A Gardening year: preparing the plot

>> Saturday, June 30, 2007

For all of you who have felt the urge to start a garden, congratulations for rediscovering our agrarian heritage. That urge is rooted in a time when farming, for the sake of feeding ourselves, was once so necessary, so much a part of the fabric of our lives, that it would never occur to us that we would not ever have a food garden or farm. A backyard garden may be small but it is still a farm. With the proliferation of cheap, readily available food year-round from supermarkets and farmers markets, we no longer have to farm. The trade-off is that we have lost touch with our heritage.

Growing your own food, once a necessity and a chore, has become more of a treat. For the fresh taste that you simply cannot get from store bought produce. For the variety of produce that supermarkets cannot provide. For the sheer joy of creating life out of your own backyard, through your own toil and sweat. These attributes, experienced by home gardeners everywhere, cannot be measured.

Gardening is a pleasure for all your senses. Feeling the suns warmth on the almost silky smoothness of well-worked soil as it flows through your fingers, smelling its earthy almost sweet aroma, seeing the soil come alive with worms and other critters, tasting the freshness of vegetables and fruit that you have grown, hearing the wildlife that your efforts have attracted, all of these aspects make gardening worthwhile.

Just because we are surrounded by row after row of tract housing or stacked up buildings doesn’t mean we can’t grow something beautiful and/or edible.

Once you have picked and tasted the fruits of your labors gardening can truly consume you. You will end up spending hours lost in the Zen-like reverie of tending your garden that will force you to re-prioritize your place in this world. You will find a peace that you cannot find anywhere else.

If you are serious about gardening, you will soon learn it is as much about tending to your psychological well being as it is about tending to nature. One of the first things you need to do is put yourself in the frame of mind that it needs to be enjoyable. Once you have lost the fun factor then you may as well go find something else to entertain yourself.

Gardening is fun, but not in the way of anything else that offers the instant gratification that is necessary for some people. It is long term. After all, it is nature and nature is not an overnight proposition. It requires dedication, it requires patience, and it requires you to understand that there will be failures. Sometimes these failures can be of your own making, often times a failure can be attributable to mother nature herself. Do not take it personal. Nature has failed billions of times and yet its beauty can be found everywhere.

I think it is important to note that gardening is for more than just our health and enjoyment. We are creating a habitat for natures denizens. Insects, both good and bad, birds, both beautiful and not so beautiful, mammals, large and small, and of course us.

Now, if you are still here and still want to go forward with turning that boring and non-productive lawn into the beautiful and bountiful flower or vegetable patch of your dreams, then please read on.

You should decide now if you want to build raised beds or dig trenches around your plot. Walls and trenches are an attempt to keep the surrounding lawn from encroaching into your beds. If you dig a trench you will have to re-dig it every once in awhile, until you get tired of doing it and end up installing a barrier of some kind anyway. The advantage of raising the bed now and surrounding it with boards or concrete blocks is that the soil will tend to stay looser because there is less chance of you walking on it.

Turning your chosen plot of earth from lawn to garden is not something that happens overnight. After all, it took awhile for that lawn to fill in so it makes sense that any plants you put in will take awhile to thrive. You are going to need good quality soil, access to water and properly selected plants that will survive in the amount of sunlight that hits your plot.

Healthy soil is key to healthy plants. Whether your soil is ideal to begin with or if it has been laying barren for years, keep in mind that you will have to amend it every year. A combination of natural materials such as soil and compost, composted or aged animal manure, leaves, grass clippings, shredded newspapers, cardboard, and/or anything else that breaks down in the soil will go a long way towards maintaining that healthy soil texture that supports microbial life. Gardening is more about feeding the soil than about feeding the plants. Healthy soil needs to be loose enough to allow roots to easily pass through yet thick enough to support the plant so that it can stand up as it grows larger. Soil needs to also be able to retain water through periods of drought without having to water it every day and adding natural materials will keep this quality.

The plot you choose ideally should be no wider than three or four feet, so you can reach across it without stepping on it. Stepping on it compacts the soil, not good for growing things in. Some people place a board across the bed or stepping stones to prevent stepping on the soil. Outline the area with a garden hose, bricks, string, sticks, flour, spray paint or whatever to get a clear picture of the final shape of the bed. Nothing is really final in gardening, we all make adjustments as we go but once you have the layout identified the area needs to be cleared of all grass, plant roots, rocks and other debris.

Existing grass can be either removed or smothered.

To remove the grass, you will use either hand tools (turf edger and a square shovel) or a machine called a sod cutter. In either case you will be left with pieces of sod that you can either place in other barren areas of the lawn or throw onto the compost pile (lay them upside down on the pile to help smother the grass and expose the roots to the sun). After the plot is clean, break up the top eight to twelve inches of soil with a pitchfork. This tool is great for this job as you are not necessarily looking to dig up the whole area, just open it up so water and soil amendments can reach down into the substrate. You might be tempted to rent or borrow a roto-tiller but I caution you to resist the urge. Roto-tillers tend to more completely destroy the soil structure and there is growing evidence that soil just below where the tines reach can become a hard pan which is difficult for plant roots and water to break through.

Next, spread top soil mixed with compost or composted animal manure. What we are doing here is improving the soil texture. The manure is a great way to attract earthworms, the true workhorses of the garden. Spread the mix about 3” thick and then work it into the top six to eight inches of soil with the pitch fork. After digging it all in and leveling the plot, sprinkle the area with a gentle shower of water until just before puddles form. This allows the soil to settle, pushing out any air bubbles.

Smothering the grass can be done with clear plastic sheeting or newspapers. Use the plastic sheets in the summer so the heat of the sun bakes the grass until it dies (3-4 weeks). Use the newspaper method at anytime of the year by piling on 8-10 sheets and holding it down with soil until the grass dies (several months). The newspaper method is best done in fall and allowing it sit over winter. A way to speed up either process is by spraying Glyphosate on the grass first. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in many products on the market such as Hi-Yield and Round-Up. This chemical is considered the safest in that it will break down and become harmless within 10-14 days. I have used this method and it works great. After the grass is dead, the grass becomes a mulch and you can now pile on top soil mixed with compost or composted animal manure.

As the soil ‘ages’ you will begin to see earthworms throughout the plot, this is an excellent sign that you have the start of a fairly well balanced ecosystem.

When choosing plants for your new plot, pay particular attention to your growing zone and light/shade requirements. Full sun means at least six to eight hours, and more than this can be too much.

Be sure to follow growers recommendations for the proper width and depth of the hole. Then fill the hole with good garden soil and some fertilizer, time-released 10-10-10 is probably best.

Doesn’t it feel wonderful to know that you have taken the first steps towards bringing life up out of the ground and reconnected with your past?

Well this is enough for now. I’ll cover compost and mulch in another posting. So, until then good luck and have fun.


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