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Prepare to Plant Your Small Kitchen Garden

Manure for a Small Kitchen Garden

I’ll be carting many garbage cans full of horse manure from the stable where my daughter rides to the kids’ abandoned sandbox. Tomatoes will thrive on a rich mixture of fresh manure and sand.

It’s planting time in my small kitchen garden! Actually, the weather this year is not in any hurry for my garden to get started. By mid March, the soil was thawed and workable, but there have been many nights with the temperature as low as 24F degrees. Cold weather crops such as peas, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, and onions, could all have gone in in March.

But immediately after the soil thaws, it’s usually quite wet. I get no joy from working in mud. To boot, seeds planted in mid-march may get a head start if the weather cooperates, but they may also languish until April before putting on serious growth. Peas planted here in mid March (hardiness zone 5b or 6a, depending on who you ask), may mature only a week earlier than peas planted in mid April. So, I say, “don’t rush.” Plant cold weather crops when you can work the soil, when it’s dried out a bit, and when it’s not unbearably cold. Oh, and if you wait a few weeks, you give weeds a chance to show themselves so you’re more likely to remove them when you finally do start working the soil.

Basic Soil Preparation

I’m about to post a series about planting various types of vegetables. The procedures for planting any one type are remarkably similar to those for planting other types. In fact, preparing the soil for planting is a sequence of steps that you’ll repeat for everything you plant.

Different types of planting beds allow different styles of soil preparation. As well, a gardener’s experience, enthusiasm, and influences lead to unique preferences. With that in mind, please consider what I say to be suggestions rather than rules. The methods I describe have been effective in my experiences. After that, you’ll have to decide which are right for you.

Mushroom Soil

Pennsylvania grows some 40% of the mushrooms produced in the United States. Commercial growers assemble a growing medium that contains a lot of stuff that’s good for your garden—horse and chicken manure, straw, mashed grapes, and urea, for example. A batch of this mushroom soil is good for growing mushrooms just once.

After harvesting a crop from their secret mushroom soil mix, growers sell the spent soil which eventually becomes available through garden stores and landscapers throughout Pennsylvania. Gardeners love the stuff as mulch, and many mix it straight into their garden beds.

Here’s the trick: mushroom soil, like raw manure, isn’t ideal for emerging plants. If you’re going to use the stuff, you’ll have best results if you spread it on your garden bed when you finish harvesting in the fall. Let it steep over the winter, and mix it into the soil in spring. This gives salts time to leech out of the soil and make it more accommodating to your seedlings.

The bottom line: don’t plant directly in mushroom soil or manure. If you’re applying it fresh in the spring, mix it in well with your garden soil before you plant. Better still, bury it an inch or two below planting depth so the roots of your vegetable plants don’t reach it until it’s had a chance to leech out salts.

Please follow this link for more of the story about mushroom soil: Extension Service Garden Hints: Mushroom Compost – Use Carefully

My next few posts will outline soil-preparation in three scenarios:

1. Traditional in-ground planting beds using traditional methods

2. Low-till planting in traditional in-ground planting beds

3. Planting in narrow beds including raised vegetable gardens

In the meantime, a few thoughts about soil composition:

Soil for Your Small Kitchen Garden

I once heard a master gardener admonish readers never to amend clay-heavy soil with sand. He encouraged people always to add only organic matter to break up clay. I argue that you should cut clay by adding sand. True: humus will help retain moisture, break up clay, and provide nutrition. On the other hand, humus breaks down in time and may leave no trace; in the next season you could be right back where you started.

If I were building a garden bed from scratch and filling it with soil of my design, I’d get a mixture of 40% sand, 20% clay, and 40% silt. I’d layer this soil with organic stuff—ideally, mature compost—but I’d be happy using raw horse manure or mushroom soil (see box).

If I excavated a garden bed, expecting to plant vegetables in my lawn, and I discovered clay, I’d add sand. Sand helps prevent the clay from clumping and improves drainage. I’d also add humus to improve nutrition and keep the worms happy.

However you start out, to keep a planting bed productive you need to add humus each growing season. If your humus-free soil naturally remains loose because it includes a generous percentage of sand, then adding humus is light work compared to that of working in a clay-rich garden bed.

This season, I’ll be reclaiming my kids’ childhood sandbox. The box itself has rotted and collapsed, and the sand has supported an assortment of weeds for the past few years. I plan to cover the sand with six inches of horse manure and blend it as well as I can by hand. Then, I’m planting tomatoes.

 

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