Mother Earth Living

Green Patch: Preparing Soil

Learn how to prepare planting soil for the first time.
By Kathleen Halloran
February/March 2001
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Photography by Anybody Goes


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Question: Now that I have a plan for my first herb garden, how do I prepare the soil? 

Answer: In the last issue, we talked about some basic things to think about during the winter months as you plan out your garden. You’ve determined the size and shape you want, decided what you hope to achieve, and prioritized your needs. You’ve also figured out the best sun exposure. You’ve spent months perusing plant catalogs and making lists, you’ve checked out the local nurseries, and you know what USDA plant hardiness zone you’re in. Right? Now let’s get to work.

Keep your eye on the weather. You want to get started working the soil as early in the season as possible, as soon as the ground thaws.

First, mark off the boundaries of the garden. One easy way to do this is with your hoses, laying them out on the ground around the edges of what will be your garden; then you can look at it from all angles and change your mind easily. If the edge of your garden is a straight line, that’s easy, but if you want a curvy shape, then play with it a bit. Remember that a long, sinuous curve will be more attractive than a too-curvy edge, which can look fussy.

What’s in that space now? Is it lawn or other landscaping, or is it bare earth (lucky you!), or is it overgrown with weeds? Unless there are plants you want to save, you’ll be removing everything so that you end up with the equivalent of a blank canvas, then digging deep. How do you do this? Sweat and muscle.

(If you want some chemical help, use the most environmentally friendly herbicide you can find. A glyphosate, such as Round-Up, kills everything it touches, but leaves no chemical residue in the soil. Such a herbicide will take a week or two to work, and it won’t eliminate the need to dig. I prefer to just dig and weed.)

If the ground is hard and dry, turn on your sprinkler or hose and soak the area well a day or two before you’re ready to start digging. Moist ground is much easier to dig, but if the soil is too wet, it will be heavy and will compact as you walk on it, so let it dry out a bit.

I like to use an edging tool around the perimeter, a straight blade that cuts through the grass roots and marks off a smooth edge. Then start with your shovel, digging as deep as you can and lifting the sod or weeds, roots and all. When that chunk is completely loosened, leave it there and move over a foot and dig again, working your way all through the garden plot.

Now you have to remove the grass or other plants. I plop down on the ground and do this with a trowel and my hands, shaking as much dirt off the sod as I can and pulling out every root I find.

When this top layer of soil is dug through and cleared, that’s the time to double-dig. Double-digging is work that you’ll never regret! The benefits will be apparent later in the season and in subsequent years with bountiful plants whose roots go deep.

Here’s how. Dig into that top foot of soil and lift it off to the side of your garden’s boundaries. Then take a pitchfork to the hole, rocking it back and forth until the deeper soil is loosened. Then move over a foot or so, shovel out that top foot of soil and place it on top of the square you just loosened, and repeat with the pitchfork. Work in a line, back and forth until you’ve covered the entire area.

Now amend the soil by spreading compost across the surface and digging again. If you don’t have your own compost, you can usually find a source from which to buy it, either by the bag from your garden supply store or by the truckload from a local supplier, depending on the size of your garden. No matter what kind of soil you have, adding compost will improve the drainage and offer the advantage of slightly raising the soil level. A bed that’s higher than the ground around it is generally easier to maintain.

After all this digging, your soil is light and workable and a joy to run your hands through. Sure, it’s hard work, but very satisfying (and good exercise)!

Get acquainted with your local cooperative extension office, which can test your soil for you if you want and offer good advice about further amendments that will help. It can also tell you the frost-free date in your area, which is critical information for the next step—the planting!

More next time. Happy digging!

Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, is a long-time herb gardener now living in Las Vegas, where she is a freelance writer and editor.


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