Intensive soil improvement

A couple of posts ago I discussed a hands-off style of flower gardening that works sometimes in established gardens. In those cases the soil is usually in pretty good shape after having had plants growing in the same spot for many years. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have such a garden space.

Sometimes the soil in a potential garden spot requires a lot of work before it is fit to grow vigorous plants. Take for example the case of the typical yard of a newly constructed home. It’s not unusual for the builder to remove the existing topsoil and haul it away to be sold. Then, usually, soil excavated for the basement is spread over the new yard area leaving the new homeowner to struggle with the poor soil. The homeowner often ends up buying topsoil (most likely from a different housing project) to add to the yard.

New topsoil may be adequate to grow a lawn but not necessarily good enough to grow flower and vegetable plants. In that case, the laissez-faire method of gardening will have to be put on hold until the garden has built up fertility and the soil structure has improved. That may take years or decades without major help from the gardener.

There’s a way to drastically improve a garden spot so it can be in tip-top shape the first year. It’s a method called “double digging”. Double digging is not for the faint of heart. I did it one time many years ago for a problem area and I can tell you it’s a heck of a lot of work but the results were impressive.

I suggest starting with a small garden bed in case you run out of energy or patience before the project is done.

A sturdy garden fork is an essential tool for double digging and general garden work.
A sturdy garden fork is an essential tool for double digging and general garden work.

Start by digging a trench about a foot wide and the depth of of your shovel along the entire lenght of one side of your new bed. Pile the soil from the trench along side your excavated area. Then insert a garden fork into the soil of the bottom of the trench. Use the tines to break up that layer of dirt and incorporate some compost as deep as you can.

Dig another trench along your original trench, again over the entire length of that same side. Take the soil  that you remove from digging  your second trench and place it into your original excavation, right on top of the loose soil and compost. Once the second trench is done, dig another and another until you eventually reach the far side of the bed. Fill the final trench with the soil that you took out of your very first trench.

The final step is to spread more compost over the entire garden bed and deeply dig it in to the soil with your garden fork. If you plan to add fertilizer, now would be the time.

The soil will be fluffy and full of air-pockets so you’ll need to water the area a few times to help settle the soil before planting.

In some gardens, double digging seem like over-kill but in certain circumstances it’s the ideal way to build a garden bed.

Bob

 

 

 

Spring planted garlic

Garlic is normally planted in the fall. Planting at that time of the year allows the garlic bulb to be exposed to several weeks of cold temperatures which stimulates bulb production. Missing the fall date can be disappointing, it means waiting an entire year before planting a crop.

If you are the type of person who doesn’t mind experimenting a bit, spring planting may be a option. Bulbs grown from spring planted garlic are significantly smaller which is why it is not recommended. Farmers would never be able to make a profit with an undersized crop, but in a garden it is worth having some fun with.

The other thing with spring planted garlic is finding bulbs to plant since most seed companies ship their garlic in the fall. One solution is to plant garlic from the supermarket produce department. You’ll never know what variety you’ll be getting but look at it this way, someone had a good enough crop with them to grow enough to sell.

Even though spring planted bulbs will be smaller, that doesn’t mean they will not be usable. You’ve probably eaten green onions before, you can eat green garlic too. If you’ve never tried fresh green garlic right from the garden, you’re in for a treat. The garlic taste is quite unexpected when your taste buds are expecting an onion flavor.

Don’t let them get too mature though. Green onions or scallions that swell up at the root end as they get older are still quite usable. Green garlic at that stage will start to develop the separations that eventually become cloves. When that happens tough membranes form that eventually become the papery wrappings over each clove that you see in full sized garlic. Those membranes make the young garlic too chewy to enjoy eating. At that point you just let them grow.

Since your spring planted garlic is late, you’ll have to give it every advantage to make growth. The first important thing to remember is garlic hates to be planted on it’s side. It’s critical that you plant the garlic clove with the bottom pointing down, don’t just toss it into a hole otherwise you’ll reduce the size of the mature bulb even more.

These are about the smallest sized garlic cloves that I would plant in the spring.

In your richest area of your garden, dig your planting hole so that top of the clove is covered by about two inches of soil. Plant the cloves between 3 and six inches apart; the closer spacing for green garlic, the more distant for garlic bulbs.

Early and season long weed control is essential, garlic just doesn’t compete well with weeds. Kill those weeds while they’re still little and keep it up all through the season. Make sure the soil is kept evenly moist but not soaking wet. The object is to try to encourage the garlic to grow as much as it can early in the season so that it will have plenty of green leaf area for photosynthesis.

If you’re going to do this thing, do it now — don’t wait until May. Garlic needs as much cool soil as you can provide during the early stages of growth.

With some care and persistence, you’ll end up with a culinary conversation piece that will surprise your garlic loving friends.

Bob

Self planting garden

A friend of mine once told me his method of flower gardening was to see what comes up then just pull out the weeds. That actually is a viable way to approach it especially you have a personality type that doesn’t mind a bit of disorder.

For a while my friend was moving into a new house every five years or so. In nearly every case he inherited a garden from the previous property owner and his laissez-faire gardening theory worked quite well.

If this sounds appealing, you can help your own garden become more self-sufficient by planting appropriate plants.

One obvious option is to plant perennials that come up every every year. They can be left in place for many years until they get old or big enough that they can be divided and moved occasionally . The problem with perennials is they often don’t provide enough interest through the entire garden season.

Planting annual flowers will add welcome color to an otherwise drab perennial garden. Some annuals will successfully reseed themselves year after year. Because many annuals sold are hybrids, their first year will most likely be their most colorful year. Hybrid plants often don’t come back true to type the second year and beyond. Instead they tend to revert back to their ancestral traits. The color may not be as vibrant, the height or shape may be a little more “wild” but hey, we’re not looking to establish a formal garden.

Cutting off faded flowers, also known as dead-heading, through the summer, is a common management technique to keep annuals producing new, fresh flowers through the season. However, ff you want your annuals to come up next year, keep in mind that the reason plants flower in the first place is to make seeds for reproduction. So near the end of the season stop dead-heading and leave some flowers to complete their life cycle in order to produce seeds.

Wild flowers like verbasum make a wonderful addition to a low maintenance garden.
Wild flowers like verbasum make a wonderful addition to a low maintenance garden.

Here’s a list of annuals that I’ve had come up on their own in my garden through the years: sunflowers, calendula, snapdragons, cosmos, celosia, lamb’s ear, monarda, nicotiana, California poppy, decorative herbs like fennel, portulaca, salvia, nasturtiums, hollyhocks which are biennials, verbascum, cleome, lychnis coronaria a perennial that produces lots of seed, alyssum, sweet pea, baby’s breath, chamomile, morning glory, even petunias.  There are probably more but that’s all I can think of right now off the top of my head.

After a mild winter you may see even more annuals come up during the following spring. One spring after a particularly mild winter, I had a bumper crop of castor plants that had come up on their own.

If you are new to gardening, it may take you a season or two to learn how to tell the difference between a weed and a flower you want to keep. That’s all part of the fun.

Bob