Monday, April 12, 2010

Preparing Your Garden Bed

It's been a few weeks, and I've decided my garden plans are too grandiose for the small plots in my backyard. All the websites I'm reading are telling me to narrow down and choose a few varieties of vegetables, rather than plant one of everything. While I'm thinking about that, I'll share with you the research I've done on preparing a garden bed.

Some good guides:
Preparing the Garden Bed
Tips for Preparing a Planting Bed
How to Start a New Garden

One thing these guides have in common is that they all give different advice. To each gardener their own, I suppose. I've handpicked the advice that makes the most sense for my situation and made a simple 5 step list of what I need to do. I hope this is helpful for others too, in condensing all the information that is out there - but remember that my steps may be different for you depending on your soil. (Especially if you have clay in your soil, or your soil drains poorly.)

1. Check hours of sunlight.
If you have a plot of land in mind, take a sunny day and check continuously to see how many hours of sunlight that plot will get. This will determine where and what you plant. 4-6 hours is considered low light, 6-8 is considered good sunlight, and 8-10 is awesome. I already know I'm getting at most 5 hours in most of the areas in my backyard, which will really limit what I can plant.
Note: keep in mind that growing foliage will limit your light even further in the summer.

2. Test soil.
Google "soil testing" + your state to find out where you can send a soil sample. Here in Massachusetts, UMass runs a standard soil test for a reasonable $9. Soil testing checks for lead and the pH of your soil. It will also let you know the nutrient levels, so you know if you have good quality soil. Your soil quality determines how you will prepare the garden bed, which is why I've written two versions of step 4.

3. Cut sod.
Cut the sod with a flat-edged spade or sod-cutter. I have literally only a few square feet of land available, so I'm going for a spade. Dig 1-1/2" deep to remove the whole root system.

4.1 Remove sod, add elements for healthy soil.
If your soil needs to be adjusted, remove the sod and add it to your compost so you have space for what you will add. Dig out 6” of your garden bed, toss in a shovel of sand for every 4 square feet. Toss in 3-4” worth of finished compost (that’s a LOT of compost). (Add bone meal for poor quality soil if needed). Till, or turn the soil, to a depth of about 8 inches. Fill in the rest with quality topsoil (dark, crumbly), and till the soil again, as deep as you can.

4.2 Smother sod, add topsoil
If you have good quality soil, smother the sod by laying it upside down in the dug-out bed, and cover with brown bags and newspapers, about 8-10 layers. Wet down the newspaper and cover with good topsoil.

5. Mound topsoil.
Whichever method you’ve chosen, the garden bed should be noticeably higher than the surrounding area. If the bed is next to a wall, it should be highest at the wall, in order to drain water away from the house. If the bed is an island, it should be higher in the center.

Things I need to buy (and you might too)
Flat-edged spade (or sodcutter)
Shovel (or rototiller)
Quality topsoil
Organic compost

Recipe of the Day
Since that's a lot of work, I'm leaving you with a very simple but tasty recipe. Just mix the ingredients below:

1 can of black beans
1 can of diced tomatoes (or 1-2 fresh tomatoes)
1/2 - 1 can of corn (or fresh corn)
1-2 cups of cooked rice
Cilantro or parsley to taste

Since it's simple, you can improvise! Please comment to post other ingredients you've added.