Grow Your Own: Preparing Garden Soil

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Another selection from Darlington’s book on organic gardening. Here's some advice on preparing your California soil for the next year's vegetable garden. 

Reprinted by permission from Grow Your Own.

Here’s yet another selection from Jeanie Darlington’s new
book on organic gardening. If you enjoy the following as
much as most folks enjoyed the six pages we ran in MOTHER EARTH NEWS Issue 3, 1970,
and the four pages that
MOTHER EARTH NEWS Issue 4, 1970, carried, you’ll want to
own a personal copy of her book Grow Your Own.

It feels really good to run your hands through good rich
soil, to smell it, and to watch things grow in it. The
months of October and November are the best time to start
preparing garden soil for next year’s vegetable garden. This
applies both to established garden plots and to new areas.
Make sure the plot has all-day sun exposure, because most
vegetables really need sun.

Preparing Garden Soil

California soil has a high clay content and needs a lot of
organic matter (leaves, manure, compost) added to it to
break it down and lighten it up. This helps in the release
of soil nutrients and allows good root growth.

If you’re working on an area of hard sun-baked clay, it
might be best to wait until the rains have softened it up a
bit. But don’t ever work with soggy, muddy soil, because if
you do, you will end up with big clods of clay that are
very hard to break up into small pieces. If the soil
crumbles in your hand rather than forming a mud ball, it is
in ideal condition to be worked.

A spading fork is a little easier to handle than a spade,
because it’s lighter and breaks up lumps with less work.
But a spade will do. Loosen the soil to a depth of 6 inches
by lifting forkfuls of soil, overturning them and letting
them shatter into small pieces. If there was a mulch or
grass growing on the plot, just turn that under. And if you
have some compost, work that in now.

Now sprinkle on a nitrogenous organic fertilizer such as
blood meal at 5 pounds per 100 square foot. Or get a load of fresh
manure from a stable and spread it at a rate of 150 pound per
250 square foot. Too much really can’t hurt. Then sprinkle on 5 pounds of bone meal or 10 pounds of phosphate rock per 100 square foot to supply phosphorus. And then 10 pounds of granite dust
or greensand per 100 foot, or something else to supply
potash. If you have wood ashes, save them for applying next

There’s no need to fork these fertilizers down into the
soil. The winter rains will do that for you. But be sure to
cover the area with a nice thick blanket of leaves or hay.
If your garden has winter crops growing, you can do all of
this to the spaces between the rows.

To further improve the soil, you may add all your
decomposable kitchen waste to the plot, if you don’t have a
compost pile. Dig a hole, put the garbage in, mix some soil
in with it, and cover it with dirt. It won’t smell.
However, a nurse from Tacoma suggests that covering the
area with a board will keep dogs from digging up fresh
garbage if this should happen. You could also apply this
idea more systematically by using trenches in case you’re
the type who forgets where you last dug a hole.

By spring your soil will be mellow and workable. Knowing
California soil, you’ll probably want to add more compost
or manure and more blood meal then. But you won’t have much
else to do except plant.

If you like to work in conjunction with the moon, it is
best to turn sod and work soil when the moon is in the
barren signs, such as Leo, Virgo, Gemini and Aquarius. For
more information on moon planting, see The Moon Sign Book.