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New Garden: No-till? Double Dig? Something else?

 
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We're new homeowners, and want to start a garden ASAP. Our most pressing reason is because we're going to be even more reliant upon creative ways to get food and save money during the COVID-19 Pandemic. We have a 20'x45' spot in our yard that looks like it was used for a garden before. I've tried gardening in the past - and even did a pretty cool aquaponics system - but still would consider myself pretty ignorant.


The problem is that I hear so many varying opinions, and don't have time to take them all into account. No-till seems to be very popular - and I like the philosophy - but who has that much organic matter and mulch laying around? Double digging seems like a decent alternative, but also requires compost? We want to garden NOW (for the opening reasons given), but also have to do so with limited resources (like compost, etc.).


Thoughts? Encouragement?
 
gardener
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I was in a similar situation three years ago and chose to double dig. It wasn't worth it. Instead I recommend doubling down on looking for organic matter, because as you said you'll need it anyway


Are you planning on any perennials on other parts of the property?
 
Nc Pfister
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Perennials will eventually come elsewhere on the property, but it's pretty much a blank canvas right now.

Does that mean I'm foregoing this year of growing; especially if I don't have readily available OM? Can I have my cake (long-term no-till) while eating it too (veggies this summer/fall)?
 
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First step is to check the former garden area for invasive roots. some grasses will have long strings of roots that will regrow each piece of root if cut. Take a shovel and cut out a piece of sod from the proposed area and wash all the soil off of it to examine what types of roots are there. If there are no invasive roots and the soil seems rich just spading will work. Spading is simple; Remove one shovel full of sod and set it aside, the next shovel full is then dumped upside down in the hole. You only need to do the row you plan to plant at a time. the exposed soil may sprout seeds that are exposed but most of them are edible and will give you a first crop of greens as you weed. As you mow the rest of the grass use it for mulch.
This is how I restored a garden after my sister died and I inherited the farm. Some arias had invasive quack grass roots so I had to let the soil dry and sift them out.
 
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I'd go ahead and plant your garden. It is however very important to keep the soil covered. If you don't have the option of mulch, Plant some dutch clover. If you think it's too tall, mow it. Voila! Mulch!

How rural are you? Take a drive out in the country. Keep your eyes on the fields. Hereabouts it is common to see rotting hay out under the windbreaks. (Tree lines between fields. You can't really call them hedgerows. Little is edible.) I bet they'd let you haul that stuff off. It's a burden to them, an asset to you. Look for those round males that appear to be sinking into the ground.
 
Nc Pfister
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Thanks y'all for the replies and good ideas!

Spading sounds interesting to me. You'd just spade the spots you're planning to plant? And then just seed directly in those areas?

Jorlynn, would you please elaborate on "It is however very important to keep the soil covered." Just the soil up to the little area where you're planting the seeds?
 
Hans Quistorff
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Yes you can actually leave the grass growing if it is not invasive in the paths. Covering the soil has two important functions: to prevent wind and sun from drying the soil and prevent weed growth.  Most of our favorite foods are dependent on soil disturbance for the seeds to sprout and most of them were originally weeds so the principle of vegetable gardening is to disturb the soil and put the desired seed there. Not disturbing the soil keeps it in its natural covered state with vegetation feeding the soil microbes. Disturbing soil that is not being planted degrades the soil. That is the principle of no till.  As I mentioned the exposed soil will will immediately try to cover itself by sprouting seeds. Ask gardeners in your area what sprouts first and if it is edible.
 
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James Landreth wrote:I was in a similar situation three years ago and chose to double dig. It wasn't worth it. Instead I recommend doubling down on looking for organic matter, because as you said you'll need it anyway


Are you planning on any perennials on other parts of the property?




That was my experience with double digging too.  Did it work?  Yes, it worked very well--but it was a tremendous amount of work!!   If I were to do it again, I would hire as many big, strong, football playing high school kids and work a cash deal for it.  Removing the first spade full isn't that bad--but removing the subsoil in my location was very difficult work.    

I'm in a similar situation--just moved to my new pad in the late fall.  I'm planning to make raised beds, lay down a fwe layers of cardboard to smother the under growth, then do some kind of "lasagna bed".  It isn't ideal--I really would prefer to let it age over the winter--but these are the cards I was dealt.  I suspect while the harvest might not be incredible this year, it is still worth doing.  I have several bales of straw that I got for free last fall (halloween cleanup).  I have several bags of leaves that did winter over due to neglect (never got around to putting them on the curb) and last glance they were teaming with fungi.  I have access to an enormous heap of cow and chicken bedding (mostly chopped corn stalks, some wood chips, mixed with poop).    The plan was to alternate straw, poop, leaves. maybe a light cover of wood chips (again, free from the city)  I have a bucket of rock dust to sprinkle in there. Maybe some biochar if I get the time to make some, kitchen scraps, anything to attract worms.... Then let nature do it's thing.  I realize it won't compost the way a "hot" compost heap will.  But with some nitrogen and water, it will go pretty quick.  This first year might not be stellar--but even within 2 years--mountains of organics and inorganics--it should do fine.  Just attract worms, and let them do the "double digging".
 
John Kestell
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Hans Quistorff wrote:First step is to check the former garden area for invasive roots. some grasses will have long strings of roots that will regrow each piece of root if cut. Take a shovel and cut out a piece of sod from the proposed area and wash all the soil off of it to examine what types of roots are there. If there are no invasive roots and the soil seems rich just spading will work. Spading is simple; Remove one shovel full of sod and set it aside, the next shovel full is then dumped upside down in the hole. You only need to do the row you plan to plant at a time. the exposed soil may sprout seeds that are exposed but most of them are edible and will give you a first crop of greens as you weed. As you mow the rest of the grass use it for mulch.
This is how I restored a garden after my sister died and I inherited the farm. Some arias had invasive quack grass roots so I had to let the soil dry and sift them out.



That's a great method too!  It would be great to put some organics in the hole before placing the upside down sod. talk about working the material in to the soil.  that sounds great!  A couple weeks, the grass and roots rot adding to the nutrients.
 
pollinator
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You can also cheat on double digging, just flip the top spade over and bury the weeds, it won't take anything perennial but does most grasses and annual weeds. Getting mulch right now would not only be hard but irresponsible in my opinion, we need to stay away from others not go seeking them out. I personally do not use any form of mulch on my garden as hay and the like just serves as a great slug and vole habitat. I tried doing potatoes ruth stout style, they grew really well no issues.. except when I came to harvest and I got about the same as I put in as the little furry menaces had eaten everything!
 
Nc Pfister
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Wow, y'all are a wealth of knowledge, and I'm also feeling a bit overwhelmed! In general, sounds like I could just spade and flip, and plant on the upside-down side; with the grass serving as my organic presence? Pardon my ignorance, and thanks for all of the help. Feels like I just need to get my hands dirty, and see what works.
 
Joylynn Hardesty
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Hans Quistorff wrote: Most of our favorite foods are dependent on soil disturbance for the seeds to sprout and most of them were originally weeds so the principle of vegetable gardening is to disturb the soil and put the desired seed there. Not disturbing the soil keeps it in its natural covered state with vegetation feeding the soil microbes. Disturbing soil that is not being planted degrades the soil. That is the principle of no till.



That's it. For additional soil wisdom, read through Dr Redhaw's soil series.
 
James Landreth
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Skandi Rogers wrote:You can also cheat on double digging, just flip the top spade over and bury the weeds, it won't take anything perennial but does most grasses and annual weeds. Getting mulch right now would not only be hard but irresponsible in my opinion, we need to stay away from others not go seeking them out. I personally do not use any form of mulch on my garden as hay and the like just serves as a great slug and vole habitat. I tried doing potatoes ruth stout style, they grew really well no issues.. except when I came to harvest and I got about the same as I put in as the little furry menaces had eaten everything!



Getting mulch doesn't require contact with others. It can be delivered in a dump truck. Around here there exists a field where truckers dump woodchips. You can easily go there and maintain safe social distancing practices.


I highly recommend putting in some trees and perennials somewhere on the property this spring. It may not seem like a priority but it will help in the medium term.
 
Nc Pfister
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What's the advantage to getting trees/perennials planted now?
 
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Planting perennials/shrubs/trees now has the advantage of allowing the plants to get some good root growth before the dormant season in fall/winter.  

Also I had a laugh at "Who has that much organic material lying around?" Just take a look at my chicken coops, various compost piles, mulch areas where all the dead brush gets tossed.. and the enormous pile of leaf mold from about 5 yards on my street, my neighbors love dumping all their trimmings and leaves down at my place. They are all organic anyway, so why not?

Because I've nearly covered a 52X52 ft garden in less than 2 years. That's why not. Permaculture has an addictive quality. "I can use this!" just works its way into everything.

Double dug works well, but in my opinion is more work for most folks than is worth. I got comparable results from my lasagna/layered beds. All of that was shadowed by the mighty hugelkultur.. but talk about a project. Definitely requires organic matter.  Prepping the direct area you plan to plant in is your best and most economical option probably. I did this with good success for years.
 
pollinator
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Instead of double-digging, I'd just dig one shovel scoop down, and turn over the top-soil, and chop up the larger clods with the shovel. Basically, put the old grass face-down in the ground to kill the grass and act as organic matter. If the soil already seems loose (e.g. from past gardening), then the ground is already good, so you can skip that.

You can avoid digging where you plan to have footpaths. Or you could just think in terms of rows, and dig rows directly.

On top of the turned-over top-soil, I'd spread whatever you have cheap/free access to: aged manure (free if you know someone with animals), gypsum ($6 for a 40lb bag at Menards - just scatter about 4 bags over your upturned topsoil), and cover with as much mulch as you can get: straw, grass clippings, woodchips (your county or city may have a woodchip pile somewhere near you, or ask tree cutting companies (e.g. clearing powerlines) where they take their woodchips, or if they can dump a load on your land). If you could magically get six inches covering over everything, fantastic! Don't purchase expensive bags of mulch at stores (that's basically middle-class lawn decor, at luxury prices), we're talking cheapo trailerloads of it.

If you can't get cheap or free woodchips by trailerloads to cover the whole area, I'd suggest this method instead: get pieces of cardboard (e.g. from a recycling center), cut a hole in the center, and plant your plant. Use cardboard around each plant. Or thickly layer newspaper.

Unless you can get what you need cheaply or for free, I wouldn't try mulching and fertilizing the entire plot of land - instead, focus on where you're planting each plant. You can lay cardboard (with a rock or brick on it to prevent it from flying away) over everywhere you don't have a plant. Also, I'd start your pepper and tomato seeds indoors ASAP.
 
Skandi Rogers
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James Landreth wrote:[

Getting mulch doesn't require contact with others. It can be delivered in a dump truck. Around here there exists a field where truckers dump woodchips. You can easily go there and maintain safe social distancing practices.



It really depends where you are, here there are NO free sources of mulch woodchips cost a lot of money (relatively) as they are burnt for power, no one sweeps leaves or picks up lawn mowings. so any mulch you may find like old silage bales will mean driving round which you should NOT be doing now (illegal in many places right now anyway) and knocking on doors and asking which is a 100% no no. (never mind needing someway to move a 400kg falling apart mess and all the plastic that comes with it) I cannot even get compost this year as that requires a trip to the tip and it is shut.
 
Nc Pfister
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Wow, Jamin, that was the most helpful reply yet! So, in short, I overturn topsoil (grass down) where I want to plant, cover with organics (or cardboard), and then just pull away the organics (or hole in cardboard) where I want to plant? I'm slow to catch on, but I think we're getting somewhere. Thanks, y'all!
 
Jamin Grey
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Nc Pfister wrote:Wow, Jamin, that was the most helpful reply yet! So, in short, I overturn topsoil (grass down) where I want to plant, cover with organics (or cardboard), and then just pull away the organics (or hole in cardboard) where I want to plant? I'm slow to catch on, but I think we're getting somewhere. Thanks, y'all!



Yep, that's the general idea. If you can get gypsum (provides calcium and sulphur, but more importantly helps break up the soil/keep the soil broken up), awesome, scatter that around the turned over soil. Then layer on manure or any other soil amendments you can get your hands on (trailer loads of compost, etc...). Finally, lay down cardboard, then cover with woodchips and straw if you got it. Cardboard really helps prevent grass and weeds, and the woodchips will hold down the cardboard, retain moisture, and decay and improve the soil.

Note: You don't need to repeatedly turn over the soil in later years - there are good benefits to *not* disturbing soil. This is just to get you started with looser soil, but by mulching every year, you continue to improve the soil and keep it loose. Basically, I start with turning and chopping the clods, if the ground is tough, and *then* no longer disturb the soil deeply, but mulch heavily every year, and add aged manure if I got it.


My city/county's garbage dump has a compost pile (and will tractor-dump a load on my trailer for me!) - mostly decayed grass from people's mowed lawns, which means it (unfortunately) has herbicides in it that take years to break down (tomatoes would be particularly susceptible). However, I haven't had an issue with it hurting my plants - the dump ages the pile for over a year before giving it out, and I spread it a couple of inches thick where I want to plant the following year, and let it age some additional time.

See what's available for free in your area! I get as many free trailerloads as I'm willing to shovel, of all the following:
- Woodchips (city supply depot area)
- Compost (city dump)
- Cow manure (from my neighbor)
- Cardboard (city recycling center)

As an extra boost, you can pick up a few bags of all-purpose garden soil (*not* topsoil!) and put a little under each plant when planting them, until your soil gets good enough that your plants don't need the extra help.

I'm an amateur though, only gardening for about five years, so others likely have superior advice! I hope your new garden goes very well.
 
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It sounds like you really want to do a bunch of extra work, but here is what I would do if I had a plot of land and wanted to grow quickly and cheaply.

Materials:
Free cardboard from recycling center
Free aged cow manure or horse manure from local farmers (ask with a post on local facebook pages)
A smaller amount of more well fined compost
A couple of large pieces of wood to help hold the cardboard down, but really to hold the compost in place the first season

Run a lawn mower over the area first to knock down the majority of weeds.
Cover the area where you want to plant with cardboard thickly. Make sure no light can get through.
Make sure the cardboard goes BEYOND where you want to put the bed as to stop weeds from coming up into the sides of the bed.
Lay the wooden beams on it to mark out where the bed will be.
Put down 3-4 inches of aged manure.
Put down 1 inch of aged compost (the finer grain stuff)
Plant immediately.

Only do the section of the bed you are planting at the time... It keeps it VERY cheap.
As you add more stuff and want to plant more, add more as described above.

This is the no-dig method and seems to be the smartest, easiest, most natural way to build up soil life, grow healthy veggies, and to get great results.

As with all new plots, it will probably take a year or two for your soil to find it's balance in microbes and other organisms. Just the same, you can start today with relatively little sweat equity.

I highly recommend you watching a number of YouTube videos from Charles Dowding on No Dig. He has a number of experiments he's done over the years that make it VERY clear that it is a superior way to garden.

If you want to do a lot of work... then shovel away. At least you'll have plenty of time to weed with the Covid stuff...lol
 
Nc Pfister
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That also is very helpful, Jonathan - thank you! One question - and it feels like an unintelligent one - with your proposed method, where do I plant the seeds? Cut holes in cardboard and make a small hole in the undisturbed topsoil (which hasn't been spaded), and seed there?

I'm just struggling to visualize. Any specific YouTube videos you could point me to to help me understand this admittedly very basic component? Thanks again!
 
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An idea to throw in the mix...   If you can get some soil (bags of it or a few buckets from somewhere else), you can poke holes in the cardboard with a knife and then cover that spot with 1" of soil and plant your seeds into that soil.  Make sure the cardboard is good and wet before adding the soil so when the roots hit it a week later, they can find their way through the holes and into the underlying soil.

So if you want to a row of peas or lettuce, just make a dirt row 4" wide and however long your row is and plant into that.  Cover the cardboard next to it with wood chips or other organic matter since you don't need to waste soil there.
 
James Landreth
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It's important to plant some trees and perennials now to get some growth under their belts. For example, where I am you have to wait to harvest rhubarb about 2-3 years. So rhubarb planted now needs to wait until 2023 to be harvested. Longer term perennials are MUCH less work, and make life a lot easier--trust me! It is much less work to for you as the human to "grow" 50 pounds of apples from an established tree than it is for you to grow 50 pounds of tomatoes. I know that we are on the cusp of a big economic crisis, but it's still important to step back and think a little about the medium and long term
 
Jonathan Fudge
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Nc Pfister wrote:That also is very helpful, Jonathan - thank you! One question - and it feels like an unintelligent one - with your proposed method, where do I plant the seeds? Cut holes in cardboard and make a small hole in the undisturbed topsoil (which hasn't been spaded), and seed there?

I'm just struggling to visualize. Any specific YouTube videos you could point me to to help me understand this admittedly very basic component? Thanks again!



I'm so glad you asked. You don't have to do anything special. Here are two videos that were done fairly well that show most of what needs to be done.

No dig starting out, basics and a little extra detail in planting stuff too:


Similar, older video, talking about a raised bed (only if you have flooding as an issue like I do in Florida):


Here is no-dig explained in 3 minutes:


This video shows around the 2:30 mark how he plants into no dig bed:


A more direct answer to your question, sowing seeds for carrots directly into no-dig:



Anyway... Hope that all helps. This guy, btw, seems to be one of the leaders of this method as well. At least, the most visible on YouTube. So, you can watch all kinds of videos from him to see more.
 
Nc Pfister
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So, I watched some Charles Dowding, and it was very helpful! Next question is compost/top soil.

I have a spot near the old garden in my yard that is raised some, and when you dig it has bits of wood, etc. in it. Very dark soil, with lots of organics. Could I excavate this area and move the soil/organics (compost?) on top of my cardboard garden? Or is it worth it to buy some high quality compost?

We plan to start composting ourselves, and will have chickens soon enough I reckon to help with this, and so after I figure out this initial setup we'll have to figure out how to compost well and also what to do when we come to planting again next spring. Will definitely start seeds indoors next year, but have decided to buy plants this year for anything we're not direct seeding into garden.

Thanks, y'all; through your time and ideas we know have a way more focused plan to have us a garden this summer!
 
pollinator
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No one has mentioned it yet so i wanted to mention chipdrop  It's a service that connects you to landscapers in your area to dump their chips at your site for free. You just download the app to sign up. I have never used it but others here have and they like it.. Also (maybe not now), don't forget to get coffee grounds from your local coffee shop. Also, also, look into getting rabbits. You don't have to breed them, if you don't want to and they are prolific poopers 😊
 
Hans Quistorff
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Have you considered that the raised area may be an abandoned raised bed.  If you don't want to garden where it is it makes sense to move it to where you want the garden bed. The soil is more alive than what you purchase. You are learning permaculture which is a design science.  The recommended procedure is observe what is there and draw it out on paper. Go in and draw out what you would like to have. Then go out and measure what you would  like to have and see if it fits. then revise it and try again. It is much less work to redo it on paper than with a shovel. There is no wrong just learning experience.
 
Nc Pfister
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I'm a civil engineer (actually focused on soil), and so drafting out concepts using CAD is what I do daily!

It just seems like Dowding is really pushing compost as an investment; even if you have to purchase it. However, I have beautiful soil throughout my yard. Just excavated a fair bit while digging for 4x4 fence posts, and could even put some of that extra (what doesn't go back in the hole) to use, maybe?
 
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If you need to get a garden ready right now, for planting immediately, then I think you will need to invest in some mechanical preparation of the soil.

In the past I have had success with mulching - back to Eden style with woodchips and cardboard, and also Ruth stout style with spoilt straw. Straw was great for plants in the same season. I just couldn’t get hold of enough to do a decent area.

Just now I found myself in the same situation as you; wanting to expand rapidly due to corona virus.

I was going to double dig, but put a call out on a local Facebook group to see if anyone had a rotavator I could borrow. I had multiple offers of a loan, and someone ended up selling me a mantis tiller - second hand for dirt cheap. The mantis is amazing. I can get 20 times as much done in the same time, and it is less tiring overall. A proper walk behind two wheel tractor tiller would be even better. It copes with grass well, and leaves a ready-to-plant fine filth. I’m expecting to still need to do some hand weeding/hoeing as it won’t have killed everything.

It doesn’t feel like a very permie solution, but as a compromise to get stuff done quickly I am very happy.
D66BB5A7-0A50-4B81-81D0-48E8370CF016.jpeg
90 minutes of tilling
90 minutes of tilling
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The mantis
The mantis
 
gardener
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No,

Do you have a yard separate from the area you plan to put to a garden?  And if so, is it pesticide/herbicide free?  The reason I ask is that you could mow the lawn, rake the clippings and use them to make organic matter.  If you can mix some leaves (best shredded), this is even better.

Even if you cannot make tons of organic matter/mulch, just piling a bit of almost any type of organic matter and just letting it sit on the ground will do wonders for the soil beneath.  I will tell a little story I tell often.

Many years ago during a wet spring my lawn grew like gang busters and I had hayfields if grass clippings left that I had to rake (normally I just let the clippings decal in place).  I took my clippings to an obscure corner of my orchard and dumped them in a pile about 5’ in diameter and 5’ tall.  This was a pile of almost pure grass, all greens and almost no browns, a poorly made compost pile.

Over the next few days the pile did heat up and the 5’ tall pile got reduced to about a 5” pile (approximately) over several weeks.  I did scrape that residue off and dump it back in my garden, but that was not the real story.  As the pile shrank, the grass around the pile turned darker, rich green.  The pile was sitting on a very slight slope with a baby peach tree at the bottom (I imagine that the slope was 10 feet long and dropped only 2-3 inches, so barely a slope).  That peach tree was one of three of the same variety in a row.  A dark, green stripe emerged downhill from the pile and just barely enclosed the baby peach tree as the stripe tapered to nothing.  

The stripe was plainly visible for the next 3 years, obviously darker, thicker, more healthy and vigorous than grass outside the stripe.  And the peach tree grew at least twice as tall and in volume as it’s neigh.  The leaves were always darker, richer and more vibrant and healthy than its neighbors,  and today it is still the tallest, and most voluminous tree in the row.  People walking down the street would take one look at the orchard and say “what type of tree is THAT?!”

Today I no longer make a compost pile outside of the garden bed.  I don’t care if it heats up.  I just find some unused part of the garden bed and build the pile right there.  What decays, decays.  I might spread the remaining matter around plants or I might use it as starter for the next pile, but I don’t get worried about the actual compost material so much as I am interested in the soil beneath the pile.  As all that composting goodness seeps into the soil, the soil becomes magically fertile.

I realize that you are just starting to get garden beds going, but if you can get some decaying vegetable matter breaking down near where you are planting, the effects can be amazing.  Perhaps you can use cardboard to smother weeds, plant in little fertile holes (I would really not want to double dig the area you described—my back hurts just thinking about it).

Also, although you have substantial area to garden, I would consider starting small and working up.  Maybe make 1-2 beds and get them started and then get another 1-2 beds established in fall (maybe compost on them to juice up their fertility.

Anyhow, these are just my thoughts.  I strongly recommend using organic matter on the surface just to smother weeds and really soak in those nutrients into the soil, but the choice is of course yours.

Good Luck and please keep us updated,

Eric
 
Nc Pfister
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Thanks, Eric! According to your direction, how/where would you plant? I'm seeing cardboard on top of the ground, OM on top of cardboard. Where do I plant my seeds/plants? I'm thinking of some kind of cross-sectional view.

I have a separate 20'x45' area in a corner that was used to garden in the past by previous owners. I haven't applied pesticides or herbicides, and I doubt previous renters did, so it was just lawn care folks mowing and weed eating.
 
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We tried for 4 years to grow good vegetables and had very poor results. Last September we built a greenhouse with roughly 30sqm of growing space. Since then we purchase almost zero produce. I can't recommend it enough.
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Eric Hanson
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Nc,

So to get one of these beds started I either dig up a little topsoil, compost, or maybe som loose soil from a forest floor OR, I go out and get some bags of topsoil/manure.  As you surmised, I put the cardboard down first, then the organic matter/mulch as I can find it, then make little trenches or holes and backfill with the topsoil that you either gathered or purchased.  And after you plant, cover again with some type of mulch.

Given that you are just starting out, I see no problem with buying in some bagged topsoil/manure.  As your garden matures, you likely will need less purchased material each year.  My long term goal is to need absolutely no outside fertility whatsoever, including bedding.  I am close but not quite there yet.

BTW, the technique we are discussing is called a fertile hole or a fertile trench.  This is where some material is excavated and refilled with a very fertile mixture.  Eventually, all that decaying matter will take over from where your manure left off and you will no longer need to bring in outside fertility.

On a random tangent, I used to think of healthy soil as being a bunch of chemicals with a bit of biology thrown in.  I have recently experimented with growing in woodchips inoculated with wine cap mushrooms, and that view is turned on its head—I now see soil as being a LOT of biology with a little chemistry thrown in.  The beds that grew mushrooms last year were magically fertile.  I am in the process of converting all of my garden bedding into wine cap decayed woodchips.

Do you have the possibility of making/acquiring a lot of woodchips?  If so, we can talk about some amazing garden bedding but there are some steps to go through first.

Good Luck,

Eric
 
Hans Quistorff
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Your current concern seems to be planting seeds. This is where a small amount of purchaced soil that does not have any seeds in it is valuable to a new gardener. Having been trained by my mother 75 years ago to recognize different plants when they first emerge there are many that I can't tell apart from their weed relatives.  Therefore I recommend starting seeds in containers with sterile soil while you work on your garden, Just to see what they look like. You can make a hole in your mulch and transplant them later and as a new gardener do not be ashamed to purchase started plants to gain experience with a better chance of success.
To avoid weed confusion you can make a narrow trench in your prepared soil and fill it with sterile soil and press your seeds into it. that will give you a more clear distinction between the seeds you planted and seeds that were already in the soil of the garden.

Please don't be obsessed with doing it just right. Every garden and every year is a scientific experiment to test what will work for you. There always has to be successes and failures to gather the knowledge of what works for you.  I hope you will make it a life long experiment; it has been for me.
 
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Hans, very well put.

Eric
 
Nc Pfister
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Would it be reasonable to lay down cardboard, cover with organic material, and then carve out little holes where you add compost (instead of topsoil)?
 
Eric Hanson
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Nc,

Yes, that is not only acceptable, it is what I was trying to say.  Sorry if I was unclear—I get overly verbose sometimes.

That cardboard makes the perfect weed barrier.  It stops weeds in their tracks, but breaks down and eventually becomes mulch itself.  

I say go for it!

Eric
 
Nc Pfister
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Ah no, any misunderstanding is most likely due to my slowness to catch on! Thanks, y'all, I think I can get wood chips and other OM, and then will buy some compost to fill "planting holes" with. Any recommendations on good compost to purchase in the US?
 
Eric Hanson
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Nc,

If you get wood chips, we can talk about mushroom compost which is just incredibly fertile stuff.  This might be a bit much for the first year, but that’s ok, the best mushroom (Wine Caps in my opinion) grows best on wood that has aged a bit and has some bacterial activity.  It might make for a great project for next year.

Eric
 
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