Saturday, July 31, 2010

Easy Gardening/Vegetable growing - soil bed preparation

Gardening can be easy!

Often people get turned off by the idea of gardening as they see constant images of digging, weeding, watering, cleaning, back breaking work etc. in gardening shows on TV and in magazines. Veggie patches seem to need large amount of space and many tools and products. I believe gardening has to be low input and high output pleasurable activity. Developing a veggie patch need not be a backbreaking exercises with little result. I will teach you easy vegetable gardening with minimum input, products and labor but produce enough vegetables for 7-8 months enough for your family and friends too!.

I follow very easy agricultural principles for my vegetable gardening with minimum fertilizers, work and sprays. Selections of areas in your backyard, seedbed preparation and sunlight availability are very important. If you have a back yard big or small and a fence that is more than enough. I will deal with container gardening in later blogs.

Garden/Veggie patch/seedbed preparation

Tools and materials required

All you need is a pitchfork, shovel, metal rake, a digging tool (for occasional use). Brand of tools does not matter. If you can't find the exact tools as shown below just substitute with a similar one.
You need some ash from woodfire or sand and some gypsum and some store bought potting mix.

Light Shovel to lift clods or turn soil

Metal rake
Pitch Fork to dig
Light digging tool for larger plants
                                                              Digging Tool to plant small plants from punnets

When selecting tools select strong light good quality tools. You will not have problems if you wash them after each use and oil them.  Do not buy heavy tools as they cause back and hand problems. Expensive does not mean good tool either.

Garden Bed Preparation

Generally most backyards have building materials and rubbish at the top layer. Below this top layer will be the real soil. To prepare the garden/veggie bed wait for winter and rain to commence. Don't prepare garden bed when it is dry as the bed will be hard. Once a good amount of rain commences it is the time to start the garden bed during winter if you do not have snow issues. I live in an region where in winter it is frosty and cold with temperatures going down to -6C. In summer the temperature can go up to 42-44C. If I can grow lots of veggies it is possible for most of you to grow vegetables.

For garden bed first use a pitch fork to turn the soil. For this you will need to first use a pitch fork (not a shovel) as it is easier to poke through the fork rather than cut through with a shovel. Wear some heavy garden shoes first. Now place the pitch fork on the soil to be dug  and place your foot on the top part of the pitch fork as shown below. Now press with your foot as far as it can easily. Rain should have made the ground softer. Do not use brute force as you will hurt your back. Do not dig either.

Now move the fork handle at an angle and you will lift a portion of the top part of the bed. Turn it upside down. Don't worry about the building materials or small rocks as they provide texture to the soil. Keep repeating this all over the bed to the extent you can. Initially don't do it for more than half an hour per time especially if you have never done gardening before. Dig and turn the top part of the soil as much as you can in the area where you want to plant. Repeat this process again next week especially after each rain event. This will turn clods into smaller clods as below.

Pushing the top of the pitch fork into hard soil

Top part of the ground with large dug out clods
Large clods turned into smaller clods

Now add ash or sand and some gypsum on the area as below

Ash and gypsum (brown powder) on smaller clod bed

Now after another rain turn the clods again. By now gypsum will have broken any clay into aggregates and ash or sand will add potassium and texture to the soil. Don't remove any weeds just turn them with the soil clods they will die and add texture and carbon to soil. Soil carbon will help to use nitrogen in the soil better to develop better plants.

Smaller clods with better crumble develops with ash and gypsum working to give aggregates and texture

Now after a week or two turn the soil again. You will see clods becoming smaller and smaller into 1-2 inch bits. If you need to add more ash or sand or gypsum do so now and leave it for a week or two. Now the soil clods are ready to rake. they should look as below.

Garden bed ready to rake with a metal rake.

To rake the soil clods at this stage move the teeth of the metal rake lightly up and down the area and even the bed out at the top. The bed should look as below.

Raked garden bed with small soil clods and particles.

Now your bed is ready for seed sowing or planting. You will see that your soil health will improve as soil clods become smaller and you will see number of earthworms multiplying. Increased number of earthworms will happen naturally so don't waste money buying worms. Increasing number of earthworms is and indicator of improved soil health and texture. Do do this you will be spending at best 2 hours per day one day a week for 4-6 weeks for an area of 3 meters by 8 meters. Take your time and don't hurry the process. Let  gypsum, ash or sand and nature do the work not your back and hands!!!!.

Do not sow any seed or plant unless the temperature gets above 15C. Seeds may not germinate quickly and rot away or plants may not grow quickly and establish properly. Just before you are ready to plant spread about 1 20liter bag of shop bought potting mix on top of your soil. you need this just to give a bit of a texture for the soil. Don't buy expensive mixes. Buy the cheapest possible bagged potting mix ($2-3 for a 20 liter bag). Potting mixes from garden centers can cause problems as the compost may be too hot or incomplete. Make sure when handling potting mix you use a mask and gloves and wash your hands with a good soap after use. Potting mixes can carry Ligioenella bacteria which cause infection of the lungs Legionnaire's disease. I will show you how to plant in the next blog. So get ready to prepare the veggie patch or garden bed in winter.

I do not do any composting separately as it is too much of work and will not be sufficient. I compost directly using weeds and grass clippings from the lawn when I prepare the beds. This will also act as a mulch to hold water very well. I do not add any top soil mulch as it brings snails and slugs and act as hiding spots for bugs I do not want like spiders.

If you feel that you need to do soil pH test, then dig out small amounts of soil from 5 random spots for about 10 cm deep, mix them up and test the mixture using a soil pH testing kit from the garden store. Only if you have pH below 5 you will need to add lime just before sowing or planting. Do not add urea or any other form of nitrogen. 

I do not use any water holding crystals or products such as blood and bone, sea weed, chicken manure or any other organic concoction that the garden stores sell. I do not believe there is any need for any more unproven products as with this method I can grow so much of vegetables with a small number of plants enough for me and lots of my friends and others. I do not worry too much about spraying the weeds as initially they are used as part of compost which adds carbon to the soil and makes better capturing of nitrogen.  I only dig out weeds if they get too big otherwise they act as ground cover and keep your soil good. Only get rid of noxious weeds using gloves and masks. They include Deadly night shade, Parthenium etc. Look up the internet for noxious weeds in your area and how to get rid of them.

Disclaimer: This information is provided to help people. If you have medical and other conditions you need to consult your doctor first prior to starting any gardening activity.