This week we talked about various ways to enhance or build healthy soil. We covered basic composting, vermiculture, adding nutrients to your soil and how to improve the actual soil structure. Now let’s talk about how to preserve all the work you have done by not over-working your soil and by creating raised bed gardens vs. row cropping.
Roto-tillers (also called tillers) are noisy, motorized machines with tines or blades that are designed to rotate through the soil, pulverizing it and breaking up clumps into a finer texture. Using roto-tillers can be useful when starting a new garden (busting through sod) but you have to be very careful to not over-till your soil. I do enjoy getting my hands greasy once in a while but I do not look forward to maintaining another machine, buying gas to keep it running or the noise of roto-tillers.
Excessive soil tilling also destroys the delicate cycles that are taking place in the ground. Fungal hyphae are ripped apart from tilling soil too much; beneficial organisms, like earthworms, lose their homes; and rich humic carbon, which is valuable for increased fertility, is released as a gas. This sudden disruption of the delicate network in the soil can take quite some time to re-knit. Tilling a large areas and planting in rows leaves your soil exposed and prone to erosion, much-needed moisture easily evaporates and the soil gets compacted. Think about it – in the middle of summer, would you rather spend your time standing in a row on hot concrete or lounging on a large rectangular blanket with your friends?
Here in our valley near the Kickapoo River, we much prefer hand-digging our garden beds and use our modified version of lasagna gardening. Lasagna gardening is an almost no-till organic gardening method that results in rich, fluffy soil with very little work from the gardener. The name “lasagna gardening” does not refer to what we will be growing in this garden but is a method of building the garden, also known as “sheet composting.” This lazy gardeners method is great for the environment, because you’re using your yard and kitchen waste and essentially composting it in place to make fertile soil.
Our modified version of lasagna gardening starts with collecting brown corrugated cardboard and lay it directly on top of the grass. We wet the layers of cardboard down to keep everything in place and often cover it with straw. The grass or weeds under the cardboard will break down fairly quickly because they are smothered by cardboard. This layer also provides a dark, moist area to attract earthworms Earthworms loosen up the soil as they tunnel through it, doing some of the work for you. Our beds are just wide enough that we can reach 3/4 of the way across them from either side and as long as the space allows.
We let the cardboard work its magic on the soil for a few weeks and then lift the cardboard off the beds for the next step. We dig out the soil that is in the aisle between the beds and lay it on top of our sod-free beds. Using a rake, we gently break up any clumps in the soil from the aisle and rake out any grass or weed roots. The cardboard is put back on top of the beds. Now it’s time to rest the soil. Soil needs rest, time to let all the various microbial layers re-establish themselves.
By the following spring, our new beds are ready to amend with compost or other soil amendments. Here comes the forking fun! We lightly fork the bed to loosen the soil and remove and roots that didn’t break down. The fork is inserted into the earth and then lifted up so that the white roots from grass or other weeds come up to the top by the microbial layers of the soil are not disturbed. Instead of mixing up the soil the idea is to simply lift the soil.
By gardening in beds like these instead of rows we reap the benefits of companion planting, it is easier to maintain moisture and our soil does not get cooked in the hot summer sun! Any weeds that do make their way into the beds can easily be lifted out because the soil is light and fluffy, not compacted.
Once these beds are established they are easy to maintain. We use cardboard and straw as mulch around the edges to stop grass from invading.
Our fork always starts and never needs to be filled with gas!