There are a million and one tips out there about how do it, and many different methods of doing it. If you’re going to choose to garden in the ground (as opposed to in containers) – and this includes raised bed gardening – there is one tip that you can’t miss if you want to grow your own food successfully.
If you get it right, you are at least 80% of the way to organic gardening success.
I’m talking about making sure the soil is the healthiest it can be.
Healthy soil is what creates healthy plants. And healthy plants grow stronger, produce more, and help repel the insect herbivores that would otherwise feed on them.
So how do you turn a heavily trafficked area of lawn into succulent soil? There are a handful of places in the world where all you have to do is get rid of the grass and weeds, and voila!, a perfect garden bed. But if you’re like most people, you don’t live in one of those places, so you will have to do a little more work to get your soil to that friendly state where it will happily help you grow your own food.
In that case, to have success with growing your own food you will have to either amend the existing soil, or create new soil on top of it. This latter method will eventually end up amending the existing soil underneath, but in the meantime you can start your garden in the new layer of soil and save yourself either digging or tilling. And either method brings you the desired results – nutrient-rich soil that is loose enough to allow the roots of plants to easily grow down into it, even the root crops such as carrots and beets.
Amending the existing soil
There are three main ways to amend the existing soil. The first way takes the longest, but not nearly as much labor as the other two.
You select an area for your garden bed (in a spot that gets at least six hours of sun during the growing season), mark it off, kill the grass and/or weeds, and then liberally seed the area with daikon radish and dandelions. As these two crops grow, their long taproots both break apart the hardest of soils and bring up nutrients deep in the ground closer to the surface, making them more easily available to your future garden crops.
Let them grow and reseed for at least a year, two, if you can wait that long, and in the meantime allow whatever other weeds that pop up to stay (except for the nastiest of them, like crab grass or thistle). A couple weeks before you get ready to plant, mow the area as close to the ground as possible and kill all the greenery by covering it up with cardboard or black plastic. After a couple of weeks, you will have healthy, loose soil in which to plant your first seeds.
Do not worry that you will continue to have dandelions growing in your garden bed. Contrary to popular belief, they are actually beneficial to a vegetable garden for the same reason they help to amend the soil, and do not steal nutrients and water away from the crops.
The faster way…
You may want to begin to grow your own food sooner than in the next year or two. So the second way to amend existing soil is the double-dig method. This is as hard, back-breaking and time-consuming as the name sounds, so I won’t go into detail about how to do it. I believe you are reading this article to make gardening less overwhelming, not more. You can read the article at http://www.communitycrops.org/doubledig if you are curious.
The third way is to purchase several bags of various soil amendments – greensand, lava sand, compost, dry molasses, horticultural corn meal, worm castings – spread them on the garden bed area after killing the grass, and till them in. This would be the only time you ever till that particular bed, and you can have amended soil, ready for planting, in just a day or two.
If you have sandy soil, adding compost, including composted manure, is the best way to amend it. For a hard clay soil, you need to use the rest of the amendments listed above, broadcast according to package instructions, and put a two-inch layer of compost on top before tilling it all in.
But what if you don’t want to do any digging or tilling in order to grow your own food? Welcome to my gardening world! You have several options, and they all start the same: kill off the grass by covering the bed area with weighted-down corrugated cardboard (avoid cardboard with a waxy coating and colored print on the outside). If you have rhizomatic grass in your lawn – the type that spreads by putting out rhizomes, or root nodules, and therefore grow extensive, impossible-to-eradicate root networks – I recommend spraying the area with 20% vinegar first, including two feet out from the perimeter of the garden bed, and also digging up with a hand-tiller as much of the root system as you can.
I know, I know, I said you wouldn’t have to dig or till, but if your only place to grow produce is in a lawn covered in rhizomatic grass, you simply have more work than other homeowners. I’m sorry, and I completely empathize as I have had to deal with the same issue.
After you have dug out as much of the root system as possible, then cover the area with cardboard.
You may choose to build a border around the bed, or not. You will absolutely need a border around the bed if you have rhizomatic grass in your yard. After that, you can fill the bed – six inches at least, twelve inches in the ideal world – in several different ways. The easiest way is to fill it with organic potting soil. Shop around, because some are less expensive than others but just as good.
Where we used to live a brand called “Gardenville” that contains lots of good stuff was available. It was much more economical than the other organic options, but alas, it’s nowhere to be found where we live now, even though we live fewer than a three-hour drive away.
Another way to fill your bed – but possibly the most expensive, and definitely the least sustainable – is to mix equal parts of vermiculite, compost and peat moss until you have at least six inches of material piled up. Peat moss is not a sustainable product, as it takes thousands of years to develop into that form, and both the peat moss and vermiculite, unless you can find them locally in bulk, add up quickly.
The cheapest, most sustainable way to create a healthy garden bed to grow your own food
That’s why I strongly suggest you consider this final way of filling up your bed, which is the least expensive. You simply layer, on top of the cardboard, any combination of the following:
- compost (preferably homemade, but feel free to start with commercial compost),
- kitchen scraps,
- non-rhizomatic grass clippings,
- seed-free weed trimmings,
- dried leaves,
- straw (not hay! Hay contains seeds).
Build the layers eight inches high or more. Depending on the kinds of materials you use, your bed will be ready from anywhere to a few days to a few months. And your crops will love it. Build the beds in the fall, and they’ll be ready to help you grow your own food by the next spring.
Healthy soil. The key to success when you want to grow your own food.