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Site Preparation

            Preparing your garden space is a good life lesson. The more time and trouble you take getting your ground ready, the better your harvest will be. Children and teenagers need to know the important of patience and perseverance. So spending a lot of time with them preparing your garden site and the soil is a good way to model those important traits.

            Here's an excellent work session for your garden club. It will be more meaningful to the students months from when you start, to see how their diligent garden prep pays off in great results!

            Before you start to work, be sure to review the lessons on Garden Safety and Garden Tools in the "Garden Practices" category on

If you have the luxury of planning ahead, it's best to prepare your garden site in the fall of the year. Then the soil amendments - most importantly, the rotted manure that you probably will want to add, for fertile soil - has plenty of time to adjust to its new status as a garden instead of a lawn or whatever the space was previously.

            Of course you can get your garden ready the day before you plant, but your back will hurt on planting day . . . and you're likely to have weed problems later on.

            So if at all possible, get your garden ground ready to go a few months before you actually plant.

            If you are making raised beds, with lumber and imported soil or compost, it's a different story, and you CAN create the raised beds shortly in advance of planting. You won't be wrestling with long-established grass and weeds, so your problems will be fewer. Still, leave yourself as much time as possible between building the bed and planting in it, to let the soil settle and water it a few times and re-rake to keep the surface as flat as possible.

            Back to those who are not making permanent raised beds:

            For a square or rectangular garden, measure your garden space and drive stakes connected by string to get your edges straight and corners square. You can "chalk" a line with spilled flour or ground white limestone, available at garden centers.

            For a round or oval garden, lay out a garden hose or rope to create a smooth curve.

            Remove any bushes, big weeds, tree roots, brush and rocks. You may need to use a hoe, shovel or pick ax. Mow the site as short as you can. Water it thoroughly for a couple of days before you dig up the sod.

            Then, using a broad, flat spade, push it just as horizontally as you can, into the sod, and lift up sections of sod, exposing the bare soil. You need to strip away both the grass and the roots. You can re-plant the sod somewhere else - just keep it watered every day - or chop it up into your compost pile.

            If you are able to do this task several months in advance, you can lay down heavy rugs, carpet remnants, black plastic, cardboard or other coverings, weighed down by rocks or boards, and after a month or two, the grass and weeds should die down.

            Water the dirt, and wait about 10 more days. Weeds should sprout. Hoe them away. Then you should have fairly clean soil to work with.

            Some people swear by tilling the soil, and if they don't own a tilling machine, they rent or borrow a tiller to aerate their garden soil.

            Others prefer to leave the soil infrastructure in place so that existing worms and other beneficial insects aren't displaced. If you do this, you just add four to six pieces of newspaper on each section of the garden, water it, cover it with a thick layer of clean hay, and then dump rich compost on top. A few months later, you'll have a lovely surface and the layers will have killed off any stubborn grass or weed seeds.

            After testing your soil for its pH, using an inexpensive kit available at a garden store, you'll likely want to add limestone (to make it less acidic) or sulphur (to make it less alkaline). See the next activity on soil testing for more information.

            Then you'll want to dig in about two or three inches of rotted compost, and maybe some rotted manure or leaf mold (decomposed tree leaves) to improve your soil. Again, it's best to do this about a month or more before planting, to give the air pockets time to form and the worms and microorganisms to move in and start their magic, which can make your plants so much healthier.

            Just dump the compost and manure, and use a garden fork or shovel to mix it in with the soil. Turn it well - break up clumps - water it - let it sit - and turn it again.

            Beware of adding too much manure: quite often, the livestock that produced the manure ate a lot of weeds in their pastures, and those weeds might have seeds which survive the composting process and will sprout in your garden. Make sure the manure is fully composted for a year or two. And avoid horse manure, since the hay that horses eat is likely to have weed seeds, or may rob your soil of nitrogen as it decomposes further.

            Last, but not least, you probably will want to fence your garden. For more about that, see the article in Practices -- #5, Building a Garden Fence.

By Susan Darst • Planning 08 © 2010

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