Phil: Hey guys it’s Phil from smilinggardener.com, if you haven’t checked out my free online organic gardening course, you can do that right on the home page of smilinggardener.com.
Today I am talking about how to prepare for a garden and specifically behind me here, I am gonna show you the two main methods I use when I am preparing a new garden bed to really create nice soil. Method 1, so the first method is tilling or digging or double digging, rototilling. There is a lot of debate about whether or not you should do this but I can tell you that sometimes it’s a great idea and in my opinion sometimes we shouldn’t be doing it. In the long run if you are always digging and tilling your soil it really hurt soil structure and it’s hard on the soil food web, your fungi, your earth worms, insects even the bacteria.
It throws them out where they want to be in the soil. So there are methods like bio-intensive methods wherever your are dull, put on more composed and double dig it deeply and it works okay but it’s a lot of work. It’s not all that sustainable and it’s you know it burns up organic matter, there is a lot of reasons I don’t like doing it long term. In the short term I really do like it because it helps to, if you have a compacted soil or a hardpan you can break that up and if you need to incorporate composed and fertilizers into your soil, this is a great way of doing it so, I don’t really use a tiller much anymore.
I really like using a fork, so here is how this goes, you can maybe tell that I have laid down some composed, not much point in doing this if you are not adding more things to the soil in my opinion, so I have my compose. I have my fertilizers in here based on the soil test I have done, now I want to dig them in. So I basically start and you want to use a fork for this, it’s not too wide. I like using one of my four or five comb and you dig it up and dig it, you go along in a trench now I am going to do this very quickly just to keep the video brief and, then the shovel is great for getting this stuff out.
So that’s kind of like a single dig right there, a very quick one, a double dig is to you go down further and so if you are doing a good job on this, the first dig might go down a foot, the second dig might go down as much as another foot, maybe 18 inches in total and you are just loosening the soil and your trench. I come along and do it here basically throw this soil from this new trench into the old trench, break it up a little bit, so that’s like my single did. I am thrown it in and then I go deeper and have loosened the soil up in the new trench.
So this way I can get down as much as two feet, really loosing that soil up. Get the composed and fertilizers incorporated down in there. The soil from the first trench is going to end up in my last trench or often just spread over top of everything and it’s a great way to loosen the soil. So that’s double digging. Method 2, method 3 no method; now we are on to method 2 which is another favorite way of mine to build a new garden and it’s called sheet mulching or lasagna gardening. It’s definitely less work physically, it’s not really as hard. It is a lot of work to get the materials but it’s not as much physical work.
Another thing I really love about as you can put it on, you can do it right on top of the grass, without having to take the grass off and taking the grass off is quite a pain. You either have to rent a side cutter or do with a spade and it’s a lot of work especially on a big area.
Another nice thing about leaving the grass is you get to the organic matter right there. It will become nice organic matter in your soil and you are not hurting soil structure with this method and I guess, the down side of it is it takes first of all you are not incorporating organic matter and fertilizers into the soil which is the nice thing about the double digging and also it takes probably a year for it to become productive.
You can’t seed into it right away. You can kind of plant into it but it takes a year for it to really work well. First thing we often do is wet the area a little bit and then you want to get some newspaper or card board and now what this is gonna do is stop the grass. It’s gonna kill the grass basically, so you lay it down, now how many sheets of newspaper, kind of depends on how much newspaper you have, how big of an area you do but more than one sheet. I kind of do it like this and I overlap them a little bit, so that the grass can be true.
You want to do this on a calm dig because the newspaper will blow away and even then you want to water it, there is a help start to break down process by the microbes and then we were basically building a composed pile right on the soil but it’s called a sheet mulch and we build it anywhere from 6, 12, 18 inches tall and we are using the same kind of materials, we might use in a composed pile. One of the first things I would like to put on is either maneuver or composed, now of course I am just doing a tiny area here to show but you would do this through the whole garden.
So I would lay a little later at that time, I would like to using leaves as kind of more of a carbon source whereas maneuver is more of my nitrogen source. A thicker layer of leaves than that but this is just an example. It doesn’t have to be complicate, it can be as simple as maneuver and some leaves straw but if you have other things like grass clippings, there are nice incorporated in there. I have some weeks and I am gonna put in there but you don’t want to use weeks like bind the weed or anything that’s gonna travel because you will travel right through your whole sheet mulch. You don’t want to use probably you don’t to use weeks that have a seed, have gotten the seed but if you have other weeks which is grass clippings from mowing the lawn, if you incorporate hay in there as well but for the top layer, it’s nice to have straw because it doesn’t have as many weed seed and so it keeps all the weeds from the maneuver and from the grass clippings and from the foods perhaps.
It keeps them from germinating, so I often mix a lot of stuff together. I will even mix the straw of kind of together with the other things but I make sure I end of top which is a nice layer of straw and so that’s kind of a mini sheet mulch right there. Now if you haven’t signed up for my free online organic gardening course, you can do that right on my home page of smilinggardener.com, you can also come hitting out on Facebook at facebook.com/smilinggardener. If you want to know which one you should do the tilling or the double digging, where the sheet mulching side of things, you can read about that down at the bottom of my blog post. I wrote about it there.
There are a couple of different methods of preparing soil for a garden bed, both of which have their uses.
Once you’ve dug a hole, played around with your soil a bit, and learned about your soil texture, it’s now time to start making your garden.
The first thing I want to briefly mention about how to prepare soil for a garden is what to do if you have a very extreme soil texture, i.e. very sandy or clayey.
If your soil has a lot of sand, you know it will drain well, which is great, but there is definitely some concern as to how well it will hold onto water and nutrients.
On the other hand, if it has a lot of clay but not much sand, all that water may run off before ever having a chance to infiltrate, or conversely, it may soak in and stay right there, depriving plant roots and the soil food web of oxygen. The good news is that clay holds onto many more nutrients.
The typical advice for these situations is to add clay to a sandy soil, or sand to a heavy clay soil, but this may be a bad idea, because what do you get when you mix sand and clay together?
Concrete! Not always of course, but it happened to me a couple of times and I won’t do it again.
The good news is there’s a much better way to improve both clay and sandy soil, and that’s with organic matter in the form of compost and sheet mulch.
So how do we actually go about preparing soil for a garden? There are 2 methods I’d like to introduce…
Preparing Soil For A Garden By Tilling Or Double Digging
There’s plenty of debate on whether or not we should till. The bottom line is sometimes we should till and sometimes we shouldn’t.
We don’t want to till too much in the long run because it disturbs soil structure and the life in the soil, especially harming fungi and earthworms.
But sometimes we want to do it in order to get lots of new organic matter and fertilizers incorporated down into the soil right away. I’ve tilled as much as 6 inches of compost when building a new garden, which is probably a little extreme, but I just wanted to get it in there and then not till again in the future.
Double digging is also a great way to do this, which is a less invasive way of tilling, using a garden fork instead of a gas-powered rototiller. I show you how to double dig in the video up above.
Prepare Soil For A Garden By Sheet Mulching
Phil’s Simplest Sheet Mulch
- Layer of cardboard or newspaper
- 3″ Layer of manure and/or grass clippings
- 9″ Layer of straw and/or leaves
Sprinkle in your fertilizers, mix the top 2 layers together to speed decomposition, top it off with at least a couple inches of straw or leaves, and then moisten the whole thing.
If you can wait a season before planting, sheet mulching is another good tip for how to prepare soil for a garden, and it can produce amazing results, too.
It’s also known as lasagna gardening – it’s like composting right in your organic garden. It’s common advice for how to prepare soil for vegetable garden. It’s mostly done to create new garden beds, and sometimes in existing beds that are fallow.
It saves you from having to dig out grasses and weeds. Instead, you just smother them under a nice thick layer of soaking wet cardboard or newspaper, and then pile 12-18 inches of organic matter on top of that.
If possible, use a good variety of materials just like you would when building a compost, like fresh grass clippings, food scraps, manure, straw and leaves.
It’s nice to get some compost in there too, and to spice it up with some seaweed for micronutrients if you’re lucky enough to live close to the ocean (I miss it!).
But you can also keep it simpler and just use grass clippings and straw.
How To Prepare Soil For A Garden – Which Is Best?
Really, it’s difficult to choose between digging/tilling in compost or sheet mulching, because they’re both useful.
Tilling or double digging is best when you need to increase soil organic matter right away, such as when you’re preparing soil for planting, while sheet mulching is less invasive for the soil and does a good job long term.
There are exceptions, but here’s how I often go about preparing soil for a garden that is brand new:
- Till or double dig in some compost and organic fertilizers right at the beginning
- Sheet mulch on top of that
- Hardly any more tilling in future years – ideally I topdress annually with compost (I may lightly work it in with a hoe or fork) and then mulch on top
The exceptions? Well, if it’s a big area of lawn, I may not want to go through the hard labor of taking up all the grass, so I might just go right to the sheet mulch.
Or if after 5 years I find the soil is still compacted and low in certain minerals, I may bring out the tiller or the garden fork to bring in some more compost and specific fertilizers.
When thinking about how to prepare soil for a garden, our main goals are usually to:
- Increase organic matter with compost and/or mulch
- Improve soil chemistry/biology with organic fertilizers/microbial inoculants, which you can read about here.
Feel free to ask any questions down below.