Saturday, October 6, 2018

Prepare New Garden Beds Now – Without Digging

garden sheet mulchingIf you’re thinking about a new garden bed for next spring, you need to start preparing now. You need to select an appropriate site, keeping in mind that adequate sunlight is essential, as is good air circulation and, in most cases, relatively level ground.

Good soil is essential, too. In fact, the quality of your garden soil can be the difference between thriving, healthy plants and sickly, struggling, unproductive ones. Loose, fertile, well-drained sandy loam or silt loam soil is best. Good soil is greatly sought after, but rarely found. Areas of heavy clay and waterlogged sites should be avoided. Clay soils can be particularly poor, heavy, or noticeably compacted. Oxygen content will probably be inadequate. Water, soil fauna (earthworms, centipedes, ground beetles, spiders) and roots will have a hard time moving through it.

I’ve often been asked, “How do I know if I have good soil?” Take hold of a few handfuls and note how it looks and feels. Is it powdery? Does it slip through your fingers like dust? Is it clumpy? Does it break apart with difficulty or clump up, when you try to break it apart? Or does it look rich and healthy; dark, moist, and crumbly, like rich chocolate cake; made up of different sized crumbs (aggregates) that hold their shape under slight pressure.

When preparing a new garden bed, many horticulturalists recommend creating conditions under which plants’ roots thrive, by loosening the soil to more than 12 inches down; a method known as double-digging. Simply put, double-digging involves removing the top soil layer, exposing the subsoil or hardpan beneath, breaking it up, adding organic matter, and replacing the topsoil that was initially removed. This is a time-honored, albeit very labor-intensive soil-cultivation method. Time and/or physical strength prevent many (would-be) gardeners from engaging in this type of toilsome, arduous work.

Often, beginners choose less-strenuous soil-cultivation methods. Many choose to simply break up the sod at the site they’ve chosen using a shovel (if they’re able) or a rototiller. Once the task is completed, they put the shovel or the tiller away and leave the broken sod where it lays, to decompose during the upcoming winter. It’s comparatively easy work. And it’s quick.

It’s highly unlikely, however, that all of the plant matter in the soil will decompose completely over the course of the winter. Things may start to decompose, but they’re almost definitely going to see new grass and weeds emerging in the spring.

Because of this, many gardeners break up the sod and then remove as much of the vegetation from the site as possible by hand, leaving as much topsoil as is practical behind. The work can be somewhat tedious and time consuming, but it’s almost certainly worth the effort.

Then, there are those who use a sharp, flat-edged shovel to slice through the sod and remove it completely, which can be both labor intensive and wasteful. Sod can be heavy. And you inevitably end up removing a fair amount of good topsoil, as well. Unless you have poor soil and need to significantly amend it with organic matter or other nutrients, cutting and scooping out the sod is probably unnecessary.

If the soil at the anticipated garden site is in reasonably good shape; relatively loose and well-draining; establishing a new garden bed (or enlarging an existing one) without digging or breaking up the sod can be as quick as it is simple; as easy on the back as it is suitable for propagating healthy, vigorous plants.

Mark the perimeter of your new garden bed and mow down the grass or weeds in the marked area with a lawnmower. Then lay 8-10 sheets of newspaper over the mowed area, overlapping and watering the sheets as you put them down. Water will help keep the newspaper in place. If you prefer, you can use cardboard or paper bags, instead of newspaper.

Thoroughly cover the paper with six inches of good quality topsoil, compost, and / or manure. The grass and weeds underneath will be smothered, adding organic matter to the soil. And the paper will eventually decompose. A few tenacious plants may survive, but they’ll be easy to weed out by hand.

After planting in the spring, consider mulching with wood chips, shredded bark, well-shredded leaves, pine needles, or grass clippings. The mulch will prevent weed growth, keep moisture in the soil and, as the mulch decomposes, the ongoing composting process will add nutrients to your garden soil.

Photo of garden sheet mulching courtesy The Real Dirt Blog.

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.


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