Tilling the Soil

One question that always comes up is, "Should I rototill my garden, or should I try hand digging with a pickaxe, shovel, or fork?"

It depends on how deep you want to go, how thoroughly you want to break up thesoil, and how often you expect to turn thesoil. These features, in turn, are determined by how good your soil is. Remember: in the square foot gardening system, you do not walk on your growing soil. It won't get packed down and won't require continual digging and turning over as it does in most garden systems. I recommend that people dig only as deep as their backs allow. You don't want to injure yourself because you've assumed that the deeper you dig, the better your plants will grow. Contrary to what we've read, the roots of most vegetables remain fairly shallow. This is especially true in a square foot garden, where you provide the perfect soil, maintain ideal wateringconditions, and eliminate competition from weeds. Your plants won't have to send roots down several feet looking for moisture or nutrients, as so many conventional gardening books have stated. Deep digging is not as important in the square foot garden.

If you plan to rototill, be very careful. Although rototillers look as if they're doing a wonderful job, they don't go very deep. If you want to mix your existing soil with your new soil, do it in layers.

The first step: pour in and rake out about a three-inch layer of new planting mix. Either dig or rototill that, mixing it in with the existing soil. If you're rototilling, you're not going to go very deep, but you will mix the two soils. If you're hand digging, take your time, and go as deep as you're comfortable digging. If you have a strong high school boy working for you, tell him to go down the depth of the shovel blade.

Turn the soil over, break up clods, and mix the good with the existing soil. Rake that out level, removing sticks, roots, any man-made debris, and certainly any large stones.

Next, pour in another layer of three or four inches of the good planting mix and mix that with the existing mixed soil. Rake that level, and add, as a final topping, two or three inches more of the good planting mix. You now have a pretty good soil that gradually goes from a perfect planting mix at the top toa predominantly good mix at the next step, to a fifty-fifty mix at the bottom. Below that you have your existing soil.

As you add new compost and manure through the months and years, you'll be turning in this material, but since it's now soft, loose, and friable, you won't have much work to do.

The first step is a lot of work and physically exhausting, so take your time. If you're doing it yourself, by hand, do onesmall area at a time, perhaps just a four-by-four-foot area, and then take a break. Come back to your beds later in the day, or perhaps the next day. Everything does not have to be done at once.

Your result will be a very nice soil mix that will last for many years and provide you with the ideal medium for your cash garden, regardless of what your existing soil was.

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