This third article will cover the final preliminary step before you are actually ready to plant outdoors and launch your vegetable garden on its journey towards making the best vegetables you have ever tasted! This third step is the most critical one of them all; if it is not done correctly, then anything else you have done or will do is practically for naught. And, this step is the hardest one of them all – here is where we separate the proverbial men from the boys; okay, women from the girls, too! Ummm… no offense, boys and girls.
Making a Garden Bed
In order to make your vegetable plants happy (and you should start thinking in these terms: “Are my vegetable plants happy, and if not, why not?), you must make a nice bed for them. And you can be pretty sure that your plants will not be happy if their bed is not made right.
A nice garden bed for your vegetable plants (and all plants, for that matter) is one in which the soil is loosened up so that the roots can stretch and grow outwards and downwards, anchoring the mother plant above and picking up water and vital nutrients along the way. Seeds or plants which are placed into hard, compacted soil which has not been loosened and subsequently made into a welcoming garden bed – well, these plants have been deprived of a healthy and nurturing environment, and they will be retarded in their growth and will never reach their full potential – even if you talk to them every day and shower them with the freshest water available!
After hearing these harsh words and dire predictions, I know that none of you wants to be placed among this group of plant abusers, holding back the potential of vulnerable vegetable seedlings – chas veshalom. So, what should we do in order to make sure our baby plants are happy and given the greatest opportunity for positive growth?
The answer to this basic problem is simple, but the solution takes hard work: you’ve got to loosen that soil in your garden plot and make a suitable garden bed for your vegetable plants. Making this garden bed will take time and effort – and also the right collection of garden tools.
Essential Garden Tools for Loosening the Soil
In order to dig down and loosen the soil in your garden plot, one tool is an absolute essential, and another one is a close second: the first tool is a rounded garden shovel, and the second tool is a garden fork. (See illustrations). You will also need a good pair of gardening gloves to protect your hands from getting sore or blistered.
The rounded garden shovel will allow you to cut through the top layer of soil (or grass, if this is a virgin plot) and down into the earth with a relatively small amount of effort. The earth can then be turned over and chopped into smaller pieces, using either the point of the shovel or the sides (this will take more effort than the initial cut). I think that the Talmudic expression hafach bah vehafach bah may originate from this agricultural term for digging up the soil, turning it over, and chopping it up into smaller pieces. As in learning, it is an essential part of the gardening process.
If you’re working with grass-covered soil, I recommend that you use the shovel to cut a small square (or circle) into the grass (about 12” across), and then lift up the grassy sod. Use the shovel to cut this initial piece of sod into even smaller pieces. Try to get as much soil off of the grass layer as possible – and then get rid of the sod (see below). Grassy roots have a way of holding on and coming back at you, and this is counterproductive if your ultimate goal is a weed-free garden (an impossible ideal, but something we strive for). After the grass layer is gone, use the shovel to dig down (at least 6” to 8”) and to continue loosening the soil. The deeper you dig down, the better.
What should you do with the grassy sod? If you have a compost heap, then put it there (we’ll talk about making a compost heap in a later article). If not, just put the sod in a pile of its own and wait until the grass dies out; then, later on, you can work the soil (enriched with decomposed grass) back into the garden.
Although the shovel works just as well with gardens that are ongoing concerns (and therefore, have no grassy cover layer), I find that the best tool for turning over the soil in this latter case is the garden fork. Also called a spading, or digging, fork, it has a short, wooden handle with a D or T shape at the end, and several (usually four) short, sturdy tines. The tines are more easily pushed into the ground to rake out stones and weeds and break up clods, without cutting through root crops. Garden forks are not to be confused with pitchforks, which have longer, thinner, more widely spaced tines, and are used for moving loose materials such as piled hay, compost, or manure.
Garden forks do a really good job of turning over the soil, and you can smash those clods of earth into smaller pieces using the sides of the tines. Once again, you will want to use the fork to dig down into the earth at least 6” to 8” so as to loosen up the soil in your garden plot. As you are loosening up the soil, take out rocks and stones that you find; put them in the proverbial “rock pile.”
You can find a good selection of garden shovels, garden forks, and gardening gloves at any gardening center. Or, check out Craigslist for used gardening tools that won’t make as big a dent in your pocketbook.
The Big Problem with Making a Garden Bed
For those of you who have never loosened the soil in this way so as to make a proper garden bed, your academic understanding of what needs to be done is in stark contrast to those of us who have performed this exercise in elementary farming – because we know a little secret. Lean in close and we’ll share it with you: preparing the soil for a garden bed is a lot of work!!!
No, not a little bit of work – but, a lot of work. If you start out with your “small” garden plot of 8’ x 8’ (64 square feet), and if it’s a virgin plot with a grassy overlay, you’ve got many hours of hard labor ahead of you. In fact, it may take an entire day to loosen up the soil for a plot this size. If you’re starting out on a plot that has already been worked previously (i.e. no grassy overlay; just some weeds here and there), then perhaps it will take only half the time to work the soil – but, still, nothing to sneeze at. It all depends on your stamina and the condition of the soil which is to be worked.
When I was younger and my garden plots were smaller, this is how I always got the garden plots ready: with a garden shovel and a garden fork. I enjoyed the labor and even more – when the vegetables started coming in – I enjoyed the fruits of my labor: “Hazorim bedima, berina yiktzoru.”
But, let’s say you don’t have that pioneering spirit, and just the thought of making like a kibbutznik in your planned garden plot is making you nervous. Maybe now you’re shaking your head and wondering how you ever thought you could make a vegetable garden. Well, hold the phone just a minute – there is another solution to your dilemma that may just save the day!
Hire a Gardener and/or Use a Tiller
Clearly, not everybody is physically or mentally ready to spend hours of hard labor to properly prepare a garden bed. Luckily for them, there are people out there who do this kind of thing for a living: they are called “gardeners”! And, for a fee, they will be happy (I assume) to till the ground and prepare your garden bed. I am not sure what the going rate is for this kind of work; but, whatever it is, the job’s got to be done, and here is one way to accomplish it.
Notice I say “till” the ground. That is because most gardeners are not going to use a shovel or fork to turn over the good earth; no, they are going to use a tiller. And this, really, is the instrument of choice for getting the ground into garden bed shape.
Tillers come in all sizes and shapes and designs (google tillers/images”). But the common denominator is that they use a power motor to turn metal tines, which do a wonderful job of digging up your soil. For virgin gardens, especially, I highly recommend using a tiller to grind up everything in sight, grass growth and all. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe how tillers work (google “how tillers work”), but suffice it to say that when the ground has been tilled, you are left with a beautiful sight: a ground cover that has a striking resemblance to coffee grounds, the once compacted soil now ground into bits.
Of course, you don’t have to hire a gardener to do the tilling; you can even do it yourself! If you don’t own a tiller, you can rent one (try gardening or rental centers) or perhaps borrow one (although most serious gardeners are reluctant to lend out their tillers). But be forewarned: You need a significant amount of upper body strength to work the tiller – it’s easier than using the fork and shovel, but it’s not exactly easy. However, it will definitely cut your preparation time in half, and it will do a very fine job of grinding up the soil.
A Few Tips...
No matter what kind of tool you use to work the soil, here’s one very important gardening tip: Never work the soil when it’s too wet, nor when it’s too dry. If the soil’s too wet, it will be impossible to break down the clods of earth, since all you will have is mud and a big mess, with the soil sticking in muddy clumps both to your tools and to you. On the other hand, if the soil is too dry, it’s like working with hardened cement; trying to dig up this hardened soil and to break it into little pieces is back breaking and time consuming. After a wet spell, wait a few days for the soil to dry out. After a dry spell, give the ground a good soaking with a sprinkler, and then let it dry out a bit beforeattempting your garden turnover. When the soil consistency is not too dry and not too wet (when it’s just right!), it’s actually a pleasure to work – well, relatively speaking.
Use the “fork/tine test” to determine if you’ve dug deep enough: simply plunk your garden fork down into the turned soil. (It doesn’t matter what tool you’ve used to turn the soil.) If the tines go down easily into the ground to a depth of 6” to 8”, then you’ve accomplished your mission. If not, you’ve got to dig deeper. If you’ve hired a gardener to do the job, make sure you test the depth of his/her work before he calls it a day; insist on a depth of at least 6” before agreeing to pay for a job well done.
If you’ve decided to try tilling yourself, wear garden gloves and get some earplugs. Some tillers are extremely noisy and hard on the hearing (eh?). Also, never, ever try to clean off the tines when the motor is running (even if just in idle mode) – not with your hand and not with your foot; the reason is obvious. And if the neighborhood kids come around to see what you’re doing, keep them a safe distance away, and never let them stand in front of the tiller while you’re digging, lest the tiller get away from you by accident. Whether you till or dig with shovel and fork, wear a hat (and a sweat band) and use sunscreen on a sunny day. Drink plenty of water and take plenty of breaks and don’t get dehydrated. Be prepared for some “charley-horse” muscles the next day; be prepared to sleep well the very next night – the sweet sleep of just desserts, the sweet sleep of a job well done.
…And a Few Additions
We haven’t talked much about soil composition, and this article is really long enough. However, here are some things I highly recommend you work into the soil at this digging/tilling stage.
Pulverized lime: This is because most soils in this region have a low pH (acidic level), and most vegetables like to grow in soil with a pH 7 or slightly over (alkaline). The pulverized lime will do the trick. Use a cup to sprinkle the granules over your soil, kind of like sprinkles on top of a cake.
Peat moss: Most of the soil composition in this area (especially virgin soil) has a lot of clay in it. Clay is rich in nutrients (the good news) but very tough to break apart and hard on roots (the bad news). I find that adding 2 to 3 cubic feet of peat moss (per 64 square feet of garden) helps a bit in breaking up the clay, and adds a lot of nutrients to the soil at the same time. Distribute evenly over the garden surface.
Humus and compost: Your plants will love this “brown gold”! If you have compost from your compost heap, sprinkle it around. Home Depot has bags of Humus & Compost (Scott) for only $2.50 per bag of 3/4 cubic foot. 2 bags of this per 64 square feet are plenty; the cost is low, and the dividends are high. Distribute evenly over the garden surface.
Fertilizer: Garden fertilizers come in bags with numbers on them. A good general vegetable fertilizer which I use has the numbers “10-10-10.” The three numbers (often called NPK) on a fertilizer package tell you the percentage of the primary nutrients’ makeup by weight: In this case, 10% nitrogen (symbol N, for leaf development and vivid green color), 10% phosphorous (symbol P, for root growth), and 10% potassium (symbol K, sometimes called potash, for root development and disease resistance). The other 70% is inert filler material. The addition of these nutrients to your soil will make your plants happy. Once again, use a cup to sprinkle the granules over your soil, like sprinkles on top of a cake.
After you’ve loosened the soil, all these additives can be sprinkled or layered on top of the soil all at once. Now use your shovel or fork or tiller to work them gently into the soil; a quick turnover is all you need.
The Bottom Line
As I mentioned at the onset, this step of loosening the soil is absolutely critical in the preparation of your garden plot. Yes, it’s a lot of work. But, it only has to be done once, and once it’s done, the gardening chores from here on are a relative piece-of-cake. Do you want to have a good harvest and great vegetables for your Shabbos and weekday table? Then put in the time now for a great harvest down the road.
Now that we’ve got the perfect garden bed, it’s time to turn our attention to those seeds and/or plants that are waiting to go out into the garden. In the next article we’ll see just how to get that done.◆
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