That gash of exposed soil was the first planting bed in my community garden plot. Digging up the meadow was, perhaps, easier than digging a new bed in a lawn, but way more work than I wanted to do. In about an hour, I’d turned soil and removed weeds to create a two-foot-wide, 20-foot long planting bed.
When I rented a 30’ by 30’ plot at a community garden this spring, I hoped to work the plot without tilling it. However, as I explained in my last post, Small Kitchen Garden Goes Community, I didn’t get an actual garden plot; I got a meadow.
The no-till approach I had in mind was to bury the entire garden in mulch; I started looking for farmers who had spoiled hay to sell. I had learned from reading the works of Ruth Stout that weeds generally can’t grow up through a six-inch layer of hay—and any that do will eventually give up if you keep piling hay on top.
Building Soil Without Tilling
Soil quality is a huge issue for vegetable gardening. If you start a garden on bad soil, your best course of action is to figure out what the soil lacks and add those things. Usually, there’s tilling involved.
I cleverly followed the curvature of the Earth when I dug my community garden plot’s first bed… The darker blobs of soil are compost I wheeled some 200 yards from the far end of the community garden.
Building decent soil without tilling is a three-or-more-year project (unless you’re rich; you can have perfect soil in a few days if you have enough money). As a no-till gardener with modest resources, you collect autumn leaves, lawn clippings, horse manure, spoiled hay… whatever organic waste people might be anxious to get rid of. This you spread on the soil, and you continue to add more organic matter month-after-month.
Organic stuff closest to the original soil decays into rich loam. As you pile on more organic waste, it also decays. After several seasons, the loam becomes thick and will support many varieties of vegetable plants.
I wasn’t going to wait several seasons! I hadn’t yet planted peas, and spring was moving ahead. I’d have to till.
The Pea Patch
After another hour or more of digging, stirring, mixing, and raking, I’d combined the compost with the loosened soil and smoothed over the bed. It stood in stark contrast to the wild meadow with emerging perennials and last year’s dead grasses.
On April 13th, I cut a planting bed into my meadow. I used a garden fork to lift soil along with plants growing in it, and I removed every plant (now officially “weed”). When I had a two-foot wide row down the middle of my plot, I brought several wheelbarrows of compost from the community compost heap and I mixed it into the soil. Finally, I raked it smooth and planted peas.
This wouldn’t do! Meadow plants surrounded my pea patch, and it was inevitable they’d try to grow into the newly-worked soil. I still planned to smother the weeds with mulch, but the tilled patch would provide an escape hatch especially for weeds that reproduce via rhizomes. I needed a strategy to protect this tilled pea patch from the untilled surrounds. That’ll be the topic of an upcoming post.