Making a new vegetable garden next spring? Do you plan to
enlarge an existing one? In either case begin building your garden in September
and October. Why? Because it takes months before ordinary dirt becomes rich
garden soil. This transformation can happen over the winter, making the soil
ready to grow vegetables by spring. But if you wait until spring to begin
improving the soil it may take until July before the garden will grow plants
First, consider the new garden’s location. A spot getting
full sun (9 AM to 6 PM) yields a lot more vegetables than one receiving direct
sun only from noon until late afternoon or from 10 AM to 3 PM. A full sun
garden may yield as much as three times more than a bright shade garden or one
that is deprived of sunlight for part of the day.
More than mere yield, the flavor and nutritional content
of vegetables depends on how much direct sunlight the plants get. Fruiting
vegetables especially—tomatoes, snap beans or zucchini—require full sun to
achieve rich flavor. They’ll be slightly bland if they lose the morning sun;
they’ll be bland and small if they miss the afternoon sun.
A gentle sun-facing slope
(3–5 degrees of incline to the south) will grow vegetables as though it were
located several hundred miles to the south of where it actually is. Similarly,
a spot that gently slopes to the north will grow plants as though it were
located several hundred miles further from the equator.
Consider drainage as well: if
the site is low and gets waterlogged in winter you won’t be able to grow a
winter vegetable garden there.
Trees—yours or those in
adjoining lots, are often the biggest obstacle and not just because of their
shade. Widely spreading tree roots can suck most of the water and fertility
from your garden, even if the tree itself doesn’t shade the area.
In preparation for clearing
ground, you’ll need two amendments: well-rotted compost and fertilizer—ideally
a Complete Organic Fertilizer (COF; see the sidebar for my recipe).
Alternatively, you can use composted steer or horse manure, and a
higher-nitrogen amendment like chicken manure. Basically, you need a soil
amendment to add humus to the soil, and a higher-nitrogen product to encourage
One of the best ways to kill grass without working too
hard involves covering the area with corrugated cardboard or lots of newspaper.
Do this in September or October. Spread a thick layer of manure or compost plus
COF or chicken manure before putting down newspaper or cardboard. If newspapers
are watered and sprinkled with soil after spreading them out they will not blow
away. In spring, remove whatever
remains of the newspaper and cardboard.
A method that requires a little more effort is to spread
manure or compost and COF or chicken manure, and then, before the soil gets too
soggy from autumn rains, hand dig the area, once over roughly.
If the soil is still dry from summer, water it first to
make digging a lot easier. Use a
sharpened spade or shovel; bite off small chunks only two or three inches
thick, a shovel’s blade wide, going as deep as possible flip these chunks over
placing the grass side at the bottom where most of it dies of light
deprivation. One turn won’t do the job. So after digging and flipping, wait a
few weeks and then do it all over again.
If you rototill the plot first before hand-digging, it’ll
go much easier because the sod will have been mostly destroyed by the tilling.
But tiller tines never go very deep (the fluffy loose soil they create seems
deep, but after it settles back down it becomes clear that the soil was only
loosened four to six inches down). So it is wise to hand-dig to a full shovel
blade’s depth after rototilling.
In every case—fertilize, dig, till, or cover—if this work
is completed by the end of October there is nothing else to do until spring
comes except to allow winter weather and the passage of time to work on your
soil. Then in March or April spread another dose of COF or chicken manure compost
and then turn the soil over once. Digging will be easy! Any weeds and grasses
that have arisen during the winter will be small, young and tender; the wiry
root masses from the old sod will have decomposed. You’ll now have crumbly,
open fertile soil that will grow vegetables excellently.
Unless, that is, you are working with clay soil. That
heavy, hard-to-work stuff needs to be amended with quite a bit more compost the
first time you work it up. Instead of spreading an inch-thick layer of manure
or a half-inch of compost, on clay spread two to four inches before going to
the next steps as outlined above. Once your clay garden is a going concern it
should not require any more organic matter to keep it going than any other sort
Steve Solomon is author of the Northwest Gardening classic,
Growing Vegetables West of the
Cascades. The 6th edition was published in 2007 by Sasquatch Press,
Seattle. Steve started Territorial Seed Co. in the 1980s and now lives in