Garden Log I: Simple Soil Preparation

Since we began our homesteading adventure, my girls and I have enjoyed a great harvest each summer and fall, but last year we made the jump to 100% organic gardening.  We prepared the soil well in advance of gardening season and tended the garden all summer with pretty good success. We did not get started last year, however, in time to start our own seeds and ended up purchasing many plants and our seeds from a local feed store.  All summer, I could not get those pink chemically-treated and fertilized seeds and plants and out of my mind.  It seemed that we were doing all the right things for a natural and organic bounty, which was, I felt, better than the veggies I would buy from the supermarket. But, I wanted EVEN MORE from my own efforts. I want to share some of our decisions and changes we are making this year in hopes this can be a help to others.  As the summer advances I will also chart the successes and struggles arising from these decisions in our “Garden Log 2014.”

Simple Soil Preparation

I remember in my childhood stepping off the school bus in early April each year to see the tractor turning over the our garden spot with the turning plough.  Just thinking about it, brings the smell of fresh dirt and anticipation to my mind.  In the coming days, my daddy would put pelleted fertilizer in the ground, and we would plant the garden.  Though the memories are precious and the veggies delicious, I want to take my inherited love of growing my own food to an even healthier level and produce the best garden veggies I can using no harmful chemicals.  After much research and some small failures, I learned that organic/ natural gardening begins with advance preparation and rich soil.  There are many MAGIC formulas out there (“8 Steps to the Perfect Garden” or “Six Secrets to the Best Veggies”.) But, in all honest, I need a SIMPLE SOIL PREPARATION, or quite honestly, I will just get frustrated and quit. I subscribe to the following: 

3-SEASON Soil Prep:     FALL FEEDING     /     WINTER REST     /     SPRING SUPERCHARGE

1. Fall – Since the ground will be resting all winter, it is always a good idea to pile on the manure and compost for the long winter’s nap the soil will be taking. It is best to remove any remaining plants from the seasons gardening.  If they were healthy plants,I add them to my current compost pile.  Next, I bring in wheel barrow loads of horse and manure from the barn and spread it out over the garden bed as evenly as possible.  Finally, I pile on a thick layer of compost that I  have been collecting all summer.  Both these are still active and will need the winter to decompose and will feed rich nutrients into the soil as they finish rotting.  The recommendation from the department of agriculture is to give manure 2 seasons to rot before planting your vegetables, so putting it on before for the winter is perfect for early spring planting. (more on Composting here)

Before I had a horse or sheep to provide the manure, I just volunteered to clean out a neighbor’s horse stalls.  Usually people are very willing to allow you to do their mucking for them and, and you get free fertilizer.  Feeding the soil in the fall is wonderful for raised beds or regular gardening, and will be well worth it come harvest time.  Being realistic, it takes a couple of years to really condition soil for optimum organic growing, but I didn’t wait till my soil was “perfect” to begin gardening.  I learned a great deal about the individual plants as well along the way.

2. Winter Rest- The soil is resting in the winter time, so there is not much to do but sit by the fire and draw up my garden plan while I thumb through seed catalogues and dream of warmer days to come.  There were a couple of things to consider, though, before I put away my garden tools. To Turn or Not To Turn –  Some people turn the compost and manure into the soil, some don’t.  I opted not to disturb the soil under the blanket of manure and compost.  I may experiment with something a bit different next year.

3.  Spring Super Charge – This is really an exciting time, and I always begin before spring officially arrives.  With the first peep of “Buttercups” from beneath the cold ground, I begin loosening the soil with a shovel and/or with pitchfork.  The soil needs to be sort of dry to begin working it so that I avoid compacting it into clumps.  Since I covered the garden with compost and manure the fall before, this is pretty easy.  If I had not, it might take a bit more muscle but would still need to be done. Lifting the soil lightly adds air to the soil and makes it workable.  This year, I have added three enhancements to the soil – Epsom salt, Blood Meal, and  Azomite.  After letting it rest a few days and begin to absorb the enhancements, I will be ready to plant the early veggies.  

Over the years I have done a great deal of research into how to maximize my garden harvest, and I have no doubt that I will learn from this year’s adventure.  If one change does not work this year, I will shift my thoughts next year.  I read garden blogs and articles all the time, and am so impressed (or maybe confused) with the people who have the perfect blanket solutions to growing a great garden.  I may have limited experience, but I have learned some important lessons: “Embrace what works and leave what doesn’t in the dust of last year’s garden.”  

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