If you have the room and are so inclined, gardening at ground level in the soil could be your choice. Not much different than gardening in raised beds, it does offer some challenges as well as more choices in how you will garden.
Just like container gardening and raised bed gardening, the choice of location is the first decision that must be made. The same considerations come into play: sunlight and shadow, size, direction and accessibility of water. If your choice is to garden directly into the soil, let me remind you to no overestimate your ability, your time, or your demand for fresh produce. It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of starting a new garden and find yourself overwhelmed by your own plan. Start small. Chose a few favorite vegetables to grow and plan your garden plot accordingly. It is easy to expand your garden as time goes by, but it is hard to overcome the frustration that you can experience if you overreach your abilities and needs.
Once the plans have been made, the next step is always soil. It isn’t necessary to truck in soil. What you have on your plot will be more than adequate with a little work, a little love and a little attention. Even the worst dirt you can imagine can be regenerated to bring it back to life.
There are two methods that we recommend for preparing soil for a new garden. We have found both work well. One requires a bit of lead time before you can plant. The other will allow you to plant immediately after your soil preparations are complete.
Late summer and early fall is a great time to begin planning your garden for the next spring. This is also the most advantageous time to plan and prepare your garden for expansion. Using the lasagna mulch method, there is no need to remove grass and weeds nor do you need to till. You may need to bring in a small amount of topsoil, but in some cases it may not be required. This method can be a bit more expensive as you will need more compost, shredded tree bark and other amendments.
Prepare the site.
Once you have established where you want your garden, mow the existing grass (or weeds) as low as possible, mulching the cuttings where they come to rest. Do not catch and remove the cuttings. This is all going back into your soil as nutrients.
Next, cover the entire area with a thick layer of cardboard. That’s right, brown cardboard. We use a lot of scrap cardboard from the market. Open the boxes so that they will lay flat and use enough to overlap and cover any gaps. The thicker, the better. If the boxes have cellophane or packing tape, remove the tape as it will not decompose. The boxes will quickly become rich organic matter and in the meantime will prevent the grass and weeds from sprouting back through your garden.
Once the cardboard is in place, cover it all with 4 to 6 inches of wood chips. Source your wood chips locally if possible. If you can find some that have partially decomposed (unfinished compost) that is even better and will give you a jump start.
Next, add a layer of garden soil. We suggest 6 to 8 inches. Use the soil from your property if possible. If not look for local soil. Only as a last resort purchase bagged garden soil from the big box store.
On top of the garden soil add a layer of compost. Sprinkle worm castings, dried molasses or whole gluten cornmeal and some rock minerals on top of the garden soil. No need to try and mix it in. Nature will take care of that. If you have questions about how much to apply see the articles on each of the listed additions.
Your next layer in your lasagna is compost. Spread a layer 3 to 6 inches deep over the topsoil and amendments. Finally, top dress the entire area with another layer of wood chips. Now you wait. Mother nature will do her thing and in the spring you will be able to carefully rake back the top dressing of wood chips and plant directly into what you find underneath. Simple enough.
The Quick Till Method
We rarely recommend tilling your soil for any reason. This is one exception. If your soil has been neglected, sometimes for years, this really is your only option to get it into a state that will support a garden quickly. It involves more work than the lasagna method, but it will shorten your preparation time by months and have you ready to plant in just a few days.
For this to work, you must remove the top layer of vegetation whether it be turf or weeds. You can do this a number of ways. You shouldn’t remove more than 3 inches of topsoil. That should be enough to remove the sod and weeds and expose bare soil. There are several ways this can be accomplished. You can spade it out, use a square shovel and cut away the top several inched of sod, or you can rent a turf cutter which will accomplish what you can do by hand with a square shovel with a lot less physical exertion.
Once the soil is exposed, till it. It need not be tilled deeply; 2 or 4 inches are plenty. Now you are ready to add your amendments to the soil. The idea is to add the things that will be need to jump-start the microbial life in your soil, encourage the mycorrhizal fungi growth and innoculate it with the larger organisms and minerals.
Add organic matter in the form of compost. Add 2 to 3 inches of high-quality compost over the entire growing area. You will also want to add earthworm castings, dried molasses or whole corn gluten meal and rock minerals. Add earthworm castings at the rate of 1lb per 100 square feet. Dried molasses or whole corn gluten meal should be added at a rate of 2lbs per hundred square feet as should your choice of rock minerals. This can be greensand, lava sand or decomposed granite.
Till these amendments into the soil to a depth of 8 inches. Try to till in such a way that you do not walk on the freshly tilled soil portions. At this point, you should have some idea of where your growing areas will be and where you will want your walkways. At this point, before you do anything else, you should spread a thick layer of wood chip mulch evening over the entire garden area. Make it as thick as you can manage. It should be at least 6inches and preferably more, up to 12 inches if possible. Start at a corner and spread the mulch to its finished depth working outward over the tilled soil. This will allow you to work while standing on the mulch layer which will help minimize compacting the soil where you are walking. Again, avoid as much as possible walking on your freshly tilled soil even if you are walking on the mulch. Where possible work where you intend to have your walkways and not on your planting beds.
If you are installing a drip system now is a good time to do that. We don’t like subsurface drip irrigation. We lay our drip lines on top of our soil and them mulch over them. Install your drip lines and replace the mulch
When the entire area is mulched, you can plant immediately. Carefully rake the mulch back from your planting areas and plant your seedlings according to the instructions (or see our transplant suggestions).
Remember that tilling always brings weed seeds to the surface and exposes them to the elements they need to germinate. You may have to remove a few weed sprouts the first week or so of the season. However, the thick mulch will inhibit most of them. Get to them early and while they are young. They should be easy pickings with the freshly tilled soil and the mulch.