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Organic Gardening

Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.

Hard Work Now Means Relaxed Gardening Later

turning the soil

I put in four days of hard labor this week — well, four half-days. Actually, it was more like four days of about four hours each. Later in the season, or younger in body, I could have done it all in one day. But it’s only March, and I am out of shape due to a sedentary winter of writing and arting, so spreading it out was a more intelligent choice.

The heavy physical work I put in digging up last year’s potato bed and giving it my style of finishing will let me float through the season with less time tending to weeds and more energy going into my veggies. This is a style I’ve developed over a number of years.

I employ the use of light layering and mulching with most of my beds. I can’t remember the last time we roto-tilled. Instead, I opt for layering in what I have on hand along with straw — both old and new.

Years ago, I purchased four huge rolls of fabric at an auction. Seamstresses would recognize it as a sort of non-woven interfacing; upholsterers might see it as dust cover fabric. While I’ve used this stuff for those purposes and more, far and away the largest use for me has been as weed suppressors beneath fresh straw.

I don’t normally have to turn last year’s beds. I simply pull up my used layer of thin cloth, dump the old straw and whatever else I’ve thrown into the mix (leaves and other compostables) onto the ground. I then cover the soil with new fabric and a thick mulch of fresh straw. When it’s time to plant my seedlings, I simply clear a small space in the straw, cut an "X" in the fabric, tuck under the edges, prepare the hole, and plant.

This particular bed, however, showed my lack of weeding attendance to it last fall with bits of grass and pennywort (dollar weed) spreading throughout. I could have simply covered it up but I was more interested in turning it under to take advantage of the green manure and to slow the spread of the intruders. I knew I would be further amending my soil by turning in some of the weathered straw that formerly mulched my potatoes.

bed in progress

Each day I worked along the bed until the entire thing was turned, covered, and staked. By the second day I had my rhythm down so well that even my supervisor, our dog Cassie, was happy to sleep in the sun rather than watch my every move. (That’s her in the upper right part of the photo above.)

Where two years ago corn grew and last year potatoes were produced, this year tomatoes and peppers will grow. I have room for 20 tomato plants, down from a more normal 30. I’m hoping they will produce enough to keep me in salsa for the winter. Last year, I fell far short of that goal even though I had over 30 plants in the ground.

Most of the weeds and grass were turned under, but some of the more invasive ended up in a trash bag. This is not my preference. I would much rather compost such waste but have yet to set up a system that generates enough heat to kill off the pesky interlopers.

Once turned over and broken up with my shovel, the ground was fairly even. I placed stakes, alternating from side to side, so that I could snake the fencing back and forth to allow for extra support for my plants. For staking I used inexpensive metal electrical conduit pipe that I cut in two. I then cut and laid down the strips of fabric, wove the fencing back and forth across the top, and added a thick layer of straw on top.

Four days later, I had my finished bed with the circular end completely enclosed to keep it safe from marauding bunnies and litter-seeking cats. I’ll be planting my sweet peppers in this spot. Last year, they would have been too close to my hot peppers in this location. Earlier in the week, I’d already moved my blueberries more permanently to the hot pepper location so proximity won’t be a problem this year.

You may be wondering about the structure of this bed. I created it three years ago with solid pavers we found when remodeling a porch. Evidently the previous porch had been created about the same time as the street in front of it was being changed over from brick pavers to asphalt because they were piled all a jumble under the porch.

The bricks are not mortared in place—rather I have simply stacked them two high and alternated with concrete blocks between groups of bricks. You should note: when using concrete blocks for garden beds, lining them might be a good idea. Many cinder blocks contain fly ash and may leech heavy metals into your soil and then into your veggies.

If you look at the bottom part of the photo below, you can see the old tomato bed to the left of the white line. Notice how clear of weeds it is. The green emerging is my garlic. To the left of that is the bed that held my cruciferous veggies (and those blueberry plants). I have very little weeding to do in either bed this spring before I refresh them with new fabric and fresh straw. Thankfully, doing that particular chore will take far less than four days.

completed bed

Photos by Blythe Pelham

Blythe Pelham is an artist that aims to enable others to find their grounding through energy work. She is in the midst of writing a cookbook and will occasionally share bits in her blogging here. She writes, gardens and cooks in Ohio. Find her online at Humings and Being Blythe, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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