Whether you’re a brand new gardener, or if you’re looking to start gardening naturally/organically, the odds are very good that you’re planning a fresh start. This article is a mini-primer on ways to prepare a garden plot so that you can grow delicious and nutritious fruits and veggies. No yard? No problem. Follow the instructions for the Raised Bed Method and use it in containers instead (this is called container gardening). We’ve grown yielding pepper plants indoors, and a couple of sprawling indeterminate tomato plants on an East-facing shaded balcony when we lived in an apartment . All that is just to say: If you want to grow your own food.. you can.
The Existing Earth Method
This is where a garden plot is cultivated when there is/was nothing but weeds, grass, or worse: exposed soil. There are a variety of ways, but I’ll try to keep this basic without going in to too much detail. Try not to overthink it. Gardening, like many things, can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. Also, like most things, the more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it. Let’s get started!
Soil Disturbance: Aerate, Till, or Mix
First, pick out a plot where you want your garden to be. Mark it however you want. Use sticks, chalk, cut a line with a shovel, screwdriver, or mark it using whatever you have on hand. Then, if you have hard packed soil of any kind, you’ll want to loosen it to encourage a strong root system.
Wait! I thought tilling was bad!
Oh. You remember that, do you? In general, this is true. If you want to skip soil disturbance, please look up sheet mulching, or the “lasagna gardening” method. It’s the one we prefer, but certain circumstances may call for different solutions.
Back to loosening soil. If you have an old garden fork (or a new one made from steel of exceptional quality), or a broad fork (even better!), you’re in luck. You don’t HAVE to “till”(turn over) your soil. You can simply insert the fork, and leverage the handle 45° in both forward and backward directions to deeply aerate the soil. Truly, this is all that is needed in most situations, and it has less impact on the native soil biology.
However, if you do not happen to have either of these tools, you’ll have to resort to the old-fashioned way to do what is necessary. Use a pick-mattock, a sturdy hoe, a rake, a stick, or whatever you’ve got. The idea is to loosen the soil at least 6” deep so that roots can spread more easily. Less energy spent on sending roots, means more energy available for leaf and fruit production. Nice!
Amending Your Soil
We recommend amending your soil for a variety of reasons. If you have clay soil (like us), you’ll want to add organic matter to the soil to keep it loose, spongy, and better draining. If you have silt, you’ll want to add organic matter to help hold water and encourage microbiology. If you have sand, you probably want to avoid the “existing earth method” and go straight to the “build your own method” or sheet mulch. Over time, you can develop a very nice topsoil, if done correctly.
You may be under the impression that soil fertility refers to adding elemental N-P-K, or Nitrogen – Phosphorus – Potassium. While this can be short-term beneficial if you have absolutely terrible soil, I strongly advocate for the “build your own” method on top of deep aeration if this is the case. What we are trying to do is build food for the soil biology that will, in turn, make existing nutrients available to your plants as needed. Before Fritz Haber introduced his method of nitrogen fixation in 1909 (or rather, its mass production at industrial scale in 1913 by BASF), every agriculture system in the world relied on having natural materials on hand for soil fertility. Because the vast amount of commercially available fertilizer is derived from petroleum, and its irresponsible use (mostly by home owners) is polluting fresh water supplies, we strongly advocate for working with the processes that God has built in to natural systems. We know that He knows what he’s doing far more than we do, and the best we can do is to learn from the Creator’s design.
These elemental (even slow-release) products essentially make instantly available what a plant needs, so it doesn’t have to work to get it. While this appears to be a good idea on the surface, it is not. Often times, these fertilizers are bad for the soil’s microbiology. In addition, when a plant does not have a strong root system and symbiotic relationship to a well developed soil food web, it’s more susceptible to insect attack, disease, and drought. In short, you’re exchanging long-term health for short-term gain. (this sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?) In our view, this is a bad deal. We think it is a much better idea to build systems that improve over time.
Instead, Add These
As previously mentioned, we want to help foster a healthy biological community in the soil. We know that you feed the soil to feed your plants. The best way to get a thriving population of goldfish in a pond is to provide them with plenty of food. The same concept applies here.
1. Add dried molasses, rock dust, greensand, or the rocks that you removed when you aerated the soil bed to add minerals. Plants and soil biology alike need a wide spectrum of minerals to thrive. (On that note, so do we, so eat your dark leafy greens). Using a rake (preferred) or a shovel (next best thing) or a stick (again.. ‘if that’s all you’ve got, it’s better to grow than to not.'<-say that out loud.), mix the additions to the top layer of soil. You don’t have to be too thorough if you’re following the next step. You can also add kelp meal, alfalfa meal, mycorrhiza, inoculated bio-char, worm castings, or whatever your favorite latest plant-based organic amendment happens to be. Frankly, I like to use materials on hand, and add a lot of dried leaves and leaf mold to help improve soil structure and increase mineral content.
Optional: If you have the resources available, now is a good time to put down a layer of cardboard or several layers of newspaper to help suppress weeds.
2. Compost in place: throw down a good layer of green material. grass clippings, green leaves, kitchen scraps, whatever “fresh” plant material you happen to have on hand. On top of that, put a layer of brown material. Dry leaves, wood mulch, shredded newspaper/paper bags/cardboard. This will help get the good bacteria to work in your soil.
Cover Your Soil
Mulch Mulch thoroughly. (about 4″ deep.. avoid cedar mulch). You can use wood chip mulch, pecan shell mulch, bark mulch, or even rocks, pea gravel, straw, leaves, whatever you have on hand. The point is to protect the soil from direct impact and prevent evaporation.
The Raised Bed Method (aka, Build-Your-Own)
If you are looking for the convenience, aesthetics, temporary nature, or “quick fix” aspect of a dedicated raised garden bed, this method is for you. Build a bed out of cedar or redwood (untreated), buy a kit, or if all else fails, use a kiddie pool. Calculate the volume of your bed, and write it down.
The Square Food Gardening (SFG) Blend
1/3 Compost, 1/3 Vermiculite, 1/3 Peat Moss or Coconut Coir (preferred). Mix thoroughly and fill, or fill and mix thoroughly.
The Single Ingredient Fill
If you aren’t up for the work, the cost, or complexity, it is perfectly fine to fill your bed with straight compost. You can usually find a bulk source, and I highly recommend this. The pH on our bulk compost is 6.5, while the pH on our store-bought bagged compost was 7.0. The diversity of organic matter was also significantly higher in the bulk compost, with a wide range of particle sizes. It was also a truly finished compost, which could not be said of the bagged compost. Did I mention that it was cheaper? A lot cheaper. We did have a giant pile of steaming black gold on the sidewalk in front of our house that I had to shovel and haul to the growing area in a wheel barrow, but I would do it again and again, if I had to. It’s worth it to find a good source of the most important ingredient in your entire garden project.
Okay, so compost is expensive. So is vermiculite and peat moss. If you can’t afford to make the SFG blend or enough compost to fill your bed(s), then buy as much compost as you can afford, and mix with native soil.
I like to add rock dust, personally. You shouldn’t really need to add much since compost is already full of microbiological life. If you want to add dried molasses or green material, go for it. It won’t hurt, and might even help boost the microbiological activity.
If you have to skimp on some other fill ingredient (other than compost) to afford this step, do it. Mulch is the single most important soil amendment for soil health. Mulch thoroughly. (about 4″ deep.. avoid cedar mulch). I can’t state this enough: The point is to protect the soil from direct impact and prevent evaporation.
If Growing In-Doors
Skip the mulch, and stick with the SFG blend, or a good organic bagged potting soil formulated for veggies. We really like Black Gold Organic Potting Mix. (no, we don’t get paid for the endorsement.. but we do accept tips.)
The Next Step – Both Methods
This step is very important. Saturate your bed thoroughly. I mean, REALLY thoroughly. A protected (thanks to the mulch), moist environment will really encourage a healthy fungal network in the soil. While fungus in the walls of your home is bad, like many other things (think spiders), it’s extremely beneficial in the soil. Here is a brief concept to explain why.
How would you feel knowing that you could exchange a little work for all the food you need any time you want? Pretty secure? Your plants like that feeling, too. That’s what the fungal network in the soil does for them. See Why You Should LOVE, Not Kill, Your Weeds for a little more information about this.
The Fun Part
Direct sow your seeds, if you have enough growing season left, or if the days to maturity falls within an acceptable time span. Follow your seed pack’s instructions as often as possible. Move the mulch out of the way until the plant is well established. (this includes for sowing)
If you already have plant starts, now is the time to get them in the ground. If you don’t have any plants yet, you can usually pick some up at your local nursery. (p.s. – we recommend a local nursery over a big box store for a variety of reasons. While the initial cost may be slightly higher, in general, you get better plants for your climate, which means a better R.O.I. overall.)
I want to encourage you to inter-plant the starts in your bed. A diverse arrangement discourages destruction by insects. I also want to encourage you to think about how you can shade the soil without shading plants by how they are arranged. Both of these factors will result in a healthy micro-climate in your brand new garden bed.
We’ll follow up another time with how to care for your new garden bed. In the mean time, I hope this has inspired you to try your hand at growing your own food. A lot of nutrition is lost just in the time our food takes to get to our plates. Fruits are usually harvested under-ripe for easy shipping, and varieties are chosen based on their good looks and ability to travel well. When you are growing your own, you can choose varieties based on TASTE and NUTRITION while enjoying the freshest food on earth: Your own.