Prepping and Preparing Your Garden
Part II: Soil
March 20 2021

Written by: Patricia Stern

The first Very Important Thing to know about your garden soil is never call it ‘dirt’.  I don’t know why but serious gardeners and farmers recoil at that word.  I guess it has a bad connotation.  Because I am ‘old as dirt’, (note negative connotation), when I started my gardening adventures I purchased and read several how-to gardening books, (because the Internet had not yet been invented, and that is how information was gleaned on important things like soil preparation).  They all suggested starting with a rich sandy loam soil.  Recognizing that my soil looked a lot like terra cotta pots, (not good), I went out in search of bagged sandy loam to create my garden.  As it turns out, sandy loam is the unicorn of soil (mythical), unless you are from somewhere in the picturesque British Isles, where all early gardening books apparently were published, or rural New Jersey.   (Please don’t snicker, NJ is not called ‘The Garden State’ for nothing and BTW it’s my home state.)  So, what do you need to do to improve your soil to something approximating ‘loam’?  Well, that is the good question before us!

My friend Mike, recently relocated from NJ to Chapel Hill, likes to start (and end) his bed preparation with a pickaxe to muscle through the densely impenetrable substrate (red clay) in his yard.  This is, as they say, necessary but not sufficient preparation.  His property is a “disturbed site” meaning it was recently cleared and leveled to build his new dream house.  The house is indeed dreamy; but, true fact, house builders do not anticipate homeowner’s desires to grow a perfect tomato or lettuce when they do their site work.  It’s all about the house.  All is not lost if you reside in a newer or newish home, though, you will just need to put in some sweat equity to make “good soil”.   While this does constitute “a project” it’s a one-time investment of time and not much money that will pay off for years.  Now, while the weather is gorgeous, and hopes are high is a great time to ready your garden bed(s).  Pick a day when the soil is moist but not soggy.

Dirt into Soil Recipe

  1. If there is turf covering the space, remove it to a depth about 3 inches with a flat shovel.  (Discard to a remote area of your property or use as a base for a new compost pile.)  If you are starting with a mulched area, you won Step 1!
  2. Take a pick-axe or sturdy pointed shovel and dig the soil up in big clumps to a depth of about 10” (like Mike).
  3. Rent a small tiller and till the area (Home Depot and Northside Tool Rental offer them for a full day for $40) to a minimum of 10 to 12 inches deep breaking up all the clods until they are crumbly.
  4. Add the following bagged amendments in roughly equal parts: a) soil conditioner aka nature’s helper, b) cow manure (I like Black Kow brand for its consistency of product), and, c) compost (Black Velvet is a good brand).  One bag of each for each 2’ x 3’ square feet of garden surface.  You can’t overdo this so err on the side of using more amendments rather than less.  If you are lucky, you will know someone who makes compost, and they will share it with you.

5.   Till all this in together to make a lovely fine-textured soil.  Voila!

While you will still not have sandy loam, you will have created a slightly raised bed of nice fluffy nutritious and delicious clay loam and if you have paid attention to drainage (I hope you have) then your hard work is done.  Go forth now to Lowe’s, Pike or Ace Hardware, read the tags with an eye to sun/shade needs and spacing and cold tolerance and load up the cart!  Your gardening success is all but assured.  Check out the attached planting chart from tragically now-defunct Hastings Nursery for planting dates.