From lawn to melon patch

A big project I had planned for this spring was to expand our vegetable garden possibilities by building a new, smaller bed next to our existing vegetable plot. This new bed will hopefully give us room to grow cantaloupes, small watermelons, and with any luck a pumpkin or two. We got started on the new bed this past weekend. Our method of starting a new bed is quite similar to the method Gardenaut Joshua McNichols described last week.

Here's how our process worked for getting this new bed started.

We created a border out of pine logs from trees that had fallen in one of the forested sections of our property. Fortunately this section is slightly uphill from the garden site so I was able to enlist gravity to get these logs to the site. Once they were close enough I just had to do some nudging to get them into position.

The next step was to mow the grass inside the bed with the mower on the lowest setting.

With the grass mowed it was time to lay down a layer of newspaper to help kill the grass and control weeds. My mom came over as we were working on this and brought us three bags of grass clippings from her yard. We typically wet the newspaper whenever we're building a new bed to keep it from blowing all over, but in this case I thought the grass clippings would do the job and add more organic matter to the bed as a bonus.

Once the newspaper and grass clippings were down it was time for the secret ingredient: Composted horse manure. It's no secret that this stuff makes things grow. I picked up about two cubic yards of it for $10. In the past I have found it for free, but had to drive three times as far to get it. My current source is only about 10 miles from my house so the $10 charge is worth it. I recommend craigslist if you'd like to find a source for this stuff close to you.

I'm glad I don't do this for a living.

To finish things off I added a layer of topsoil. A few years back I had about 10 yards of topsoil delivered that I thought I was going to use to fix up parts of my patchy and lumpy lawn. That hasn't happened, but the pile of topsoil is still sitting there.

The guy who sold it to me told me it came out of an old cornfield. The pile hasn't been covered so weeds have sprung from it to the point that my mother-in-law refers to it as "Mount Weed." With shovels and wheelbarrow we dug into Mount Weed for the bed's final layer.

Getting the topsoil in was fairly hard work. Mixing it in together with the horse manure wasn't any easier. The picture below shows about where we are with the bed now.

I really liked Joshua's method of sowing a cover crop in a new bed - particularly the use of the Daikon radishes since our subsoil is hard, red clay. I'm hoping the taproots from the radishes will be able to penetrate that layer and give the roots of future plantings a path to follow. I'll keep you posted on the progress of this bed and what level of production we're able to get this first year.


Joshua McNichols said...

I s'pose the harder the clay, the more difficult for roots to penetrate. I always think of an image from Steve Solomon's book _Gardening when it counts_. He was illustrating the effects of repeated rototilling. The top several inches are fluffed up, but the subsoil is actually compacted. His drawing showed what how the roots go straight down through the fluffy but then turn sharply sideways when they hid the hard subsoil. I think the remedy for this is root action. As the plant searches for moisture and nutrition, the roots are constantly advancing and receding. With each recession, they leave bits of dead material behind, and as alpine plants slowly break down a mountain, cover crop roots slowly open up the clay for colonization by worms, slowly create fissures for nutrients to go deep into the subsoil, increasing the reward for adventurous garden roots willing to go deeper! It may take longer if the clay is much harder. But it must be done. I like using a combination of daikons and something with fibrous roots. Mostly because I don't know which of these is doing more good.

Brian and Dianne said...

Harvey Ussery has a good article on the negative impact excessive tillage has on garden soil health at his website: http://www.themodernhomestead.us/article/Excessive+Tillage.html. I read this when it appeared in Mother Earth News and at that point decided I probably didn't need my rototiller anymore. I sold it on craigslist and haven't missed it.

Joshua McNichols said...

I've often enjoyed Harvey Ussery's articles for "Backyard Poultry" magazine. I didn't realize what a valuable resource he was for all the gardening sciences! I will spend a lot of time on his website.

MamaBird said...

Like the links in comments, and a fascinating post. I live in a city and go to a community garden for my teeny plot so the sheer scale of what you are doing (and the fact that you casually refer to an extra mountain of topsoil in your yard!) is fun. Tx for the helpful info.