Gardening: Tips on Garden Preparation


© 2008, 2013    Raymond Alexander Kukkee

How to Develop and Prepare your Garden

Spring is here. You have decided you need a garden, your way. No pesticides, no sprays, no chemicals. You want lots of flowers, too. The kids are excited . "Can we grow peas, please?"  The fact is, with a backyard garden plot, you can grow peas if you please--and a plethora of other garden produce.  You can grow enough food to last all winter if you get serious enough.


A Garden with Potential

High- Potential - Intensive Planting Method

Why a backyard Garden?

The concept of a personal supply of fresh  tomatoes, peas, carrots and other assorted vegetables and fruit  becomes more appealing every time you read about the food industry and it's obsession with alteration and chemical additives.  Adulterated, processed foods full of  additives create  unnecessary allergies and health issues. Hundreds of chemicals are arbitrarily used by the food industry.    How about the incredible environmental cost of importing and transporting food across the country?  Should your carrots and lettuce  be trucked  2,000 miles  in the heat of summer, packed into tractor-trailers next to odoriferous  pallets of  industrial chemicals, paints, soap, car parts and tires?   That can happen  6 weeks before you finally  walk to your local supermarket to buy  them.

In an environmental disaster, transportation can be halted. In the extreme, access to food from a handy garden in your back yard could save your life.   Growing food in your back yard is much more logical, sensible, healthier, and environmentally smarter.  It is also relatively easy. Almost anyone can grow vegetables.

It's not hard to see why you need that garden.  You can visualize it now. Row upon row; peas, beets, corn, carrots, potatoes; visions of fresh vegetables dance in your head,  --but first you have to prepare your garden. Here are some tips on how to develop a garden from scratch, convert a piece of lawn,  or return an old, unproductive garden to it's previous glory.

Tips on Preparing the Garden
Here are some tips on site and soil preparation. If you are most fortunate, perhaps you have inherited an old garden plot that just needs rejuvenation. Old garden locations can be very rich and productive if the previous gardener had a "green thumb" and was soil conscious, replenishing the soil with natural fertilizers and organic material. All you need do is clean any trash off of the site and dig it up, turning any grass sod under to decompose. Rake it nice and level, and plant it.  That''s about it. Lucky you.

If you are less fortunate and have to start from scratch, decide on the location, and how big you wish it to be. You will need an area free of excess shade from buildings, trees, and bushes.  The site should be free of bushes and other rubble.   Plants need adequate sunlight, so again, worth repeating, ensure  the site  will not be heavily shaded by large trees or buildings for the majority of the daylight hours. If you're unsure about potential shade, Outline the area you wish to use.  If you're not great at visualizing things, use some small pickets and a string to outline the area so you can see what it will look like. Establish the shape and exact location and watch the shadows as the day progresses. While you're watching, remove lawn furniture, stones, stumps, or other impediment to the exciting gardening process. Keep the placement of future fruit-bearing bushes like currents and perennials like rhubarb and raspberries in mind.

July 2 2012 017

What about  soil?

All soils are not created equally, and garden soil is not just 'mud' or that stuff under the grass.  To use the existing lawn and ground soil that is already on site, it is usually a fine  idea to test the acidity or "pH" with a test kit you can pick up at any gardening center, because soil that is too acidic or basic will not perform well. If you have no access to a test kit, proceed without it!   The logical fact is, if grass and bushes are growing in the existing soil, most vegetables will also grow in it.    If you do happen to get a test kit, follow the instructions in the kit and follow any recommendations for natural soil additives from your gardening center if the soil tests suggest you need to change the acidity for optimal growing conditions.

Dig several holes to  6- 8" deep, take samples and test various locations on the proposed garden site.  Observe what you see. What colour is the soil? Is it soaking wet?  Do the holes fill up with water?    Is the soil crumbly? If the soil is rich, dark, and full of organic material, regardless of colour, it can be quite suitable for gardening purposes. Are there earthworms in the soil?  Earthworms in the soil, are a good sign.  A healthy population of natural flora and fauna (earthworms, insects, and a variety of plants)  is an indicator of good soil conditions.


Difficult Soils

With the modern urban tendency to 'fill' and level landscaping, many back yards are 'leveled and landscaped' with excavated clay and subsoil  mineral soils from basement excavations, and then 'topped  with a minimal layer of topsoil to establish sod or seed a lawn.  Dig a few holes in  your new garden location and find out.

Was the rich top layer more than 4" deep?   Was the soil easily dug, or did it contain  rocks, sand, gravel, and old building rubble?    Was it almost impossible to dig under the grass because it is hard mineral soil or  brick-hard, dry clay?

If  some of these conditions exist, it may be naturally unsuitable for gardening in it's existing state. Virtually any natural soil, however,  can be conditioned and improved by adding the correct materials.
Healthy friable soil is required to enable plants to grow well. It should be well-drained, friable, crumbly, and not pack rock hard when you squeeze a handful of it. If the soil is rock hard when dry, but  gummy and sticky when wet, you are dealing with clay. Clay is dense, fine mineral soil  that hardens when dry, and is difficult to cultivate when wet or dry.    If you have clay, no matter what colour it is, be kind to your inner gardener and add some sand. Sand breaks up heavy clay soil,  allowing air to get to the roots of the plants, encouraging superior root development and better plant growth. The soil is also much  easier to cultivate.Spread ordinary sand 2" thick over the area and dig it in  or work it in with a mechanical rototiller or cultivator.


Best Practices in Garden Preparation: Add Organic Matter

Healthy garden soil includes large amounts of organic matter.  Organic matter provides soil tilth and nutrients for plants.  One of the best practices in garden preparation is to add organic matter. Dig in leaves, straw, sawdust, and almost any other kind of organic material to improve the tilth of the soil, including chopped garden waste, composted barnyard manure, kitchen compost, shredded clean paper, rotten old hay, shattered corn cobs, peanut shells and other natural materials such as lawn clippings, as long as you do not apply chemicals to your lawn. 

Rich organic materials including kitchen compost or composted garden waste not only feed the soil, but encourages a healthy population of earthworms. The resulting aeration and rich earthworm castings add tilth and rich nutrients to the soil.


The other extreme:  Is Your Soil all Sand?

Conversely, if your natural soil is mostly sand, or all sand like a beach, for the best garden preparation, the solution is to add organic material. Why?  Grass does not grow on beaches because sand provides few nutrients and does not hold moisture.  Sand will not 'bind together' so the roots of plants are unstable.   For the best results, and natural remediation, add loads  of organic material every year.   Sand, or extremely sandy soil, although it is much easier to work, can not hold moisture for more than a short period of time and may also be virtually barren of necessary plant nutrients. Add some heavier soil if you have a source, and work in  leaves, manure, staw, hay, and other organic materials you may have available.


Garden Preparation in The Barrens & Back Lanes

Almost any potential abandoned  and unused back lane or  back yard garden  site can be cleaned up,  with trash, rocks, roots and stones tediously removed.  The remaining soil can eventually be "conditioned" and improved, but in the extreme,  it may take years to do so. Get the neighbors on your street to convert the whole back lane into a potential food producer.  Community gardens work!

If your proposed garden plot and soil  is primarily building rubble, stones and gravel, it may be smarter and easier easier to build a "raised bed" garden by importing  loads of garden soil.  Start out with one load of topsoil, establish a layer 6-8" thick,  and expand your garden each year if required. Add copious amounts of mulch, and build raised beds, avoiding disturbing the unfriendly host soil underneath.

An alternative style of " mulch gardens" can be created by importing large quantities of chopped "mulching" materials and building  raised-bed ("mulched")  gardens right on top of the existing soil, regardless of soil quality. Mulching materials like old rotten hay, straw, and composted manure may be used beneficially; shredded paper or cardboard, shredded corn cobs and leaves are all excellent materials for mulching. Avoid highly-colored printed papers which include chemicals and printing inks.  Place the mulch in thick layers and wet it down.  Add compost and extra garden soil on top as required.  The mulching material will decay slowly at the bottom, enriching the soil more each season. Place a new layer of mulch on the top every year.

Mulched planting Beds

Mulched planting Beds -Add new mulch each year to feed the soil and conserve moisture

If the natural soil is very poor quality it can be logical,  faster and easier to import good quality brown, red or black loam  topsoil and apply it 6- 8" or thicker over the garden area . Consult knowledgeable local gardeners for the most reliable supplier and do consider their recommendations for imported soil type. Most older gardeners have learned from extensive local experience and are happy to share their knowledge.

The immediate benefit of importing excellent screened soil and building a raised bed is the time involved, the convenience, and absence of rocks and roots, but most gardeners also know the soil in a raised garden drains better and warms up more quickly in the spring. It is particularly important to raise the garden bed if the natural ground elevation is always soaking wet.  Alternatively, drainage may be provided by digging a trench around the garden area or installing a French drain to enable localized soil drainage.

Natural soil must be suitably drained and free of rocks and roots, so do take the time to remove them as you dig up the area by hand, turning any grass sod under, or cultivate the soil mechanically as deep as possible. A rear-tined or tractor-mounted rototiller can save a lot of work if the soil is not too rocky and difficult. It may take a dozen passes before sod-covered soil is cultivated adequately. With time and patience, even a tiny mechanical rototiller like the now-common Mantis® type can cultivate an area effectively.

The new garden area may be defined and confined by bricks, blocks, stones, natural logs, or timbers. Note : Avoid using creosoted "railway ties" for your garden because of the chemical creosote which will leach into the garden soil.

If you have decided to use imported soil, you can then level the soil out, rake it, and plant your garden when it is appropriate to do so in your gardening zone. If you don't know what zone you live in, look at a map in one of those beautiful seed catalogs in your mailbox, or ask your favorite neighborhood gardener. He or she will also be able to tell you which varieties will likely grow best in your locale.

A plan and layout of your garden plot is important. Keep a record. For a healthier garden, do a layout of your proposed garden in a notebook so you can refer to it in following seasons. Keep track of the varieties you plant so you can record the successes and any failures. Lay out the rows of vegetables, carefully,  allowing adequate space between the rows to allow you to cultivate. Consider intensive planting which is simply using wider, raised beds, with less space wasted on paths between individual rows.   Do plan on rotating your vegetable rows every year to maximize the use of soil nutrients and minimize disease.


Garden Knowledge, Planning and Scheduling

Gardens well-planned produce better.  Talk to other local gardeners for the inside scoop on companion planting and crop rotation in your geographical location.  Plant potatoes on new soil to minimize potato scab and insects. Learn the no-no's, like planting bitter gourds next to cucumbers or squash which may cross-pollinate, producing inedible, bitter cucumbers or squash.

One of the best examples of crop rotation is to follow corn with peas. Grow corn the first year in any specific row. Corn depletes the nitrogen in the soil, so planting peas  and beans on that location the following season helps replace the nitrogen content. Do practice "companion planting" as well; some plants grow better if other specific plants are mixed with them. Doing so can minimize problems with insects. Find out which insects are beneficial to your garden, such as Ladybugs. In gardening, knowledge is worth more than gold.

Knowledge grows better Gardens

Knowledge grows better garden produce, like these  Mulched Corn Beds

Shade and Perennials

Plan carefully to ensure your permanent, tall plants like currant bushes or raspberries are located where they will not cause excessive shade to other rows. Similarly, locate perennial plants such as rhubarb and asparagus, the root structures of which must not be disturbed, to ensure so they will not be disturbed or harmed by subsequent seasonal cultivation.


Prepare for traffic and Predators

When planning your new garden, do consider traffic patterns in the yard to avoid people walking across the vegetable patch 'just because it's the shortest way'.  Do fence your garden area if you have local problems with rabbits, deer, or pets.


Watering Tips

Collect rain water from your roof in a rain barrel and use it to water your garden. It is soft water, will make your plants grow better, and does not have chlorine in it.  By the way, a great hint:  Do your weeding the day after it rains, unless it is far too muddy. It is easier to pull the weeds out!


Happy gardening!

By the way, do remember to involve your children with gardening to give them a lifetime of learning, and a hobby that is relaxing, healthy, and fun. Do thank helpful neighbours, and share your knowledge and produce.   Share some of your tasty, organic vegetables with less fortunate individuals that have no access to gardening sites; perhaps they will come and help you do some of the heavy work next spring!

Now you have the best available tips on garden preparation. Your children will be impressed with the results.  Another tip:  The peas they planted last week are probably  sprouting already! Dig up a seed and show them.  They will be have fun!



Is that Incoming I hear?


tags: #garden tips,  #garden preparation,  # tips on garden preparation,  #grow better gardens , #garden tips for difficult soils,  #improve difficult soils  #back lane gardens


4 Responses to Gardening: Tips on Garden Preparation

  1. Wow, Raymond you pack a punch with this post! Great tips for any gardener – whether a seasoned one or someone starting from scratch! Yes, I am the latter one lol!! 🙂

    • Thanks, Christyb, this piece is supposed to be ‘universal’ in nature to help newbies without boring pro gardeners like Glory Lennon and Mac Pike to death. I like using pics of healthy plants for encouragement. You can do it, whether it’s in a garden box on a balcony or the back yard. We all need to eat fresh food to keep smiling..”:)

  2. hey, this universal gardener appreciates the kindly reminders..a sort of mind prep for the summer slave..i gleaned a few tips here as always.
    my part-time negligence has yielded much undeserved success, i am a less is more type–plant only edibles without any study time or expense..i import roots from neighbor’s leftovers or from plants i have eaten and plant the tops or cores–then act surprised when i spot a whole new baby cabbage or lettuce popping where i buried the cores in some sandy hole.
    clay is mean here, i add river sand and leaves all winter.

    • Nadine, I had to laugh when I read your comments here, you are so smart. There are many plants that when hacked off, will grow quite profusely again, like your little cabbages, Swiss chard, lettuce, etc. Part time negligence yielding much undeserved success–too funny! Less IS more at times, and it’s quite surprising what you can come up with. With your clay, do add sand, some sawdust, leaves, chopped straw, whatever you can get your hands on that will help break it up. Old, rotten hay is good, it breaks down fast, and provides nutrients. By the way ‘river sand’ is excellent, it’s not washed clean of nutrients!. Happy Gardening! ~R

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