For many years I have dreamed of having a self-sufficient garden that would produce an abundance of organic vegetables. John Seymour’s books on the subject and Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew have inspired me. I now have a nearly perfect opportunity to manifest that desire. Our backyard has a 100′ by 70′ flat area with southern exposure and the soil is black sandy loam. Ultimately, using deep bed methods, I could produce enough vegetables, fruits and eggs for 50 people. Imagine coop members paying me $100 a month and you begin to see my business plan. But, I’m going to start by trying to provide vegetables and eggs for only my husband and myself with a surplus that can be distributed to our family, friends, and neighbors.
My first goal is preparing eight 4′ x 12′ raised beds in an area measuring roughly 28′ square. This allows a 4′ wide walkway down the middle with four beds on both sides and 2′ walkways between the beds. We will frame the beds for a number of reasons: They will be 12 to 18″ deep and 10″ above ground level. Framing will prevent erosion yet allow good drainage. It has rained every 2-3 days since we arrived so drainage is important. The 2″ by 12″ boards will be buried in the ground 2-3″ to prevent the centipede grass on the walkways from invading the beds. I can also add 2×4’s around the top rim of the frame and give my tired old butt a place to sit down while I tend the plants.
The back yard is covered in centipede grass and that’s the first problem. The traditional method for dealing with sod is called “bastard trenching” and involves digging a series of trenches, one after another. Each trench is 1′ by the width of the bed. The top 3″ of sod are cut into cubes, lifted off with a spade and put aside. Then dig down 6″ and put that dirt aside. Dig up the next layer of soil down to the sub-soil and put it in a pile. Then, using a spading fork break up the sub-soil.
The next trench is started right next to the first. Lift off the sod and lay it grass-side down in the first trench. Dig up the six inches of topsoil and shovel it into the first trench. Dig down to the sub-soil and toss that on top, break up the subsoil and move on to the next trench. And so on until you fill the last trench with the sod and soil from the first one. It is backbreaking work but the good news is that you only have to do it once and you never have to fight the grass returning in your beds.
Of course, Dear Husband resisted this guaranteed way of avoiding weeding out the centipede grass all summer long. He is accustomed to the method being used by our neighbor across the road. Last weekend, they poured gasoline on the grass that had returned in their garden area and set fire to it. Unfortunately this approach does not kill the grass roots below the top two inches. Later, in June when the summer heat sets in, our neighbor will be out their hoeing and clawing sprouting grass from her rows of beans and corn.
She won’t be building raised beds either. Her brother will come over with his big tractor and till the entire garden area to a six-inch depth in under an hour. He’ll change out the tiller for a plow and lay out two-foot wide rows with the soil between compressed by the weight on his tractor tires. All of this looks so damned easy until you look ahead to the centipede grass choking the bean plant roots and all that hoeing in the hot sun. Also, the row method and shallow tillage will mean her yield will be one-fourth of what I will achieve in a smaller area.
But DH had to try to avoid that digging somehow and came up with what he thought would be a shortcut. The first bed I need to plant is a permanent bed for asparagus and the literature on the subject is adamant about not allowing a root of grass to survive in the bed or it will ruin the whole investment in time, labor and money. DH’s plan was to run his 8hp Troy-Bilt tiller over the bed and chop up the grass to a depth of three inches. I would then rake off the grass and underneath would be root free soil that could be tilled and tilled again with added manure.
Instead of digging in 3″ the tiller danced across the tight mat of centipede cutting slits about 1″ deep. DH complained about needing to replace the belts on the motor and after making three passes with similar results told me to start raking away. I did and ended up with a berm along the side of the bed of top grass mixed with rich soil. I noted that we were scraping away good topsoil and there were still roots visible in the bed. DH decided we should let the bed dry out for a day and then it would be easier to rake out the roots without taking the soil with them.
That evening, DH considered why his super tiller had under-performed — it was the mat of centipede! Now that it was gone, he could till down 6″ then set fire to the bed — that would surely kill all the grass roots. “And fry those pesky earthworms, too,” I added softly. DH fell silent, mulling his schemes to avoid digging.
The next afternoon, the dried out soil still clung to its grass roots and DH got his post-hole digger to see just how far those suckers went down. I saw the look of surprise on his face when the blades of the hole digger cut thru the sandy loam like it was butter. In all of his prior gardening and farming experiences, the soil had been hard, red clay and his resistance to digging was based on that. He was accustomed to grass that grew no deeper than three inches. The first plug he pulled out showed that — given an ideal sandy loam — grass roots go down 6″! The next plug came up rich, root-free soil and the next brought up pale sand sub-soil at its bottom.
Experimentally, he chopped a cube of grass mat with a square-pointed spade then lifted it and flipped it over with a spading fork. “That’s too easy,” he muttered. Then he dug down another six inches, the depth of a spade shovel, and lifted out the root-infested topsoil and set it aside. The next spade depth brought up root-free topsoil and scraped the subsoil beneath. “Sweetheart,” I purred, “You’ve just started your first trench. After we’ve inverted the soil in all the beds, you can use your tiller to mix in the manure.”
“This soil is so soft,” he declared, “You could do this!” Then, it started raining again. We haven’t had three days in a row without rain since we moved here. Tomorrow is supposed to be dry, followed by two sunny days over the weekend so we hope to get some beds dug “my way” this weekend. I’m not panicking yet because the first plants and seeds won’t go into the ground until the first week in February.
Please use this diary as an open thread for your garden plans, preparations and problems.
Next Week’s Installment: Soil Samples & How to Devise a Planting Schedule