Breaking Ground

Posted Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010 at 12:11 pm

It has been done!  On Saturday my husband Joshua and I drove over to our yard-share, a.k.a Purdue Avenue Farms, and put shovel to lawn.  A few hours later, we had our very first garden bed.  Coming in at  70 square feet (15’ x 5’), it should give us a pretty nice yield.

If you’d like to find out how to get your own yard share, read this post.

I couldn’t wait to get started on Saturday.  I stopped at Anawalt Lumber on the way over to get the sand I knew we’d need to break up the clay soil.  Walking up and down the aisles of gardening supplies, I was shocked at the amount of toxic crap that was being peddled.  Chemical fertilizers for every conceivable plant, flower and shrub.  I’m trying to build soil, not soil the earth, man.

I found a salesperson and asked him where the sand was.  He was confused.  I told him I wanted to add it to my soil.  “Oh no, that will take much too long – what you want is this.”  He led me over to a $20 bag of synthetic fertilizer.  “No really I just want a bag of sand.” Shrugging his shoulders he pointed me over to the lumber department.  Four bucks.  That’s more like it.

Starting A Garden Bed

Step One (Two Hours)

The first item of information you want is where the sun the hits the most land for the longest period of time.  I thought I had a good sense about it. I measured our plot out right down the middle of the grassy yard and started digging. But when we came back the next day for step two, Judith, the home owner, said she had seen the garage shade covering part of the plot for the entire morning. We ended up moving it over by two feet.  It would have saved a lot of work had I taken the time to observe the yard at different times of the day before we started.

Next, following John Jeavons’ instructions in How To Grow More Vegetables Then You Ever Thought Possible….we began loosening the soil down to a one foot depth.

I was happy to see tons of earthworms crawling around.  With the roar of the 10 Freeway in the background, we rooted out weeds and roots and huge clumps of grass as we went.  Wonderfully satisfying work.

The soil was much better than expected.  Judith has done quite a bit of gardening over the years.  At some point she’d added a ton of sand, loam and gypsum. And the soil, still damp from the recent rains, retained a rich, dare I say “earthy” feel. Yet, it had returned in a large part to clay.


Joshua, happy to be away from his scriptwriting for a while, really got into it.  He worked tirelessly lifting up huge clumps of clay, while I did more of the detail work, pulling up the grass and roots, and breaking up the clumps of soil. By the end of the day we had made our bed.  I watered it gently by hand using a sprinkling can already filled with rainwater I found waiting, almost magically, on the patio.

Step Two (1 1/2 hours)

The next day we came back to mix in our amendments. Reading that 4 cubic yards of sand would create a 1/2” layer over 100 square feet, we did a little math and decided to add 1.5 cubic yards of sand.  Jeavons cautioned against adding more than that.  Too much will not allow the soil to hold water.  You want to really mix the sand in, so Joshua and I spent a good hour turning over a foot of soil down the whole length of the plot – getting our weekend exercise!

Then we sprinkled the worm castings I’d collected on my adventure to the Valley last week, as well as Dr. Earth’s Organic 2 Garden Starter with mycorrhizal fungi, which form a linkage between plant roots and the soil and helps get the micro-organic life going. This layer only had to be mixed into the first 6 to 8 inches, so our exercise regimen had a nice cool down period.

By the time we finished, the soil had transformed from clay-ey to light and fluffy and decidedly clump free. Though I haven’t planted anything yet, transforming an unused backyard into a garden-ready space was an incredibly fulfilling experience.

Next weekend, we’ll go back for Step Three: the Double Dig, an ancient farmer’s method of loosening the soil two feet down to provide lots of air and space for the roots to spread.  Stay tuned!

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Soil Testing

Posted Thursday, January 28th, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Now that I have an actual plot of land to plant in, a whole new list of concerns and challenges have popped up.  The first one being – what the hell am I planting in?

Soil testing is a good idea for many reasons.  First, it can tell you if there is any toxic sludge stinking up the joint.  Kinda important if you intend to grow food that isn’t lethal. Beyond that, a soil test can tell you many important characteristics of the land before you harvest, so you and your soil can become really good friends.

Think of it as a Facebook Profile for your yard, letting you know what kind of micro-organic crowd your soil hangs out with.  You will be able to learn things like the soil’s balance of minerals, the water absorption rate, and the soil pH (more on pH in a coming post).  Using this information, you can figure out how much organic fertilizer to add and what other soil amendments will help your garden realize its maximum potential.

I chose Timberleaf Labs because it was recommended in my new favorite book: “How To Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine,” by John Jeavons.

With a holistic approach, Timberleaf specializes in organic mini-farms.  They take into consideration not only the soil, but the entire gardening environment and individual cultivating practices.  I’m not sure what other labs do, but these guys even wanted me to draw a diagram of my farm, being sure to indicate all significant landmarks.


Well, on Purdue Avenue Farms (which is what I’ve come to call my little plot), the  most significant landmark would be the 10 freeway.  That’s right.  The yard is almost right underneath a massive overpass, towering hundreds of feet above the trees. Though this fits nicely with my Urban Farming aesthetic, I can’t help wondering how the thousands of cars that zoom overhead on any given day have affected the soil.

So, like Sigourney Weaver taking samples from Pandora, I followed Timberleaf’s detailed instructions and collected a composite of dirt from seven random places in the yard.  At each spot I stuck a spade in about 8 inches deep and pulled up a section of the soil that I dumped into a clean bucket.  Then I mixed the soil together and filled up a one-quart bag.

Afterward, when I  sat down to fill out the Soil Sample form, I realized I didn’t have answers to a lot of their questions.  The labs wanted to know how much chemical fertilizer had been used, the last application of lime, what kind of pests the garden was subject to. Being totally new to this land, I was at a loss to its history. So, I did the best I could and will depend on science to do the rest. I packed up my dirt cozily in a leftover Amazon box and shipped it off.

Most soil samples are between $60-$85 depending on how detailed you want to get.  But it seems worth the expense.  It will take a lot of the guesswork out of gardening, and could save a bundle on unnecessary or incorrect soil amendments.

It’s really the only way to get the nitty-gritty on your dirt.

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