spongy to touch, while chalky soil is light and contains chunks of white flint or chalk. Loamy soil is brown and crumbly, and silty soil feels silky and won’t form a ball.

Get Digging

Soil can vary within your allotment, regardless of how small an area it is, so find out if there are any significant variations in soil depth. Dig down a couple of feet to find out what lies underneath the soil. For example, new houses often have turf lain on top of building rubble, meaning that the soil needs a lot of work to improve its condition.

Do You Want Lime With That?

pH is an important soil property to consider for maximum productivity. In Scotland the soil tends to be acidic, but it?s important to check the pH to establish this. An application of lime is a cheap and easy treatment to increase soil pH and lower its acidity, thus increasing the soil’s fertility.

Finding The Right Match

Different plants thrive in certain soil types, so it’s worth considering the soil you have and the plants that grow best in that environment. For example, tubers, such as potatoes and turnips, like a lot of potassium in the soil, while hydrangea macrophylla flowers change colour depending on soil pH.

Jason says, “Finding out the characteristics of your soil is the first step towards creating the optimum environment in which your produce can grow. This can be done by using a soil testing kit from a DIY store or by sending a soil sample to a testing lab. A quick search of the internet will provide a few options for the keen gardener. The Macaulay Institute runs a mail order soils service where allotment users and gardeners can request a soil sampling kit and send a sample of their soil back to the Institute. Soil specialists analyse the sample and establish factors such as the pH, the concentration of nitrate, the amount of nutrients and the concentration of other elements within the soil.

Dirt Doctor Profile

Dr Jason Owen, aka Dr Dirt, is head of the soils section within the analytical group at the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute in Aberdeen, where he has worked for almost 14 years. Having studied Environmental Studies at the University of Sunderland, Jason discovered an interest in the composition of soil and went on to pursue a Masters degree in Soils Science at the University of Aberdeen. He later obtained a PhD in Soils Science at the Macaulay Institute where he has worked ever since.

Jason’s research involves analysing soils for a variety of chemical and physical parameters, such as organic matter, particle size distribution, soil texture and contaminants. He also works with water, agricultural and energy sector clients who require soil to be analysed for commercial purposes such as crop production and ensuring water quality.

Jason is currently participating in a three year sampling project which involves re-analysing soil from areas across Scotland and comparing it with archived samples taken in the 1970s and 80s. This large scale project is funded by the Scottish Government and is aimed at establishing any long term changes in Scotland?s soil.

To request a soil testing kit from the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute’s soils service, contact 01224 395115 or visit ‘macaulaysoils‘, for more details.


Information for Editors

The Macaulay Land Use Research Institute was founded in 1930 and is an international centre for research and consultancy on the environmental and social consequences of rural land uses. With an annual income from research and consultancy of over £11m, the Institute is the largest interdisciplinary research organisation of its kind in Europe, and aims to provide evidence to help shape future environmental and rural-development policy on a national and international basis. For further information, visit .

Dr Jason Owen is available for interview if required. Please contact 01224 654082 or for further details.

Eilidh Morrison

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