Part 2 of Planning, Preparing & Planting the perfect organic kitchen garden.
You have done your homework planning your new gardening now it’s time to roll up your sleeves and start turning those plans into reality. Starting a new garden from scratch takes work for this is where you turn that unused section of lawn or new raised bed into a living, healthy growing environment. When we began farming here at Madison Creek Farms preparing those first few garden plots we made a lot of mistakes. Most of our mistakes were due to lack of knowledge and mentorship as well as not having a solid plan for our garden. Although I had raised a garden, grew up on a farm and had a good deal of experience growing neither I nor Mark had any experience with this farm, this environment or the obstacles that come with starting from scratch. We wasted both time and buckets of money learning the hard way. So with this post I hope I can help you to avoid some of those costly mistakes that can take the joy out of growing your own garden.
Once you have chosen your site for your new garden you will need to test your soil. This is easily done and is very inexpensive. It is also one of the most important things you can do to protect your investment. A soil test will tell you what you are dealing with in terms of your soil’s structure and nutrient levels. It will also tell you the ph of your soil and this ph reading is one of the keys to growing healthy productive plants. Allow me guide you through the process of taking a soil sample.
You will need the following:
3 small clean containers with a tight lid
1 sharpie pen for labeling your container
A shovel and garden gloves.
3 plant marker label stakes (anything you can stick into the ground to label a spot)
The first thing we’ll want to check is the type of soil we are dealing with in your new garden plot. You will need to take your shovel and dig through any top grass layer to the first layer of bare soil. Once this area is bare and clear of grass and debris skink your shovel down at least 6 inches lifting the soil up to the surface as if you were digging a hole. Take a small handful of this soil, look at it…note the color and texture…smell of it…does it smell sweet and earthy or does it smell stale and chemical or septic? Look through the soil do you see earth worms? Now take a handful of the soil you just dug up and try squeezing it into a ball in your palm. Does the soil hold together or does it lump up or does it fall loosely apart? If your soil holds together it probably has a fair amount of clay (I am talking about dry soil, not damp soil…don’t do this test until the ground is dry wait at least 3 to 4 days after it rains) If your soil lumps together but doesn’t hold a ball shape it most likely contain some clay, if you soil falls loosely apart it has more sand and is referred to as loamy. Now remove the lid of your container and place a small handful of that just dug soil into it and place the lid back on tightly. On the lid or on the side of the container write area1 sample on the container with the sharpie. Do the same thing with your label stake to mark this spot as area 1 sample. Now repeat this process in 2 more areas around your new garden plot. In the earlier post of “Planning, Preparing and Planting your new garden” I told you about micro-climates on your property well the same goes for underneath your feet as well. One section of your garden can be different then the other. This is why it is good to take samples from 3 different locations within you gardening plot. Now that you have a good idea what type of soil you are dealing with Clay, loamy or slightly clay you can began to make plans on the beginning amendments to your soil. But first let’s get that soil tested shall we? All you need to do now is take these soil samples to your local county extension agent. These are located most of the time in your county seat town or city. The cost for a soil test is about $ 12 to $ 15 dollars but well worth the money. Now I will tell you that most soil tests will have recommended amendments on them…the problem with that is these are referring to non-organic amendments but we will get to that in a bit.
It will take 7 to 10 days to get your soil test back but that doesn’t mean we have to stop working on preparing that new garden space. If you are planning on planting in ground rather in a raised bed system than you can begin by preparing your plot for tilling. There are methods of no-till gardening and I do agree with them in most ways, but I have found that in middle Tennessee where my farm is located we deal with an evasive grass called Bermuda grass. This grass will choke out your plants and unless we till and dig the grass out of our garden. And even doing this much work we still will have to contend with this grass for it will continue to return, but by tilling and digging this will allow our plants to get a head start on the grass. You can never completely rid your garden of these types of evasive grasses but you can turn the tables to your favor. So let’s get back to tilling that new garden plot. Do not remove the sod…Mark and I have done this before thinking we would be out smarting the grass and weeds…sounds reasonable right? You remove everything down about two inches or so and there you have this nice grass and weed free planting plot all ready to turn over and grow a lovely easy garden…well that is just not the case. First and foremost that top few inches of sod contains the majority of your soils beneficial microbes and nutrients. By removing these essential elements you are doing more harm then good. And as a matter of experience it will not rid your garden of grass nor weeds for they will return with the heat of summer. We have found these to be the best way in which to create a new garden from scratch.
First remove any and all debris from your garden site. Tree limbs, rocks ect…next with a mower or weed eater cut the grass down as low as you can to the ground. Rake the grass cutting up and put them into your compost bin…you did start a compost bin right? If not, this is a good source of nitrogen to get i started with a bag those of dead leaves Once you have the site clear and grass cut down you can begin to till the garden. If you are renting a tiller make sure to get a good size tiller for breaking up new ground needs a powerful tiller. Those small tillers won’t get the job done. Remember start small…a family of 4 can harvest enough produce from a 12×12 garden planted smartly to feed them fresh organic vegetables all spring, summer and fall. The key is success is keeping your garden manageable and enjoyable. New garden 1….Now that your garden plot is tilled let’s go ahead and start dealing with the type of soil amendments that we can do before your soil test comes back. If you found that your soil has a good amount of clay we will need to add something to help loosening it up. The best soil conditioner for clay soil is sand and compost and a fair amount of both. Before you add anything to your garden though you should mark off you planting beds. That way you are only amending the space in your garden that will be used to produce not the space that will be used as pathways. These planting beds should be no wider then 4 feet and no longer then 10 feet. This will give you a bed in which you can work from both sided. Your pathway should at least be 2 to 2 ½ feet wide to allow for room to harvest and to be able to accommodate a wheelbarrow to be used along the planting beds. Keep your planting beds laid out in the same direction this will make running drip irrigation simple and easy to install. For clay soil I would recommend for a 3×10 planting bed 3 bushels of sand and 4 bushels of compost. If you are buying sand from a hardware store or say Walmart don’t purches the sand that has been bleached or colored. You just want regular old sandbox sand. If you are buying compost you will need 6 bags…and believe me when I tell you the compost that are in those bags are not real compost like you will be making. The nutrient level in bagged compost is so low I really don’t know how they are calling it compost at all. There are products in the bagged soil department that are also called soil conditioners and they will do as well, but be sure to read the label to make certain they have no added chemicals. All you are doing with bagged soil products is loosening up that clay. You are not going to be fertilizing with them. Just think of them as adding tilth, texture and volume. You can also add straw to the planting beds over time it will break down and add tilth to your bed as well. Clay soil takes a while to amend. Over time though it will loosen and become nice and fluffy.
If during your digging your soil sample your soil was lumpy but didn’t form a ball you may have a little clay so I would recommend depending on how lumpy cutting my above recommendations in sand in half or less, but adding the same amount of compost.
If you are lucky enough to have loamy soil then you will need to only add compost at this point to your planting bed.
I prefer the layered bad system when planting a new garden or even when I start my planting my productions beds here in the spring on the farm. Start by laying out your garden beds. I use a garden hose to lay out my bed or I use a can of orange marking paint to lay down an outline of my bed. I till within that outline. I then dig out the loose soil I just tilled and shovel it into a wheelbarrow. You may have to do half the bed and then the other half for the wheelbarrow to hold all this soil and amendments. You will want to have hollowed out about 5 to 6 inches in the bed. Now lay down 3 to 5 sheets of damp newspaper. Only use the newspaper that is not coated with a gloss finish. The plain newspaper is what you want. It doesn’t matter is its black and white or colored for most newspaper is now printed with soy based ink. If you have old card board or a source to get old cardboard that will work even better. Overlap the newspaper so no ground is visible. Now mix your amendments into the soil you shoveled out of the bed in the wheelbarrow. Dump this amended soil back into the bed over the layer of paper or cardboard. This will give you an extra layer of weed and grass protection and will over the season decompose and add tilth to your soil.
Rake your beds level and remove any debris. Now we are just waiting on those soil tests.
Raised bed system: If you have decided to uses a raised bed system to garden in then you will be forgoing most of what I have describe above. If you are building your beds from wood only use non-treated wood the treated wood has toxic chemicals and should not be used to plant in. I use 2×6’s for our raised beds here on the farm. Now wood does rot and we have found our bed’s have a life span of 3 to 4 years at the most before we have to start changing out the wood again. You can use cedar and I think it would indeed last longer but it would also be more expensive to use.
I personally prefer growing in a raised bed environment and the main reason is I have much more control over the over all process. Also with gardening in raised beds I don’t have to worry about tilling up my lawn. I actually build my own soil. I can better control the ph of the soil as well as drainage and planting in a raised be allows me to plant earlier in the spring and extend my season through row covers and low tunnels well into late fall.
This is my layered process in building a raised bed from scratch.
2 2x6x10 ft untreated wood boards
1 2x6x4 boards cut into 4 ft lengths
1 2x4x8 cut into 6in lengths ….you will need 4 of these for corner braces.
long wood screws to attach the ends
Lay out the 10 ft pieces of wood on the ground attach the 4ft ends with screws securing the 6in brace on the inside corner of the box. This will give you some extra support when the soil expands when wet and pushes on the sides of the box. Repeat process for the other end. Move you bed into place where you want to garden.
Use card board or 8 to 10 sheets of damp newspaper to cover the ground in your new raised bed. This will help to control the grass from coming up and into the bed. You will want this layer of cardboard or paper to be thick. Next add 2 inches of topsoil to the entire bed. Next layer is damp leaves, straw or a mixture of both. You will want 2 inches of this layer as well. You will need your wheelbarrow for the next layers. Mix together in 1 wheelbarrow full at a time until you have covered another 2 inches though out the entire bed.
2 parts topsoil
½ part sand
1 part peat moss
3 parts compost
In a 1 gal bucket mix together 1 cup bone meal 1cup blood meal 1 cup wood ash (this can be ash from a fireplace or from burning twigs) do not use wood ash from burning treated lumber. ½ cup lime stir this mixture into the wheelbarrow of soil. Mix well and shovel into the bed. Keep repeating this process until the bed as 2 inches of this mixture of fertilizer and soil amendments. Cover the top of the bed in a layer of 4 to 6 sheets of damp newspaper. Cover the newspaper with a good layer of damp straw to hold it in place. You are now ready to plant in your new garden bed. You will want to water your bed well before you plant. Just poke holes though the paper layer to set out your plants. If you are going to be direct seeding your new bed than forgo the last newspaper/straw layer you will need to mulch your plants as they grow though to keep them moist and suppress weeds. As the season moves along you will want to add more compost and topsoil to your raised bed. In the late fall add a nice thick layer of topsoil and leaves to your bed to over winter. You will also need to add additional organic fertilizer as the growing season moves along like Madison Creek Farm’s “Gro-Green”worm compost tea to help building a living environment quickly promoting beneficial life forms to populate and draw worms to your new bed. This will also kick-start your plants with a fast acting nutrient rich food source your plant can easily absorb while your slow release fertilizer mixer you applied while building you bed begin to release over time. You can raise or lower your ph slowly by adding amendment like lime or surfer. If you are using topsoil you harvested from your property or brought from a nursery you will need to test the soil for both clay and a soil test to determine the ph levels and nutrient value.
To order our exclusive worm compost tea, email us at the farm. This is our secret weapon here on our farm for all of our organic vegetable, herbs and flowers. 1 bottle makes 8 gals.