Building Good Soil
Do you want a fabulous garden? Start with good soil. There are a variety of ways to do this.
The fastest way to achieve good soil is to dig out 18-36 inches of your existing soil and fill that space in with good quality nursery-purchased soil that has been enriched with compost. This will also be the most expensive way to get your garden ready.
Anther way to go about this is to dig a little existing soil out and replace just the upper few inches with good quality soil enriched with compost and plant a cover crop, such as clover, which will add nutrients to the soil and look nice. You can then add good quality soil to each hole you dig for specific plants, as you plant them. This will be almost as expensive as the above option, but it will spread the costs out and the cover crop will give the soil additional nutrients. Turn the cover crop over before planting edibles to mix in the nutrients with your existing soil underneath.
If you have the room to build up, you can skip the digging and add a few inches of good quality soil right on top of the existing soil. This is also the same concept of raised beds. With raised beds, you have more control over the edges of your garden and you can choose to put down various barriers to prevent weeds from the ground and/or gophers or other critters.
The longer, slower method is much less expensive and lasts for years. If your soil is poor, buy a bag of red wriggler worms and some earthworms. The earthworms burrow and dig tunnels, which provide better drainage and encourage roots to grow deeper into the earth. If you live in an area that already has earthworms around, then skip them. Red wrigglers are the most common composting worms and provide lots of nutrients to the soil when you feed them your produce waste. Just open the bag and disperse the worms around your garden area. They will burrow down into the dirt to avoid the sun. Then, work your way from one end of the garden to the other methodically digging a small hole each evening, placing the day’s produce ends and peels, etc into the hole, and then covering it up. By burying the produce, you prevent critters and flies and such from prolonged visits. The worms will follow the food and leave behind nutrients along the way. Repeat over and over. Daily isn’t required, but it is easier in the beginning to form the habit.
A fun experiment for you and the kids is to save a few red wrigglers and place them in a container in the kitchen. Poke tiny holes in the lid for airflow and add a handful of dirt, some shredded newspaper, and a little produce ends, cores & peels. Pay special attention to how long it takes them to eat each type of produce — a journal, perhaps? The kids will love it and it will teach the whole family what is going on under the surface of your garden. Read up on vermicomposting and just scale it down real small for your experiment. When you go on vacation or the kids lose interest or you feel you’ve learned enough, simply empty the contents of your experiment into your garden.
Over time, you learn which produce trimmings are favorites of the red wrigglers and which either are not favorites or simply take a long time to decompose, even for the worms. When you are ready to start planting, dig your nightly holes between the plants to avoid disturbing the roots. Eventually, you may want to relegate just a few areas of the garden or yard to this purpose. Spacing them out in your growing space will keep the worms fed and producing nutrients for your plants.
If worms just are not your thing, you can follow the above without the worms. It will just take longer. The worms speed up the composting (fancy word for decomposing), but the produce waste will decompose on it’s own. Just remember to bury it to keep the critters away.
In addition to composting directly in the soil, planting a cover crop between growing seasons helps return nutrients to the soil. Clover is a nice one. Red clover is particularly good if you enjoy using herbs as medicine. There are others, of course. Checking with a local nursery employee is helpful for determining what is best in your area. If you have the space, planting the cover crop amongst your edibles has the advantage of being a living mulch, which will reduce your watering needs and soil erosion. Clover keeps coming back year after year, so sharing seeds with a friend can be economical.
Certain plants are particularly helpful for building good soil and assisting edibles to be their best. These can be your first edibles to plant in your garden, so they can get busy preparing the soil. Borage and yarrow are good general plants for the edible garden. They are pretty and provide useful plant parts, too. Borage flowers are pretty in ice cubes and taste delicious in salads when freshly picked. The leaves can be lightly steamed and eaten like spinach. A mix of such greens is quite tasty. Yarrow flowers grow in such a way that is inviting for butterflies to rest and the flowers have medicinal qualities. Meanwhile, both plants give nutrients back to the soil. Borage reproduces easily, so you’ll want to eventually thin out the plants in order to give room for your edibles. Peas (cool season) and beans (warm season) are good to plant in the garden, too. Not only to eat, but also because they add nitrogen to the soil for the next plants to use.
Crop rotation is an excellent practice to get into the habit of doing. It benefits your soil, which helps your plants grow and produce food for you. Each type of plant uses certain nutrients and leaves behind different components. Learn which plants use a lot of nitrogen (corn, for example) and alternate planting it with beans or peas in different seasons or years. Rotate where you allow the borage to grow in your garden. Tomatoes can be finicky, so rotate instead the companion plants around them (borage, nasturtiums, basil, marigolds, etc) if your tomatoes refuse to grow in a new location.
Every area has unique qualities in the soil. Talking to small nurseries is helpful in understanding your area. Check into gardening classes (often free at local nurseries) and clubs or groups that meet in your area. By building good soil you will ensure strong healthy plants that give you food in return for your effort. While you are building your soil, start growing in containers. There is no need to wait to enjoy delicious edible plants! You’ll know when your soil is ready because the container plants will “jump” right in and take off growing and producing food for you and your family!
Karin Rose is an instructor, freelance writer, and woman of many interests. Her first published body care recipe, a face serum, was featured in December 2011 on Spa Week Daily – Spa Foodie: Karin Rose’s DIY Face Serum Recipe. She is married to the love of her life and enjoys being a mother, volunteer, and a student of life. When she is not smearing her concoctions on herself and loved ones, she can be found teaching others how to make their own body care products and selling her handcrafted goods to clients. Her favorite quote comes from Mother Theresa, “Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.”