Skcrits To Oreat Soil

Improving New Sites and Problem Soils

Whether you're starting a new garden or improving an existing one, the approach is the same: Enhance the good qualities of your soil and learn to manage the less-than-ideal aspects. Fortunately, you need to know only a few techniques for any soil.

Don't Work So Hard!

There's good news for people whose gardening time and energy are limited. Evidence shows that less is better when it comes to tilling. Repeated tilling or plowing can create a layer of hardpan just below the reach of the tines. Even infrequent tilling breaks down soil structure. On heavy or clay soils mechanical tilling or hand digging of wet soil can create bricklike clods and impair drainage.

Try to turn over your soil no more than once or twice a year. Fall is a great time to mix in amendments and organic matter, which you can do in a single tilling. In spring simply rake in a bit of fertilizer as you smooth the soil surface. If you're growing winter cover crops, skip the fall tilling and mix in any additional amendments when you till in spring.

In ornamental plantings, skip tilling entirely. Use mulch for weed con *ol and pull the mulch aside for any supplemental feedings. Scratch te, tii-'Zer into the surface with a hand cultivator before replacing the muleh.

In every type of garden, let earthworms do most of your work:to >ou-When they dig, they not only mix the soil, but also open up drainage than nels and build up good structure.

In This Chapter

■ Starting a New Garden

I Improving Soggy Soils with Raised Beds

■ Improving Clay and Heavy Soils by Double-Digging

I Improving Compacted Soils Using a Broadfork i Improving Sandy Soils by Building Sunken Beds

I Managing Slopes l Terracing

I Improving Soil pH

I Improving Saline Soils i Managing Sodic Soils i Controlling Soil Diseases

I Solarizing Soil i Contaminated Soils

I Thin or Stony Soils

Starting a New Garden

You can dig new beds at any time of year, but fall offers distinct advantages. In most areas, soils tend to be drier then. You can use "raw" sources such as chopped leaves, sawdust, and unfinished compost for your organic matter; they'll have plenty of time to compost; in place (and release some nitrogen) by spring. Rock powders (see page 127) are superb nutrient sources because they don't overload the soil, but they also require time to work. Finally, the window of opportunity is longer in fall than in spring. You can choose any fall day before the ground freezes, preferably one of those gorgeous, crisp clays when it's a joy to work outdoors. In spring, the period is shorter between when the ground thaws or dries out and planting time.


Simple cultivation, following the basic method outlined here, improves your soil and allows you to grow most plants in most conditions. It works best for loamy to sandy soils. If you suspect heavy or clay soils, or drainage problems, turn to later sections of this chapter to learn the advantages of double-digging and raised beds. If you don't know what kind of soil you have, use the simple tests in chapters 1 and 2 to find out.

Try to minimize walking on your beds once you've invested effort to prepare them. Create paths with stepping-stones, mulch, scrap pieces of wide boards, or even strips of old carpet. (For metric equivalents,, see "Useful Conversions" on page 208.)

Reducing Waists

Did you know that shoveling and digging burn 200 to 300 calories per half hour? Turning compost piles burns a similar amount of calories. They're good overall workouts, including all of the major muscle groups (legs, stomach, arms, shoulders, back, and neck). Forty-five minutes of gardening burns as many calories as a 30-minute aerobics session. If you're out of shape, take breaks and straighten up frequently to prevent back strain.

Remove existing sod with a sharp-edged spade: Slice around the edges of a 1 -foot-square piece and slide spade under roots about 3 inches deep to lift off sod. Lay sod upside down and one layer thick in your compost pile.

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