Let me tell you about my first garden: I had moved into an apartment on Marshall Avenue in St. Paul some 30 years ago and was determined to grow tomatoes, just as my father did. So I picked a sunny spot in the back, took a breath, and thrust my shovel at the ground, only to have it bounce back up and nearly hit me in the teeth.
I eventually found a soft spot next to the fence where the weeds had been growing unchecked and the leaves had been allowed to accumulate, and my two tomato plants grew happily there that summer.
I’ve learned a few things since then, and continue to learn, of course, and I hope in the next few months to share some of my blunders and successes with you, and that you will find something both useful and interesting in them. I am convinced that gardening is often made to seem much too complicated, and that we would all enjoy our gardens more if we could just get a few elemental things down and let nature take care of the rest.
So let’s consider the first element of gardening: earth.
Letting things rot
Here is the mantra of organic gardeners everywhere: Feed the soil, not the plant. While chemical-based gardening regards the soil as simply something to hold the plants upright as you administer fertilizers—kind of like feeding a person through a feeding tube—the organic approach is to return to the soil, in the form of compost, the nourishment that the harvest removes from it. Compost not only adds nutrients to the soil, but also neutralizes the pH, helps plants resist disease, and nurtures the earthworms and other beneficial critters who crawl around in it, keeping things aerated and adding fertilizer of their own to the mix. If you’re just starting out and don’ t have a compost pile yet, or at least not one that’ s ready to use, you can buy bags of compost or composted manure at your local garden center.
It used to be that the City discouraged composting, that you had to cover your compost on all sides and disguise it as something more respectable—which didn’t stop city gardeners from making compost piles, of course. Not long after my grandfather died, I discovered, discreetly tucked away behind his Lake Calhoun–area rambler, an exquisitely-aged compost pile. I’m sure he hadn’t used it or added to it in decades, but there it was, testimony that a gardener had lived there.
But now the city positively encourages the practice, and even offers advice on its website at:
www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/solid-waste/compost.asp. If you don’t have internet access, you can call Hennepin County Environmental Services at 612-348-9266.
No more double-digging
You will sometimes read instructions on how to prepare a garden bed by double digging— first removing the sod and setting that aside, then removing the top 8 inches or so of soil and setting that aside (to be mixed with manure and compost), then using a pitchfork to loosen the next strata of soil, followed by adding the amended soil. There are variations on this labor-intensive process, but they all produce the same result: a rich, temporarily aerated garden bed that will eventually settle down to distressingly compacted soil.
I have done this, even digging so deep that my husband wondered what bodies I was planning to bury. But the nice fluffy new garden bed always settled too soon and it seemed as though my plants were no better off for my efforts.
Some gardening books still advocate this method. Don’ t do it. Instead, try no-till gardening: lay thick layers of newspaper down on the sod where you want to make a garden—10 to 12 pages. Wet it down good and cover it with mulch, like the free woodchips you can get from the city. Fresh woodchips will extract nutrients from the soil in their efforts to decompose themselves, so mix them with one of these: granulated organic fertilizer, sifted compost, or manure.
If you are in a hurry to plant, you will have to exert a little effort to then break through all that newspaper and sod and dig a planting hole. But if you can let it sit a month or more, the sod will have started to decompose and the newspaper will too, and it will be easier to dig through it.
Do you see how this works? The green grass becomes nitrogen-rich compost under all those newspapers and mulch, and all you did was cover it up and allow the natural processes to do the rest.
In the future, you just lay more compost, manure or fertilizer on the surface and allow the nutrients to precipitate down to the roots. You’ll probably want to add another layer of newspapers and mulch eventually, as the original layer decomposes. The ground will be pliable and fertile, the mulch will discourage weeds, and you’ll have more time to enjoy your garden.