We moved into our current house in July 2012, chose a vegetable garden site, and put up a rabbit fence in August. In September, we were thinking about how we could prepare the soil so that it would be deep and loose by the following spring.First, my husband used a spade to remove the grass by flipping the sod onto its back over the 14’x16’ garden area (two 4’x16’ beds and three 2 foot wide aisles on the long sides). The ground was compacted in those areas, so this was hard work (thank you to my husband! I was more suited to working on the rabbit fence). We chopped at the sod to try to break it up, but it looked like it would need something more to loosen up. I didn’t like the idea of a rototiller as it would kill earthworms and microorganisms, mix up soil layers, and cost money to rent. Double digging would have been tough with the soil so hard. And we weren’t ready to invest in raised garden beds and new soil since we wanted to evaluate the garden spot further to see if it would be successful. Yet, the existing soil needed some love that fall to become healthier. I started thinking about how I could encourage earthworms to make their home in our vegetable garden. A partnership with the local invertebrates seemed like a good deal: they could aerate and enrich the soil and I could add organic matter for them to munch on and keep my feet off the garden beds. Our compost wasn’t ready yet, so I went to Menard’s to find a peace offering to give them. I wasn’t able to find compost there (which would have been ideal), but I did find bags of manure and top soil that were quite cheap. I thought that would provide a soft medium for the worms to crawl around in, so I filled the trunk of our car with about 20 large bags. Spreading the manure and top soil over the two 4’x16’ garden beds didn’t go very far, but it was a good start. Next, I decided that the earthworms might enjoy some cover crops, which would also keep the number of weeds down, fix some nitrogen, and help break up the soil. I planted seeds for buckwheat in the south bed and oats and peas in the north bed and then set up a sprinkler to water the area each morning. September 1st was a bit late in the season for planting, but I hoped I would get something before the frosts came. Two weeks after sowing, the cover crops were several inches tall. I was pleased to see this because the garden site only gets about 5 hours of sun each day. They continued to grow, and by mid-October, it seemed time to incorporate them into the soil for worm food. I was disappointed to find that the plants’ roots were tiny. I believe this was due to the fact that the ground was so hard and I watered frequently in September.
My peace offering to the worms still didn’t feel complete. Once the cover crops were done, I added autumn leaves on top of the garden beds. They packed down a bit from rainfall, but I mixed some of them into the topsoil (the kids were impatient so I didn’t do this very well) and left some leaves on top. I believed that the leaves would add warmth to the soil and encourage worm activity, decomposition, and moisture over the rest of fall and into next spring. We had some leftover straw in the garage, so I added that on top of the leaves as well. Like the manure and top soil, a large bag didn’t go very far over the 128 square feet of garden area. Did the worms like my peace offering?We received a lot of snow over the winter and the vegetable garden and rabbit fence disappeared for 4 months. It’s now April and the last of the snow has melted. I raked the leaves back from over the garden beds onto the aisles so the sun could worm the soil. I hope the leaves in the aisles don’t retain too much moisture and encourage slugs and snails. I noticed that there are still chunks of sod which we weren’t able to break up, so I worry that the soil hasn’t gotten any looser. But there is hope: I tried pushing a bird feeder crook into the yard around the house and couldn’t get it to budge into the hard ground. However, when I pushed it into my garden bed, it slid in effortlessly.
As the ground warms up further, I will continue to evaluate and look for ways to improve the soil in these vegetable garden beds. I will try some vegetable crops this spring and also add more cover crops. If the vegetables are successful, I will be more willing to invest in raised beds, better soil (such as Mel’s Mix from the “All New Square Foot Gardening” book), and the removal of a large blue spruce tree that shades the garden in the afternoon. Our vegetable garden has only begun, but so far, I am enjoying the process of making the soil healthier and looking forward to seeing what we’ll be able to grow.