Saturday, April 30, 2011

Getting the Soil Started

Yesterday I received the following message. I decided that thinking about it over night and sharing my reflections was worth the time. I suspect there are many of you who are in some sense starting a garden about now. It's a good time -- except that it would have been best to have been making compost all winter long.

"....last year I experimented with planting my herbs and vegetables directly in the soil. That turned out to be unsuccessful so this year I would like to build a bed. I've been reading various books and even looking at various online sources about constructing a raised bed. My confusion arises from this issue: I currently have grass on the spot where I would like to build the bed. Some sources recommend that a raised bed depth should be 8 to 12 inches. Is it recommended then that I remove the grass and then dig about 8 to 12 inches deep? I was planning on installing wire mesh on the bottom of the bed to prevent any grass or weed from invading into the raised bed soil but now I'm uncertain of what to do."

One doesn't make an experienced garden in one year without a lot of resources that most people don't have. Northern NJ 21st century clay soil is NOT good gardening soil. It must be improved, and that takes time both short-term and long-term.

"Raised beds" are not the point. Getting organic-rich gardening soil is. The deeper the good soil, the better, but six inches is enough for lettuce and some other small greens. Beans and peas are much more tolerant (and giving) than peppers and eggplants.

When I started gardening, the jargon was "intensive gardening." I read about "double digging" in "How to Raise More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine" by John Jeavons. It took me a full half hour, the limits of my strength, to double dig one patch 2' x 2'. "Double digging" means you go down two shovel lengths. The actual depth will grow each time you do it if that's your goal.

Yes, I remove the grass before I start and shake off as much soil as I can easily. Then I compost the rest.

Now I start digging. Take the top layer, whatever depth is convenient, of a small patch (I first used about 1' x 1') and put it aside, in those days I put it on a used plastic bag. Then dig the next layer to make it loose. Then put some organic matter in there. Compost is ideal, but at first I compromised with dead leaves, which the books discourage. Then go to the next small place, put its topsoil on the empty spot, dig below, and add organic matter. (My uncle used to dig in his kitchen garbage each day.) Go around in a "circle" until you are next to where you began. Take the topsoil you set aside and put it where you now have an empty spot.

Now improve the topsoil. Compost is pretty essential now. Dig it into the topsoil, and rake it to look like a garden.

Now you have broken soil down two shovel depths (whatever that is). The roots of your plants don't have to work so hard to find nourishment, nor do the worms have to work so hard to help. The more organic material you have introduced the better.

I did this spring and fall for my first three years of gardening, and then the soil was the black, friable stuff I now have. Each time you can go a little deeper. Jeavons advocates 2' as your goal, but I think I settled for 18", which is enough. But don't expect to do it in one year!

Tomatoes, lettuce, beans, and many greens will thrive your first year. It's a bit late to start peas, but I'm told they are good too.

Wooden enclosures have become fashionable in the past decade or two. They keep people from getting too ambitious and encourage concentrating efforts where they can matter, but I think they are unnecessary and a nuisance. They do keep grass from invading the garden, which is good. On the other hand, they make it hard for the gardener and the sunlight to get right up to the edges, they cost money, and they insist upon neatness, not one of my higher values. Judy Hinds has used them wonderfully, and you can see her garden in Nutley on May 14 for a "square-foot" approach to organic, abundant gardening.

There are many viable approaches and your goal is to find one you like. They all, however, insist on richer soil than you will find in a typical yard in or near Montclair.


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