Today's essay is a non-scripted, on-site commentary recorded by Tom Kuser. The following "Living on the Earth" classic covers much of the same information.
First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, September 27 & 28, 1991
Rebroadcast March 12, 1999
Melinda called to find out what book I would recommend to a beginning gardener who wants to grow more food next year. She's grown a few vegetables along her fence for several years, and is a serious composter, but said she wants to start a new plot next spring by rototilling up some of her lawn.
"Wait," I said, "If you want to grow vegetables next year, you should start your garden this fall." And, although I think we ought to use the number of acres of lawn turned into gardens each year, the "LTG" or "Lawns-to-Garden" index, as a measure of the health and sanity of our society, rototilling in the spring won't work very well.
Of course, her garden will be organic; she's feeding her family. So the most important aspect of garden preparation is to build fertile soil in order to provide the conditions needed to grow healthy plants. The soil ecosystem improves with care and time, so that work this fall to prepare your garden, and a cover crop for the winter, will produce a much better soil than you could get by starting next spring. Also, you'll be ready to plant those vegetables which do very well if sown early in March.
The first step to establish a garden is to take a soil sample and get it tested, so you know what you are starting with. Beware of putting your garden in a picture perfect, weed-free lawn; it may have residues of herbicides or other chemicals which will require special treatment.
Forget the rototiller. For the size garden a beginner should consider, it's like using a chainsaw to sharpen a pencil. The rototiller also just chops up the grass roots and many of them will grow again, interfering with your vegetables. I think it is best to lift the sods in six inch by one foot sections and compost them near the garden until the grass is killed.
With the grass out of the way, it is easy to turn the soil with a shovel and take note of its color and texture. The darker it is, and the more the soil has an irregular crumb structure, the better it is to start with. The presence of earthworms is a good sign. Loosening the soil down a foot or two will make it easier for your vegetables to grow. Don't worry much about rocks. You can remove the large ones, but the small ones get in the way only for root crops like carrots.
Wait for the results of the soil test before you add limestone or other minerals, but almost every soil will benefit from the addition of some good compost or well-rotted manure. It is almost impossible to put too much of these in your garden. With the soil test results you will probably add some limestone as a source of calcium and magnesium and to raise the pH, rock phosphate for phosphorus, and wood ashes or greensand for potassium.
In October, you should plant a cover crop. This is a covering of plants which protects the soil, looks beautiful in the winter, and adds nutrients to the garden next spring when you turn it in. I have used winter rye alone in the past, but this year will try mixing in some hairy vetch. Vetch is a legume, which grows well with the rye and provides nitrogen.
And once this is done, the garden cares for itself through the winter, and will be ready, after turning in the cover crop, for planting next spring.
Melinda had wisely chosen a part of her yard which gets full day sunlight, won't be shaded by trees for years to come, and is not wet or poorly drained. Other considerations are the relationship of the garden to the kitchen, water supply, tool shed and compost area.
I later learned that the book which I had recommended is out of print, but there are others which are very helpful. For more information on starting a garden and a list of resources, including addresses for soil tests and cover crop seeds, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Gardens, WSHU, Box 5151 Park Avenue, Fairfield, CT 06432.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth.
This page and its contents are copyright