Spring Soil-Building

Spring and summer just aren’t conducive to blogging–at least not at length. After all these years, I should just get used to that fact and resign myself to post something shorter more often instead of fretting that I have nothing to write no time to write.

A friend’s husband tilled a couple of garden spaces for me back in mid-March. I should have known the soil under all that dandelion and plantain wasn’t going to be pretty–the presence of both plants in profusion all but shout, “hard clumpy clay soil underneath,” but I wanted to believe I wasn’t dealing with the nightmare soil I thought I was.

I’ve been blessed with gorgeous black soil for a number of years in a number of places. It was always more about maintenance than actually making/building soil. Sure, there was clay, but there was also plenty of humus and decent tilth.

Now that a few things are growing in these gardens, you can see from the potato rows exactly where the black soil ends and the mostly subsoil clay fill was trucked in and spread–in the little fingers of good soil that stretch into a row, the plants are twice as tall as the rest of the row. The earth is darker and easier to work. In the rest of the row, it’s light-colored, rocky, and likes to form big, ugly clumps.

I’m not complaining–well maybe a little under my breath on certain days. Mostly I am recognizing that this is a good next lesson the Fates have prepared for me. Had I started out gardening on soil like this, I’d have quit after the first season. Now that I have some knowledge and experience under my belt, I have a little soil-building roadmap to follow.

It starts with cover crop (aka “green manure”). This spring I planted a mix of field peas, oats, and vetch on about 3/5 of the garden with the worst soil. Once the peas started blooming, I slashed it down, and I’ve been slashing and mowing every couple of weeks as it comes back up. I’m not even trying to remove all the dandelions and plantain from the space yet–just slashing them, too. Their roots bring up valuable nutrients from the subsoil. The vetch and field peas fix nitrogen with the little nodules on their roots.

All that debris is forming a mulch on top of the soil–tilling it under green would make it break down too fast and burn up the organic matter. On the bottom half of the second garden, I just planted a summer cover crop of buckwheat to be slashed down once it flowers.

I have got a few other things planted besides cover crop–the aforementioned potatoes in the first garden, plus onions, leeks, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant in the second. Because the area is poorly drained, I’m mounding the beds.

And now that I’m mowing regularly, I’m dumping grass clippings from the more lush areas of the lawn into the aisles of the garden to help keep weeds down, add organic matter, and retain the moisture we do get (which hasn’t been a lot). Sort of a redistribution of nutrient wealth from one area of the property to another.

A lot of people don’t do this because they’re afraid to introduce weed seeds into their garden. I did wait until the dandelions were mostly done, but I’m not overly concerned with what weeds sprout from these clippings because as long as I get out there every once in a while and swipe them with a hoe while they’re small, they’re not going to cause any huge problems. If the choice is fewer weeds or more organic matter, I’ll take more organic matter. And, of course, I only ever spread clippings from unsprayed lawns to avoid applying a chemical cocktail to my own soil and food.

Besides growing cover crop for soil-building, I am doing a little growing of things I can actually eat. The raised beds I built at the rental house across town and then moved here after the fire are now placed a little better after last winter’s small amount of snow slid off the shed roof and showed me the error of my initial design.

But there is soil-building here, too. I’d thought I would get a load of black dirt from a local supplier to fill these beds, but when I called back in March, they weren’t delivering yet. So, I started building soil in the beds using leaves, pine needles, and clipping from last fall’s yard clean-up and some soil removed in the process of digging the 4 1/2′ x 50′ bed along the south side of the shop building.

So far, I only have two beds filled, and the other two are serving as repositories for downed sticks collected before mowing, fresh compostables from the kitchen, and excess grass clippings (and leaves in the fall). Eventually I’ll have to figure out where the compost pile will go, but for now this system is working well.

The first filled bed was planted in early spring with arugula, green onions, bok choy, radishes, spinach, and peas. The greens are all gobbled up now, but the peas are filling out nicely. I planted Blauschokkers–a blue-podded heritage soup pea, and they are gorgeous! I probably won’t actually eat many (if any) this year because I want to build up my supply of seed to grow more of them next year.

My onions, tomatoes, and peppers are doing pretty well in the back gardens as well–they are behind a lot of other plantings in the area (I’m hearing rumors of tomatoes at the farmers market in July!), but I’m OK with that. They will catch up, and maybe I will be ready for canning by the time the tomatoes are!

Despite all the busyness and lack of blogging, I have been doing some food projects–including a whirlwind trip last weekend back to my old stomping grounds in southeast South Dakota to pick and can Montmorency cherries. I looked for them in this area last year and came up empty-handed (OK–but I did find and can local apricots–and those were lost in the fire).

This year, I wasn’t going to be cherry-less, so I was watching for the right time to make the trip. As we were deep in the throes of pitting the five gallons of cherries we’d picked, I glanced through one of H’s cupboards looking for a tool and discovered he still had one last jar of the cherries I processed two years ago!

To assure him that he no longer needed to hoard that one precious jar, I left him four of the sixteen pints we processed as insurance against a sad, cherry-less fate.

I’m going to attempt to train myself to blog more often through the busy summer season by not pressuring myself about having a lot to say and not enough time to say it. Maybe a few pictures and descriptions a little more often instead of an all-out, three-month’s-worth post would be a little more reasonable!

‘Til then, enjoy this slideshow of images from this year’s spring planting and soil-building endeavors!

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2 responses

  1. Hey! I learned a new word : tilth. Enjoyed the article and will pass it along to my sister, who is a great gardener in wild, wonderful West Virginia. I do have one question: how did you mound the beds? They look amazing.

    • Hi Dori–
      I mound the beds with my heavy-tined garden rake. I just rake them up into “windrows” and then shape them/flatten the tops with the back of the rake. It takes a bit of work, but I won’t be tilling these beds back down. Once the soil is broken up, I try not to use a tiller again if I can avoid it. Not only does repeated tilling churn the soil layers, it breaks up the fine network of mycelium (fungal “roots”) that helps create good soil structure, burns off organic matter faster, and can create a “plow pan” (or tiller pan) that plant roots have a hard time breaking through.
      Thanks for the comment!

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