Saturday, November 21, 2009

Soil Scars and Dressing your Dirt
Part II - what to do?

Want to read Part I?

How I Learned not to Dig

Thought we'd start off with a pretty flower picture. Here is a blueberry patch that includes edible and decorative plants in part shade. It was created and is maintained using no-dig techniques. Blueberries especially appreciate the moisture retentive nature of a rich, organic soil. They are topdressed mostly with pine needles and oak leaves, both of which help to create the acid soil blueberries need.

Almost all my gardens have been created using simple techniques variously described as Lasagna Gardening, No-Dig Gardening, Hay Barrel Gardening etc... My first couple veggie patches, however, were created by laborously removing clumps of sod and weed roots, double digging, ammending with compost, peat and other recommended nutrients then carefully smoothing this even mixture until the crumbs of soil were as small as a pea and as flat topped as can be. I had heard about mulching to prevent weed growth and diligently did so which worked so I started reading more about mulching only to discover that I might not need to dig afterall.

Next year, I expanded my dimunitive 12x8 foot veggie patch to an expanded 20x40 feet. This took one day. It was early in the spring and the sod had yet to green up. A truck dumped 10 cubic yards of dirt onto my driveway, eliciting giggles from the neigbhours. I cut the outline of where the garden was going to go, all the while my hubby watched carefully to see if I stepped outside of the negotiated boundaries. Then wheel barrow by wheel barrow we dumped dirt 4-6 inches high. I shaped beds, and planted. Voila - a garden.

volunteer veggies - parsley, tomato, cucumber, and flowers with lentils, beans, squash, onions, lettuce, peas and a tire tower of potatoes in the back.
Shortly after the making of my first huge, no dig bed. My neighbour was cutting back his oak tree so I inherited some braches for fencing.

Did I get weeds? Some but very few and yes there were creeping bellflower, dandelion and violet in the yard. I pulled these when I saw them but mostly I dealt with the abundant growth of the garden enabled by the breaking down of the sod underneath and the imported seeds in the soil like mustards and lamb's quarters. P.S. I now know that all the seeds mentioned in this paragraph are edible.

down the veggie garden path
Abundance in the garden, several months later. Note the grass clippings used as mulch on the path.

From then I've advanced this technique to use a number of top dumped materials such as fall leaves, compost, manure and other organic mulches. I've also used cardboard or newspaper over the sod before dumping on my dirt ingredients but unless there was a serious weed problem, this doesn't seem necessary. In fact, in the case of really invasive weeds, I tend to remove as much as I can then smother with plastic for a season before trying to plant a new bed.

The First Steps

The best time to do this is either in the fall or early spring.

It is great fun marking up lawn. Determine where you want your garden and then take a spade and make a dotted dig line around the edge. Some people like to use hoses or flour or spray paint sold for this purpose but I find that turning over a clump of dirt all along the line is easiest. If you decide you don't like it, you can just plop the sod back into place, firm it down with your foot and try again.

My front lawn is south facing and huge which is just asking to turned into a garden. Now only 1/3 remains as green concrete. I used no dig methods for all of it. Here you see on the left a new bed being put in. I tossed the sod strips from the edge on top of the bed though this makes it somewhat uneven for covering purposes. I recommend that you put the extra sod in your composter.

Put on your gardeners goggles and stare at the line you have dotted from all angles. If you like it than dig out one shovel depth in between your dig dots, smoothing out curves and straightening lines as you go. It may help to use a sticks and string to keep your straight lines straight. If you want really clean curves, even circles, then use a stick with a string marked at a certain length. Position your stick in the ground so that the outer edge of the circle or semi-circle falls where you want it and then stretch the string tight to the mark in various places around the edge of your design to dig out the dotted curve.

This circular veggie patch was made using a tall stick in the middle with a rope tighed to it and secured so it wouldn't ride up the stick. It was knotted in two places and the path it travelled round the stick marked at each 'wide' circle. Then a foot out from the mark to make the pathes.

Once you have cut out your line, cut out one space width of sod all around the edge. I promise, we'll stop digging soon. You can choose at this point to lay down overlapping black and white print newspaper (though most colour prints on regular newspaper are safe too) or cardboard. If you use cardboard, I recommend punching holes with a pitch fork every foot or so to allow for better drainage while it's breaking down. Wet down this material.

At this stage, you can also dig out areas for pathes that will have drainage or other support or lay down landscaping cloth in areas that will not be mounded with dirt ingrediants. If you are not using paper or cardboard, and the sod is out of dormancy, then cut the grass really short. Obviously you can use this time to put in any side supports such as stones or wooden beams to make a raised garden.

Landscaping cloth being laid for a simple gravel and patio stone path.

Now, either over your 'paper' or over bare sod, start laying down your organic matter. I recommend a couple inches of soil first but anything will do. Remember different materials will tend to make the soil more or less acidic such as pine needles (more acidic), bone dust (less acidic). It helps to think of this as sheet composting so ideally you would be layering both green, fresh material and brown, dry material. If using mostly dirt, compost and manure, then a layer of 4 inches does me well. Just make sure you are amply burying your grass (hence cutting it really short to begin with). If you are using mainly loose materials like leaves, make an 8-12 inch layer. Really there is no boundry on height just make sure you add enough to occult any light from getting to the sod beneath.

If you are using both dirt like materials (compost, dirt, well composted manure) and loose materials (hay, grass clippings, leaves), put the dirt materials in the bottom and leave the dry materials on top to act as mulch.

You can plant right away but I'd give it a couple of weeks for the sod to start to break down beneath. If you do plant right away, then cut away the sod clumps underneath, filling these holes with some sort of dirt. Make sure that no sod is exposed to light.

Small circular garden created by piling the sod from the edge and covering with plastic from fall to spring. After the plastic was removed, it was planted and mulched. You can see some additional expanded beds nearby with plastic netting ontop to prevent squirrels from stealing freshly planted bulbs. The garden in the background is the bed that was being cut in the above picture.

Spring following year, notice the sod is gone.

If you don't have enough materials to make a bed right away, then you can always lay cardboard over the area you want to plant the following year. Weigh this down with something like boards, stones etc... and cover with what you have. Keep adding organic matter as it comes to hand. Wait until things get growing next spring and then plant.

Left side of front spiral garden. Several months after creation.

The Second Steps

If this is a dirt garden, you can scatter seeds and plant. Once things are up and growing, mulch around the plants to lower weed growth. If you already have 'mulch' material on top, then you can make planting holes by moving aside some mulch, putting in a plant with ample dirt around it. Once it's up and growing, move the mulch in closer. You can also create seeding blocks by moving aside mulch and adding dirt / compost then seeding on top.

Once the organic matter breaks down, you should continue to topdress your garden with whatever materials become handy like straw, leaves, green clippings (without the seed heads or invasive stems/roots - think mint which can root along the stem unless you want a bed of mint of course), maures etc... The layer of material not broken down thins quickly in our garden so planting and making seeding blocks becomes as easy as pushing aside the 1-3 inches of whole matter and digging in the rich organic earth or seeding atop it.

Fall leaves applied as mulch. You can run your lawn mower over them to break them down a bit first.

I let many of my plants self seed which they normally do without a problem even into a thin mulch layer and add new material only after the seedlings are up and growing for a few weeks.

The husband topdressing with compost - I'll make a gardener out of him yet!

Annual weeds become few after awhile unless you stir the soil by digging out potatoes or add new material that contains them. Thankfully a lot of these weeds like purslane and plantain are edible so I weed into a salad strainer. Anything that I am not going to eat, I toss atop the garden mulch to break down unless it will spread that way. If you don't like any weeds in your garden then dig out the perennial weeds when you find them or move aside the mulch and lay down a layer of cardboard on top of that area, pushing the mulch back overtop. For really tenacious weeds, you may need to use black plastic. Alternatively, you can just cut them back when they start to out compete your veggies.

Next week - Specific Veggies and the No Dig Method

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

If I have seeds, you have seeds!

Just a quick reminder that my sidebar contains a list of seeds that I will send to you free.

Do you have to send an SASE?


Do you have to trade?


This is my first time and I'm nervous.

That's okay. You can still have seeds

What's the catch exactly?

I like to share seeds. I consider it one of my missions in life and you taking them from me will help me feel like I am doing a tiny bit of good in the world. One day in the future, you too may be encouraged to share seeds, which would make me doubly happy. That's all folks, really.

You can get these absolutely free seeds, by contacting me via email (see sidebar profile).


I also belong to Bifucated Carrots International Seed Network list so check out others that have the same seed giving fetish as me. Contact them to see if they require SASEs/trades etc...

Monday, November 2, 2009

Soil Scars and Dressing your Dirt
No dig methods for growing veg

Part I: It's not just you

Believe it or not, common folk are not the only people interested in no/low dig gardening. Agricultural scientists have been looking into ways of lessening the use of the plow to preserve the health of the little 'e' earth, which will help feed us in farther futures than generally we pursue with these types of advancements. Disheateningly, as weeding is one of the things accomplished in big farm frequent tilling, a commonly suggested alternative is nuking the ground with Rounduptm and of course planting rows with the requisate Rounduptm ready crops.

This post does not recommend the use of death-icides for normal gardening or agricultural practices (or at all really).

What is it exactly that Big-Agri is trying to prevent by no/low tilling? Soil, like water or air, is a natural resource required for our life, and the biosphere as we know it, and therefore should be preserved. Good agricultural soil is a complex 3D structure stuffed with both floral and faunal organic materials. It has a porous structure that allows for the movement of both water and nutrients, as well as root penetration. When you till the soil, you break up the structure, alter its ecosystem and bring humus (broken down vegetable matter or the manna of soil) to the surface where it breaks down more quickly. Essentially you start to degrade and use up your soil. Overworked ground is tired. Bare dirt is exposed to the ravages of wind and water runoff.

In the backyard gardening world, no-till is commonly referred to as no-dig, including methods such as lasagna gardening, and topdressing. Instead of double digging and ammending the soil in the spring, compost etc... are spread on the surface and garden beds become strict no step areas to prevent soil compaction. In annual vegetable growing, disease causing plant remains, are removed from the garden and hot composted to kill off the organism, or removed entirely. Yearly (or more) addition of more organic matter is generally required to keep a thick surface mulch.

Like anything in life, it is not all rosy as there are some problems with this method so let's address them quickly.

The Problems

1. It promotes the growth of perennial weeds - Turn this around into, it prevents the growth of weeds, many of them annual that are typically found on disturbed ground such as lamb's quarters as these seeds need some light (to be brought close to the surface) to germinate. Tilling constantly rotates this seed bank to the surface for sprouting. Agricultural researcher Hida Manns,* writes about this fascinating succession of annual to more mixed weed growth in her technique where she does not only askew most digging, but also uses heavy mulching and weed management. Instead of pulling, she keeps the weeds at a lower height between the rows (to prevent sun competition I imagine). These meadow strips create an ecosystem of bug and pest busters between her vegetables. Her findings have been that crop yeilds are similar but the losses are from different reasons. A weedy garden probably suffers from some root competition but suffers fewer losses from diseases. The biggest advantages, beyond labour saving, is the lack of death-icides, as well as the preservation of the soil.

If you are concerned about perennial weeds, especially if they are difficult ones like couch grass, etc... you can try smothering with layered cardboard in heavily infested areas. Remember to pull as soon as you see them too. A little bit of digging to get out the tap roots is a-okay with me.

2. It slows the warming up of soil in the spring. Bare soil bakes faster to be sure and if you have a muddy field in a foggy land, I can see the attraction of getting a headstart. An alternative might be to raise your beds as well as to continue to topdress organic matter to the soil in order to lighten the texture. Slanting the garden toward the south when first shaping beds or planting on a southerly slope can create a warmer microclimate. Plasticulture such as mulching with clear plastic, cloches and row covers may also help to raise soil surface. If you heavily mulch, you may consider moving back the top layer of mulch that is not broken down to reveal your planting rows and once the seeds have germinated, move the mulch back.

3. It increases disease or pest problems. Ultimately, I don't believe this criticism. I can see how it applies to the agricultural practice of leaving crop debris on the soil to prevent erosion. However, heavy mulch can make an niche for certain pests such as slugs and mice even as it prevents others such as cucumber beetle from heavy infestation.

4. It robs the soil of nitrogen. Okay, this one originates from methods that start with a heavy unbroken down floral matter such as straw, leaves and the like. In the beginning of the composting process, nitrogen levels can fall as the soil organisms sequester it. Adding materials with high nitrogen such as manures, should help balance this problem. As reassurance, I have never noticed this in my garden but I use a variety of different mulch materials such as grass and other green clippings, autumn leaves, manures, and compost. Too much of any one thing may be problematic. This method can be compared to surface composting so add your greens with your browns.

Part II - I wanna try - realizing your no-dig dream
Coming next week


* Looking for info on Hida Manns, contact me, and I'll try to help, she's not easy to google.

Excellent Wiki entry on No Till Agriculture

Scientific America article (a 'innovation' friendly mag, with dubious green credility at times)