Put your “fun cap” on because this is the best part! Okay, that’s a lie. I’ll admit it right up front. But if you go in with the right attitude, it won’t be that bad. Bad, but not THAT bad, I promise. And remember, we reap what we sow and we can’t sow if we don’t dig.
Are you smiling yet? Good. Now, one of the secrets to great plants is loose soil. Plants love it loose! Remember, this rule applies to plants, not women - another section of the blog entirely. Loose soil promotes strong, deep roots – don’t go there! – and encourages a healthy plant which means a productive plant. I learned this the hard way with carrots. Have you ever seen an “L” shaped carrot? I have. “I grew it myself!” she cried out with glee. But as a general rule, carrots will grow down as far as they can easily manage, until the going gets too tough, and then they grow sideways. Literally. Packed soil is not their friend. It’s not friendly to any plant, really, because it doesn’t promote good aeration which helps the plant take in the nutrients it needs.
So, big or small, you want loose fertile soil. Whatever your natural dirt, mix in compost, manure, and/or fertilizer as you proceed, whether it’s in a container or in ground. If you decide to go in ground, one of the keys to success according to Ed Smith, author of The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, are wide, raised beds. You can get deeper with less effort, and it helps promote good drainage, a key for healthy roots. His book is a definite must have for any gardener willing to commit for the long haul.
Now, for all you aggressive types out there who want to cultivate a serious garden, using a tiller helps get the job done. That, and the big strong arms of your man to run the thing! It makes for beautifully-tilled beds, with lovely mounding features. And if your garden is established and undergoing a reformation, forgive your husband when he runs over your beautiful pepper plant in a nearby row. He didn’t mean it. The plant will grow back - but more importantly, did you REALLY want to do this yourself? You didn’t, so thank him for helping.
If you don’t have a tiller or a big strong man, don’t despair. You can do everything they can do with a shovel and steel rake. To till an established bed–or create a new one–stab a shovel down the length of your row.
Next, take your shovel and stab it at a perpendicular angle down the length of your row.
I do this on both sides, due to the width of my rows.
For a smooth surface–important when planting your smaller seeds, or an abundance of seeds like beans or garlic–drag the backside of a metal rake down the row. You might need to do this a few times, depending on how much dirt moves with your rake.
Caution: This will feel like exercise. Normally, I get my exercise on a stationary bike or by dancing around the house to peppy music, but when I have an “aggressive gardening day,” I forgo the indoor exercise. Remember, everything in moderation!
With your rows mechanically tilled, you’ll need to tidy them up. Once again, a little smooth talking will get you everywhere. Shovel the dirt from either side and pile it on your row to form a nice mound, which creates for a neat path on either side. But learn from my lesson and go for the flat top – shave the “round” off by drawing the back of a metal rake down the length of it, or use some other type of flat-edged tool. Perfectly mounded rows will look nice, but water runs off them at an alarming rate! Never a good thing when you’re trying to absorb the stuff. And speaking of absorbing, my natural soil is sand which repels rather well, so I mix in some composted manure to help it retain water, while adding the ever popular organic factor!
In between the rows, I lay straw for the walkways. It will help with weed control, though you have to lay it on thick for this to work, but really, I just like the way it looks. I do a border, too. Makes a for a pleasant, neat and homey feel and since I’ll be spending a lot of time out here, it makes sense! One caveat with mulched rows: if you live in a humid climate and plan to grow plants susceptible to fungus, ie. zucchini or squash, understand this could make matters worse. Be vigilant!