Choosing the proper time to put spade to earth is very important. If you dig when the ground is frozen or when it's too wet you can severely damage your soil by harming its structure, a major component of tilth. Tilth is the physical condition of the soil that allows it to support root and plant growth. Good soil tilth allows good water movement and air infiltration through the little air pockets, or pore spaces, that exist within the soil. When you disrupt the frozen or water-logged soil, you break up the pore space and affect its ability to support plant growth.
If mud sticks to your shovel when you dig, it's too wet. If you stomp on your spade and the soil is like rock, it's frozen. Moist soil allows you to dig easily. After digging a shovelful of soil, lift it hip high and let it fall. If it lands in a single clump or plop, it's still too wet. If it begins to break apart as it falls and bounces or spreads out briskly as it lands, it is the right consistency. Grab a handful and squeeze the soil. If your fingers freeze, it's too cold. If you can squeeze out water, it's too wet. If it feels moist but breaks apart easily, it's okay.
Once you've determined the soil is okay to dig, put your plan into action. You do have a plan, right? Use the cold days waiting for the soil to thaw and dry to plan your new garden and measure its dimensions. There is no need to labor beyond what is needed so set your borders and break ground. I like to hammer in small stakes that define the area. You can use landscape paint, a special can designed to spray upside down and mark the ground or grass. Marking the edges with flour by pouring it from a small hole cut in the bag works well too (just like a baseball infield).
|Digging out sod in a staked area.|
Most new or expanded gardens venture into territory that something else occupies. It might be grass or turf, rock, previous plantings, or maybe a shed or small fence. Whatever it is, you'll need to remove it to get to bare soil. Allow enough time in your planning for the removal work. I once put a vegetable garden in a large area six to ten inches deep with fist-size "decorative" rock. It took nearly a month to remove enough to begin preparing the soil. It was an ongoing effort and ultimately took nearly three years to remove all of the rock, with a lot of help from family and friends.
The areas where I'm putting new beds is covered with prairie grass and weeds. In many home gardens, it's the turf that is removed to expand a garden. A square shovel (spades are pointed) works well to get underneath the grass and dig it out, but it's labor intensive. If you have a large area of turf to remove you might consider renting a power sod remover; it allows you to dig it out in long strips and replant it.
If the soil is loose and the grass isn't too deep or thick, you can use a tiller to break it up. You'll need a heavier, rear-tine tiller. It will leave big clumps of grass that you can remove by hand or with a shovel. A tiller on unbroken soil doesn't work well if it's rocky, too wet, or is heavy with clay. It can also add to your weed pulling later on because weed seeds will be turned into the soil.
You can also smother the grass to kill it and make its removal or tilling easier. A large sheet of black plastic anchored to the ground will kill the grass and even some weed seeds as the sun heats up the soil underneath. It takes weeks, can also kill the microorganisms in the soil, and will need to be removed before planting.
|Plastic killed the grass in the same area I dug up.|
Covering the grass with four to eight sheets of black and white newspaper and covering that with a thick layer of compost or soil will kill the grass, not harm microorganisms, and allow planting soon after. That's the method I used in some of my raised beds.
|Newspaper smothering the grass in a raised bed.|
As you remove the obstacle to a new garden, you can sculpt the land in the process. My vegetable garden is on a slope. As I remove the sod, I place it on the lower end of the bed to raise the relative elevation. When I add compost and new, enriched soil the overall planting bed will be more level, making planting and watering easier.
|Raising the lower corner to level the entire bed.|
That is a segue for a future blog and the next step in the process of developing garden beds. After creating your plan, removing surface obstacles, and getting down to bare soil, you're ready to amend it before planting. Amending your soil is a crucial step in almost all garden development, and coming soon to a gardening blog near you.