Preparing Soil in Our Community Garden

Reader Contribution by Lisa Dermer
article image

Waiting for a plot in our community garden, we were rich in time and poor in land. Now that my family

received a plot in our community garden at the end of January, we’re short on time and rich in garden dreams, especially with twin babies at home!

So what’s the fastest, most economical way to get started gardening while treating the Earth with respect? Thanks to what may have been the warmest, driest January ever recorded in California, our soil is dry enough to get started right away. (We can determine if the soil is dry enough to work with the classic test: When I squeeze a ball of dirt in my fist, I ask “does it crumble or form a muddy ball?” If it crumbles, you’re good to go. If it forms a ball, you risk creating soil clods and causing soil compaction.)

Once we’re sure the soil is dry enough to work, next comes the much harder question of just how to work it. For getting started in sod, Steve Solomon’s technique from Gardening When it Countswill get you harvesting faster than any other method I’ve come across. Solomon tells us to forget the row crops: Garden like the Native Americans by digging up 18-inch-diameter hills on four foot centers. Get your crops started, then worry about working the areas in between the hills.

Prepare Garden Soil With Broadfork and Eye Hoe

Our community garden is blessed with a shared toolshed. Our options for working the soil are the spade or shovel, the broadfork, or the eye hoe (or peasant hoe). Using the spade or shovel to turn the soil, either one layer deep or two layers deep, is the classic John Jeavons’ biointensive method. For those most comfortable using a shovel, this will be the method of choice.

The broadfork is the better option for soil that doesn’t really need to be turned, just loosened. Harvey Ussery makes a powerful case for ditching the shovel and using a broad fork instead. However, this tool can be quite expensive to buy new and too rare to borrow. When I lived in eastern Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains, we found a local welder who made us a broad fork by welding spines to a length of old railroad tie.

My preferred tool is the eye hoe, also called the peasant hoe or grubbing hoe. Red Pig Tools has a fabulous description of how to use this tool to work the soil “by swinging the tool downward to bury the blade in the earth.” They claim to have “seen pictures of hordes of Chinese laborers excavating canals with only eye hoes.” The eye hoe makes gravity your ally: You lift the hoe, and gravity provides the force.

We’re attacking our plot in pieces, preparing a whole bed for sowing (4 ft. wide by 8 ft. long) before moving on to the next. And we’re skipping the amendments until our soil test results come back (we’re sending our samples to The UMass Soil and Plant Tissue Testing Laboratory). We sowed our first bed with peas, beets, mustard greens, and cilantro, transplanted swiss chard, collards, and green onion roots. Germinating seeds and young seedlings don’t need a lot of nutrients to grow, so we can sow with confidence, knowing that we can add nutrients by topdressing the soil in a few weeks.

Please come back to follow our ground-breaking adventures. This week’s rains have flooded our low-lying community garden, so I’ll be sharing our research on garden design for flood-prone areas!