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Improving your soil

Improving your soil is an absolute must for successful gardening.

Some tough first lessons
It has been said that your plants can only be as good as your soil. I find that to be very true. When I first attempted gardening I knew nothing about it, but we had just moved into a new house with a totally bare yard and I thought that some vegetables would be nice.

Well, I planted tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers and the plants just sat there all season and did absolutely nothing. That was my first lesson and I learned it well.

A little enlightenment
Just at about that time, by some miracle, I ran into an issue of Organic Gardening magazine and a 30 year adventure began for me.

Building raised beds
I found out that my soil was extremely heavy clay that was like a sticky gook when wet and like a brick when dry, so I decided to proceed with raised beds, about 3 by 10 feet each. This is the best way to change the structure of your soil. I decided to double-dig each bed because the soil was so bad. I took out layer #1 to the depth of the shovel and laid the soil to the side breaking it up as I laid it aside. After that I dug layer #2 to the depth of the shovel again and laid it to the other side. The layer #2 had a lot of very large and heavy clods that would not break up, so I got rid of many of them.

At this point I needed lots of organic material to fill the bed so I started gathering leaves, grass clippings, all kinds of plants and kitchen refuse such as fruit peels, vegetable trimmings, egg shells, coffee grounds and any vegetable matter that I could get my hands on. If you have some horse or cow manure on hand that works great too. I put one layer of these materials about 6 inches thick on the bottom of the bed and shoveled back in the soil from layer #2, that was on the side of the bed. I broke the soil up very well as I put it back in and covered all the organic materials.

Then I put in another layer of organic materials covering it with the soil from layer #1. At that point the bed was about 10 inches higher than the surrounding ground and I had a beautiful raised bed.

I mulched it with leaves to keep the surface from drying and forming a crust. During the next 4 weeks while waiting I kept it moist.

The rewards are overwhelming
At the end of this period I turned the top layer of soil over with a pitch fork and to my surprise it was loose and crumbly and contained many earthworms. I was overjoyed! My soil was alive!

At that point I was ready to put in my plants and reap my reward. I planted my peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers at the appropriate time and the difference was amazing. They grew tall and beautiful and bore many fruits until frost.

And that is how I became hooked on organic gardening. To put it simply, it works.

This kind of treatment works just as well with sandy soils or rocky soils, although you may have to remove rocks instead of clods.

Your raised beds can be any size you like, although it is not recommended to make them wider than 4 feet because you need to be able to reach the center from either side. You do not want to step on your raised bed and compact the soil.

Good Luck and happy gardening -- Josephine

The only kind of low maintenance gardening... is the kind you do on your knees.
(Overheard at the Wildflower Center)