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Preparing the Soil

Just as a good singer continues to practice scales, so a good gardener should give thought to the fundamentals of preparing the soil.

| May/June 1985

  • preparing the soil - garden beds, wide view
    However large the plot, if you want the soil to be ready keep working.
  • preparing the soil - B&W turning soil with a fork
    Turning soil with a garden fork.
  • preparing the soil - double digging steps diagram
    The procedure for double-digging: First, a spade-wide layer of topsoil is removed from Strip A. Next, after the lower layer of soil in that trench is loosened with a garden fork, topsoil from Strip B is shoveled into the ditch in Strip A, and the dirt in the lower level of Strip B is loosened. This process is repeated down the row to the end of the bed. Finally, the topsoil from Strip A is used to fill in the remaining ditch.
  • preparing the soil - woman preparing garden bed
    Turning the earth to promote aeration is an important part of preparing the soil.

  • preparing the soil - garden beds, wide view
  • preparing the soil - B&W turning soil with a fork
  • preparing the soil - double digging steps diagram
  • preparing the soil - woman preparing garden bed
It wasn't that long ago that farmers were called sodbusters—a term derogatory to people who worked with the soil. Today, however, more and more men and women seem to be eager to get out and bust some very special bits of sod—their home gardens.

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS' Eco-Village, we look forward to that moment in spring when the soil has warmed and dried enough to allow digging to begin. From then on until early summer, our backs will bend and our sweat will flow as the earth beneath us is lifted, tilthed, and reawakened to its full life.

This year, though, before beginning to break ground, let's pause for a few minutes and review the basic reasons and techniques for preparing the soil. This article will be of special interest to people with new gardens, but it should prove useful for experienced growers tending years-old plots, as well.

Let's begin, then, with the "root" word ...

Soil Cultivation

Usually, we think of garden cultivation in terms of plowing, tilling, digging, or hoeing — that is, simply turning and loosening the soil. This is accurate as far as it goes, but there's much more implied by the word cultivation, and no doubt the farmers of old intended for these additional meanings to be understood when they chose this term to describe their practices.

If a teacher stands before a class and says, "In this school, we cultivate the characters of young men and women," that person is stating his or her intent to nurture, refine, and improve the students' basic natures. These meanings are equally applicable in the garden. The full intention of soil cultivation is to nurture and improve the ground so that crops will grow better. And just as the teacher who cultivates character must know what attributes he or she wants the students to gain, so must the gardener have a clear image of what he or she hopes to achieve by working the soil.

For the organic grower, that image has two central aspects: The soil should be loose, friable, and evenly textured, and the life it contains should be fully encouraged and nurtured.

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