Garden Prep Video: Building Rich Soil for Next Season’s Success

A traveler friend once told me that there are three main phases of travel: The anticipation, the travel itself, and the memories of the trip. I think this is true for many results-driven experiences in life, and for me gardening definitely fits right in–the planning, the planting, the harvest, the preserving, and the remembering are ALL my favorite.

From the tender and unbelievably flavorful green bounty of spring, to summer’s potato salad and blueberry cobbler and cucumber and tomato sandwiches, to early autumn sweet corn and creamy zucchini soup and apple pie, to cracking open a jar of homemade, homegrown San Marzano tomato sauce or spicy dilly beans or berry jam, it’s really hard to pick a favorite.

But late fall/early winter here in gardening zone 8b in the Pacific Northwest rates way up there on my list because autumn and winter are my seasons to dream: Give me a hot cup of coffee and a morning gazing out the window while I make lists and sketch out BIG plans, and you’ll see me light up. It’s one of my favorite ways to spend time, especially as a gardener and small-scale farmer in our hardy, mercurial PNW weather where we truly have the opportunity to tackle some of the most rewarding gardening experiences I can imagine.

I’m working on a lot of planning right now, and it’s super fun. In case it’s helpful to you for whatever phase you’re in, I’m going to be sharing my work with you here and on Instagram and Facebook–from lists, to photos, to videos, to tutorials, I’m diving in and getting to work, and I’ll show you how I do it.

I know from experience that a bit of joyful planning and some serious design and prep now will mean better results next year, and I’m a big fan of that.

Plus, I’m in expansion mode again and our little farm has a few exciting developments ahead that will be fun to share with you as they roll out. (Hint: It means we’re getting bigger, sweeter, more colorful, and more playful. After 4-1/2 years of hands in the soil working super hard and learning how to grow enough food for my family, I’m excited about the pure joy in store ahead.)

Ok, but here’s the thing. I’m all aflutter with the joy and excitement of the year ahead, but there’s plenty of hands in the soil time still to go–from soil prep to tackling over-zealous blackberries, pruning fruit trees, dividing dahlias, planting bulbs, purchasing and organizing seeds, building soil teas and compost piles, removing blighty mulch (ugh! I had my first year of blight this year and it was awful, I’m doing tons of research on that right now so expect a post about that at a later date), clearing debris, and generally getting super dirty and muddy, there’s a lot to do.

Luckily, I love all of that stuff too, and I hope that by sharing some of the step-by-step ways you can get your property ready for next year, the work will be fun and rewarding for you, too.

Prepping Your Soil for Spring and Summer

Ok, I get it. Soil prep doesn’t sound super sexy. But good soil is one hundred and fifty percent essential to growing good food. Fall and winter in zone 8b are the perfect time to pay special attention to your soil so that you can reap the rewards of a great growing season when the soil warms again. So. Get thee outside and grab a good shovel and get to work.

Today I’m going to show you what I did to prep our new-this-year cornfield and holy trinity/three sister’s field (corn, beans, and squash) field for next year.

While I start the video with what appears to be an untended left-alone field, there is one distinction: I’ve had my chickens working on it and scratching about on it periodically for months, and I’ve been pulling old veggies and vines out of it and tromping around and fussing with the surface of the soil ever since I harvested the last of the veggies.

Obviously, I had corn plants and stalks to contend with, which is why they’re highlighted in this video, but if you haven’t grown corn this year, that’s just fine–the principles still apply: Clean up the garden of any rotting vegetables or invasive weeds, layer in organic amendments (compost, manure, soil teas), and cover, to allow your soil to deeply grow itself into a rich composted platform for the next season.

In fact, you can do this with any patches of grass you want to turn into a new garden–as long as it’s pesticide-free grass, and not near any lead-based paint runoff, or in an old industrial site. See below for additional details about these cautions.

And why not? Why mow the grass when you can grow food instead?

Think of it as fattening your soil for all the future plants to gobble up.

I could have included dry deciduous leaves in this concoction, but I chose not to because I had issues with flea beetles this past year. Flea beetles like to nestle into warm leaf piles, and while I am sure they would have been properly eradicated underneath the weight of the cardboard and alongside the other manure amendments, I decided I’d rather not risk it this year. Maybe another year. Dry brown vegetation combined with fresh green vegetation like the grass already growing in my cornfield creates a great fuel combo for growing good compost.

A few key notes:

  1. As I mentioned above, I let my chickens graze and roam in this field for months prior to finally “putting it to bed” in this video. You can absolutely employ your crew of chickens to help in the garden–it’s great food for them, great scratching for your soil, and, of course, automatic fertilization as they wander about in your soil and leave their calling cards behind.
  2. I added manure and chicken coop refuse to the soil knowing that it will have plenty of time to properly decompose and compost by next year’s growing season. While I used horse manure in the initial prep of the field this last summer, I did so because I was growing hardy high-stalk plants, like beans, corn, and big squash plants that I knew I would wash well before eating, especially if they were resting on the soil. Please do note that in general, it’s best to use manure and chicken coop refuse in your soil prep phase in the fall, rather than in the spring when you’re planting new food, as there is the risk of contamination of your food from bacteria in the manure. That’s why I’m composting it.
  3. As noted in my video, I chose not to use black plastic to cover my soil for composting purposes. A lot of people would recommend using black plastic to fully “cook” or compost all your amendments. I don’t like using plastic in my garden as it blocks the beneficial effects of water and oxygen, thereby suffocating the soil and all the hard-working worms and pests that help turn your amendments into a great composted soil base. Think of those pests as your highly-prized team members; if you take care of them, they’ll take care of you.
  4. If you choose the paper and cardboard sheeting method I use, as noted in my video, it’s important that you choose paper and cardboard that isn’t covered in tape and plastic or colorful ink or dyes. You don’t that stuff to infuse your soil. Also, as noted, don’t use treated wood to weight down your cardboard. Use woodchips, untreated wood, a few heavy stones or bricks instead. Treated wood is a big no-no in your garden as it leaches chemicals into your food.
  5. You can absolutely use this method on existing lawn or grass to transform a patch of grass (or even an entire backyard) into a garden by springtime. BUT note the following wayyyy important cautions: a) Ensure it’s lawn that hasn’t been treated with pesticides like Round-Up or glycophosphate (if you’re new to the lawn, notice if it’s weed-free and bright green, that’s a pretty good indicator). b) Make sure the lawn isn’t near an old house that may have been painted with lead paint. Years of peeling paint and paint scrapings near old homes can mean super high lead levels in your soil, let alone runoff from treated wood, that will absolutely contaminate your food. In fact, it’s generally best to not plant a food garden right next to your home or deck for these reasons–leave those areas for decorative plants and flowers instead. c) If your home is in an industrial area, or may have been an industrial site at one point, consider getting a soil sample tested at a local lab before you start planting on the grass. If any of these concerns are present, then you can solve the problem by building a hugelkultur or raised bed atop the lawn instead to ensure you’re managing the soil quality from the very beginning. Remember, if you have questions, just ask! The answers are so easy to find.

Remember: Anything you do now to feed your soil will be returned to you tenfold next year in the form of beautiful, delicious food to eat and share!

Check back next week for a big, newsy, printable post about how to plan your seed orders, design your garden, and more!

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