Gardening 101: Soil Preparation

There is one thing that is the most important step for a healthy garden.  It is your soil.  For beginning gardeners it tends to be something that is overlooked.  (I say this from personal experience my first year gardening).  

I want to take the complexity out of understanding your soil and help you improve it quickly and simply this spring!

Understanding your soil:  Your soil is the source of  nutrients giving life to your plants.  Healthy soil is alive and full of microorganisms and bacteria.  It has enough air space between the soil for water, air and plant roots to enter and it holds moisture and nutrients so that plants absorb them.  
The best soil will have 3% to 10% of organic matter.  Organic matter holds water and nutrients then releases it to your plants.  If you are working with your existing soil you will have either clay soil, sandy soil or loamy soil.  

1. Loamy soil is the ideal type to have (and rare).  It holds moisture and nutrients so that plant roots are able to absorb them.   

2. Clayey soil makes it hard for air, water and plant roots to be absorbed.  It dries slowly and drains poorly.  

3. Sandy soil allows air and plant roots to grow but also allows water to pass through rapidly.  It doesn't hold nutrients or moisture for long.
Two different ways to create your own compost: A compost tumbler and a simple chicken wire bin.
Whichever type of soil you have here is the secret: add organic matter (compost) to your soil and it will make a significant difference! 

Organic Matter: Compost is the most basic of all things you can add to your soil and the most beneficial.  It enriches your soil and allows nutrients to be provided to your plants for a long period of time.  It also provides the ability for the soil to hold moisture which is an outstanding attribute.  Another great benefit: When you use compost on your garden you won't need to use any other natural fertilizers!  
 You can use manure on your beneficial flower beds as long as you don't plan on eating any of your plants in them!
Application: Once a year in the spring apply a 1/3" or 1/2" layer of compost to your soil and mix it in with a shovel or rototiller.  

NOTE: Compost (organic matter from once living things) is different than manure (animal waste).  Don't use manure on your garden it can release ammonia which badly injures plants.  It can also harbor human pathogens.  Also E.coli can live in manure that is not composted for 21 months!

Read this post for Our Favorite Soil Mix (from SFGM)


Gardening 101: Plant Layout

The simple way to plan your garden layout is to pick up a pencil and paper and start drawing!  That's it.  You don't need a computer program, an app, or special sketching skills.  Those things are tools that you can use, but that are not required.  

The image above shows our layout using the Basic Crop Rotation layout I wrote about last week titled Gardening 101: Crop Rotation. If you missed this post I recommend reading it first before continuing this one. This post shows you how to space your garden and finalize your plan in six easy steps using the SFGM (Square Foot Gardening Method). 

STEP 1: Draw the outline of your garden.  
I will draw one of our 4 x 8 size raised beds for example. 
Typically if this is your first year gardening I would recommend starting with a 4 x 4 raised bed. 

Vertical Frames at the end of the raised beds

Also all plants that vine (cucumbers, peas, squash, vine beans and vine tomatoes) are grown using a vertical frame at the end of the raised bed (which saves a tremendous amount of space).  Add a vertical frame at the north end of your raised bed. Here is a link to my other post on Building A Vertical Frame for a Raised Bed

Drawing outline of garden


Gardening 101: Crop Rotation

It depends on where you live but at our house the snow is falling!  All this time inside with cold weather reminds me that very soon the snow will be melting and spring will arrive. Its hard to believe that its already March which means its time to plan the garden.  This simple  series:Gardening 101 should give you the basics you need to start a successful garden this year.
This my advice to prevent bacterial, fungal, soil quality issues and pest problems in 2015: Rotate your crops!  In simple terms that means: change the planting location of your vegetables each year.  More specifically avoid planting a crop in the same plant group in the same area each gardening season. Basically keep moving things around from year to year.
Bacterial and fungal diseases can overwinter in your soil!
STEP 1: Categorize your plants into 4 GROUPS
 1. Legumes: Beans, Peas, Peanuts, Cover Crops
 2. Leaf/ Flower: Lettuce, Spinach, Broccoli, Cabbage 
3. Fruiting: Tomatoes, Cucumbers, Peppers, Eggplant, Squash, Melons, Potatoes, Corn
4. Roots: Onions, Garlic, Carrots, Turnips, Beets, Radishes

STEP 2:  Get out some paper and draw the outline of your garden.  Plant a different plant group (family) in each bed. NOTE: If you only have 1 bed you can simply divide it into 4 sections and then rotate the sections every year.

STEP 3: Draw your garden plan for the next 3 to 4 years. Rotate your plants based on the progression below:
Legumes ---> Leaf ---> Fruiting ---> Root
                 (nitrogen fixing)       (both are nitrogen fixing)            (breaks up soil)
         (like loose soil) 
STEP 4: Save your crop rotation plan in a place you can find it for the following year!  The next step is to layout the specific plants within each group. (Look for my next post to learn about planning your specific layouts)

NOTE: If you want to use a more advanced crop rotation system you can group plants based on their botanical family instead of these 4 groups.  But I like to try and keep things simple!  That way we have time to enjoy moments like these....because time is precious!