The lone voice of horticultural reason

Preparing The Garden Bed

5-15-1997 — Like so many things, success at gardening stems from preparation. To grow attractive, robust vegetables, fruits and flowers, the most important factor is properly prepared soil.

If you’re planning a new bed where there is currently lawn, a brushy area you’ve cleared, or that greatest of crimes, pink or white rock, consider this: Be sure the area you’ve chosen is suitable for what you want to grow.

Hard as I try, I cannot find a single shade-loving vegetable. Vegetable gardens need full sun, and whereas I have had some success in areas granting only four to five hours of direct sunlight, my yield is low, and there are some things–peppers, carrots, twenty others–I don’t even try. So don’t start counting the money you’re planning to save on groceries until you can count on six to seven hours of sun. Eight, nine is better. Ten or more is farming.

Take a Saturday when you’re home all day and watch your yard. Mark with stakes areas where the sun shines longest. Remember the towering trees of the western suburbs haven’t fully leafed out; will your sunny spot stay sunny all summer? If your sunniest spot is the front yard, put your vegetable garden in the front yard. Put a sundial in the center and ring it with herbs. Leave a copy of Martha Stuart’s Living on the patio where the neighbors can see it.

One factor overlooked when considering a vegetable garden is wind. Even light wind over the course of a summer can cut yield by as much as 25%. You may want to choose the lowest sunny spot, or place the bed near a fence or shrubbery line.

Once you’re sure of the site, be it for vegetables or flowers, dig a hole two feet in diameter by one foot deep, with vertical sides and a flat bottom. Let’s see what we’re dealing with here. Look at the cross-section of soil layers down the side–probably a few inches of black topsoil, turning lighter and more rocky towards the bottom. If you have six inches of black topsoil, great, but black dirt is not good gardening soil. Poke at the sides. What’s it like lower down? Any sand? Pebbles or pea gravel? None of that’s too bad. Any particles that look non-mineral and might possibly be plant life that died and became soil, also known as organic matter?

That’s good. Or is it clay? Clay is light brown, looks likes clay, squishes like clay, is clay. Small to moderate amounts of clay we’re going to deal with–we’ll add sand. However if you run into heavy clay, starting right below the topsoil, you’ve learned why your lawn has always done poorly, and may want to have it removed by an excavating service. Have the lads take the pink or white rock ringing the house at the same time.

Now fill the hole with six inches of water. Does it drain in less than three minutes? Good. Five minutes? Ten? Going to freeze over in December? If so, you may want to raise the bed.

But let’s finish this week with the most common scenario in the western suburbs: you’ve found some decent black topsoil, some rockier soil underneath it, light to moderate clay. Drainage checked out OK. The best way to prepare the bed (better, I think, than double-digging, which I’ll get to next week) is to first remove sod with a sod cutter (water it first) then completely remove the top six inches of soil with a shovel, tossing it onto a tarp spread alongside. Now add course, sharp sand, not a lot, fling it out a shovel full to every four square feet. Then add a three- to four-inch layer of organic matter, such as finished compost, peat moss, composted manure, or all three. Rototill completely to a depth of eight inches. You’ve just revitalized and prepared your soil down to 14 inches deep, and nobody’s shown any love or kindness to the soil down there in a long, long time.

Next toss the dirt from the tarp back onto the bed. If you aren’t planning on raising the bed you won’t need all of it, so some goes on the compost pile and some is used to start your very own polite dirt pile next to it. If this dirt is pretty good, black, has some sand particles in it, you probably don’t need to add any more sand, although I always do. The important thing is that you next heap on the organic material, lots of it, to comprise at least one-third of the finished garden soil. Rototill the whole area again as deep as she goes. Arc an unraised bed so the middle is noticeably higher than the edges.

OK, it was a bit of work. Relax–you’ll never do that again. But most gardeners I know love creating a new bed, just as some people love cooking a grand meal, sewing a quilt, or hitting a golf ball a great distance into a narrow strip of water. We may be crazy, but we’re well prepared.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener