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“Growing” Dirt 101

Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are.“- Alfred Austin

Step One: Dirt is your friend. Treat it like one.

For those with hard-pan slabs of clay–instead of lovely dark potting soil–you’ve got two choices: quick and expensive, or slow and cheap. The ‘quick’ and expensive solution is buying several bags of worm casings (worm poo) renting a roto-tiller and tilling the hard bits liberally into your gray, clumpy or dry reddish clay in late fall. By spring, you’ll have the beginnings of an impressive micro-climate to which compost and aged steer manure can be added fairly easily.

The slow, cheap way is to attract worms to your garden area by composting vigorously and hand-turning over your soil. Composting is not mysterious, and–when properly done—does not attract vermin or smell bad. Many, many free sources online show just how to do it, and feel free to explore those realms to your hearts content. Start early, cultivating for your spring season over the winter, if the weather allows you to. We merely dump our kitchen peelings (carrot peels, juicing’s fibrous leftovers, dryer lint and onion skins) along with eggshells and used coffee grounds each day into a series of old plastic totes, set in the deepest shade of a tree. We drilled holes all over the sides and bottoms of these and filled them with the kitchen cast-offs, mixed with grass clippings from the weekly mowing and a few few shovel fulls of dirt from around the property. Water every other day (once a day in very hot weather) and cover with tarps or plastic. Piles work if watered and covered, but container work better. I’ve never sprung for the fancy crank-able composters I see in gardening magazines but if you’ve got one, let us know if it works.

If you toss your scraps, the worms will come. In a couple of months–depending on how many piles/totes you fill–you will have black, beautiful soil to mix into the existing dirt of your garden area. No dirt of your own? Raised beds are your friend… or plastic containers you’d otherwise throw away. Punch drainage holes, fill and line them up in the sunniest parts of your patio, balcony and remember to water the dirt. Plant picking for shadier spots comes in a later article. For now, focus on starting compost and prepping the soil.

While you may want to go ‘Paul Bunyan’ on that stubborn clay yourself, get your kids to help, or barter services with neighborhood youths possessing strong backs and copious free time. Some of these types work for mere snacks, or a few obsolete PCs to tinker with. Some have parents that will agree to just about anything to get their kids to stop texting for five minutes, and will dig cobwebby garden tools from their garage and push their surly offspring towards you with gleeful grins at the mere suggestion of need.

Turning the soil (sticking in a pitch fork or shovel and turning over large chunks) allows light and oxygen into an otherwise dark and solid environment. You can mix in fancy store-bought soils but the cheapest mixture is by far home-made compost. To speed things along, aged steer manure can usually be found at your local big-box store at very reasonable prices. For a garden about 20’x20′ you’ll want about 6 bags of aged steer manure at minimum, to kick things off. That’s about $10 in cost around these parts, as steers are quite abundant. Maybe you can get it from a dairy for free, but I’d ask first and take later. Aged horse manure works fairly well too, but make sure its been aged at least 6 months before using it. I have no experience with chicken manure, apart from smelling it when my neighbor puts it down. Okay, kids… who can spell “ammonia” for me?

Once the soils been turned, scoop over your composts, soils, manures, what-have-yous and turn it again. You can rent a tiller for a day; it will make this go quicker, but with a couple of Aleve pills I seem to manage with my four little helpers just fine. That hot bath at the end of the day–with lavender epsom salts—seems to erase most of the soreness, and then there is that little fact of getting more and more toned as the gardening days wax on. The initial going is rough, there is no doubt, but once its all dug the magic begins to happen: rain, sun and air work in tandem, beckoning forth the workhorses of the gardening realm: earthworms.

My father in law, a USMC combat veteran, used to raise earthworms as a small boy, selling them to fishermen along the Sacramento River. And what did he feed them on?

“Coffee grounds,” he told me, one day.

“Just coffee grounds?” I repeated, somewhat surprised.

“Yep. They’d go crazy for it. Didn’t feed ’em nothin’ else.”

Apparently, each day he’d go around to different diners and restaurants gathering their cast-off coffee grounds and respective paper liners into his little, red wagon. These he’d mix into cold frames of worms and dirt… and they thrived. It works like a charm on the worms in my humble city lot, each tote is always packed with worms. They migrate over into the aerated soil–when it’s freshly turned–and begin browsing up and down the clumps in the early morning, discussing the neighborhood and inquiring after schools. Talk to your kids about the worms and what they do, for it is nothing short of miraculous. Soon after we began our own gardening foray, I was happy to see my kids wanting to help turn the compost, eagerly counting the worms… as my son searched for the biggest and fattest one with which to chase his sisters.

Watering, mixing and turning your compost is work. Calorie-burning work. Muscle-toning work. It makes you friendly with the dirt; it makes you care about the soil; it makes your herbs robust and your vegetables delicious. So, turn your compost. It likes air and will not turn itself. I take the totes and dump them over, mix it a bit with the pitch fork and re-fill the totes, layering in a bit more mail-trash shreds and grass clippings. Takes about fifteen minutes and it works the upper arms.

I try to turn the soil once before the heavy rains set in; this just helps make your work easier later on. I’ll turn it again in early spring, mixing in the collective winter’s compost and a few bags of steer manure. Once the frost danger is past, the fun part begins: planting.

Next article: noting the sun and plant selecting.


Watch The Sun

Sounds counter-intuitive, right? Now, don’t actually stare at the burning orb of gas in the sky, but watch how its light falls on your garden space/balcony/plot.

If you don’t have 8-10 hours of full sun, then where you place your plants can be critical to getting them to produce edibles. Even if you have no trees, the shade of neighboring trees or structures can greatly effect your plants. Some plants are forgiving of dappled/changing light, such as spinach and lettuces, but the more desirable crops (most berries, squashes and tomatoes) need that full 6-8 and will stubbornly refuse to put out unless they get it.

If space if a problem for you, there are tried and tested solutions for growing food in unusual places. A gardener contact of mine made the most of his sunny good neighbor fence by rigging up a saddle-system in cahoots with the food grower next door. Window boxes–connected by wire and pieces of old garden hose–straddle the fence and grow a number of herbs and edible flowers in a long line otherwise useless for gardening. For a while the boxes were hand-watered, twice a day, but later on a fancy drip system was installed to keep the fence from getting too much water on it.

A large nursery I visit from time to time made use of a long cinder-block wall on its property by installing wooden lattice over the wall,–a foot off the ground–and on its surface a series of hanging woven plastic sacks hang from hooks. The sacks are filled with soil and a drip-line spigot, and strawberry plant peeking through the open tops. Bird netting is draped over the top to keep out unwanted flying thieves. As the fruit develops and ripens the bright red berries hang over the sides of the beige sacking in the most tantalizing fashion. The nursery owner informed me of her favorite part about that growing system: no snails. The cinder block wall is simply too hot in the late spring and summer to allow safe passage. In fall and winter she changes out the soil and plants herbs.

The general lack of full sun is nullified by those lucky folks that own greenhouses. Pricey and pretty, these structures make serious gardeners/food-growers quiver with exhilaration at mere sight. They make the most of marginal sun by keeping plants warm and enhancing the oft-vilified greenhouse effect for the good of mankind. Some folks have been successful making their own greenhouses from reclaimed materials; I recently watched a show where folks in Alaska did just that, and I was charmed by their results. You need only three things to make such an item: a rigid structure, plastic sheeting and ventilation. If bound by a city lot, however, (and perhaps a keen-eyed HOA chairman for a neighbor) you may want to invest in something a bit better-looking.

No space for a large greenhouse? We’ve successfully used a greenhouse ‘shelf’ of sorts for a couple of years now, one that measures about 2′ by 4′. Made of aluminum tubing, it has four shelves and features a custom-made plastic cover that unzips for ventilation or even removed completely in the summer months. It cost $28 at a local grocery store that sold them in the “seasonal” aisle and would fit nicely on an apartment balcony or in an entry-way. Though small in stature, it keeps us in the herbs and mesclun lettuces all winter and is a grand place to start seeds in spring; in summer it houses orphan strawberry plants pinched off the mains. We may add a few more this year, to keep us in knee-deep in spinach and arugula during the colder months.

The salsa-garden-in-a-fish-tank idea sounds incredible, but it works. Relatives gave us a rather grimy 40 gallon fish tank when my husband and I were first married and living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. Not knowing what to do with the thing, I filled it with dirt on a whim and planted cilantro, one jalapeno plant and one cherry tomato plant. The only place to put it was a rather dark corner of the living room, and I felt skeptical that the little neon light that came with the tank would be sufficient, but the little things germinated in the slightly-damp soil just fine. The lid of the fish tank kept in the moisture so well that we only had to water once a week. Once we left for three days and came back to the jalapeno plant beginning to creep out of a small hole in the lid. We made our first fresh salsa that month and never went back to canned. It also made a living conversation piece to anyone that visited, most of whom confessed to never imagining such a use for an old fish tank.

I’ve heard of successful shade-only pottage gardens such as those in this blog. If you have mostly-shade to dappled sun and need a list of edible plants to grow, here are a few I’ve grown myself:


mesclun lettuces





Lemon Balm






Blackberries (started in the sun and then transplanted into shade)

(Note: if you’ve grown other edibles in shady areas that are absent from this list, feel free to share in comments below.)

Random advice on various plants:

  • Strawberry beds tend to compact over each growing season; keep your berries big by composting often around them and pinching off any “feeler” plants that spring off the main.
  • Blueberries like slightly acidic soil, are bird-magnets and dislike windy spots.
  • Pomegranate shrubs can stand a healthy pruning but don’t allow your kids or pets to brush up against them, as the fruit-producing blossoms get knocked off rather easily.
  • Wood fire ashes are a great way to balance too-acidic soil for your fruit trees; sprinkle some around the base and water.

Next week: Pests! (also known as “Holes in my basil?!”)


HOLES in my Basil!

Garden pests come in small sizes (generally) but still manage to wreak havoc upon the newly-emerging shoots and leaves you’ve so lovingly pampered. As soon as the basil leaves unfurl themselves, it seems, you walk out the next morning—intent on drinking in the lush, green sights while sipping your coffee—only to see those self-same leaves resembling Emmentaler on steroids.

Said holes in your plants invoke a strange sensation in the mind of even the most dedicated organic gardener. The urge to run out to the nearest home gardening center/hardware store and ask for something akin to ‘insect napalm’ descends over one with alarming swiftness. Indeed, the anger is almost tangible but eventually good sense returns. Most folks these days are aware that pouring chemicals into your soil destroys the carefully cultivated micro-climate, halts the good bacteria, chases away the earthworms, gets into your herbs and veg and can leak down into your water table. All these horrors are avoidable, as well as those unsightly holes in your basil.

Lucky for gardeners in this day and age one has a helpful host of experts freely sharing information online–not to mention chats with any organic gardeners one happens to know—on how to keep pests away from your edibles, at least mostly. Some folks are convinced that having a healthy micro-climate will do the trick in of itself. Bugs are natural, they say and go on to tell you that if you make pesto, no one can tell if there are holes in the leaves at all. That’s a very nice idea, but in the real world insects do more than merely mar appearance. I lost entire basil plants, strawberry crops and lettuce crops–in the space of two weeks–thanks to just the snails, which made the work previous during and after said planting entirely irrelevant. Faced with such loses, quite a few beginner gardeners simply give up.

But, there is hope. Many a veg grower (like me) have found ways around the natural herb chewers of the world and so without damaging the environment in the process. Listed below are pest-removers that I have used myself. If you don’t see your particular pest, or a remedy you’ve personally tried, then feel free to suggest one be added:

  • SNAILS/slugs: one of the most pervasive and stealthiest of all garden pests, snails–and their homeless counterparts—cause even the most tanned, outdoorsy gardener to pale visibly, a reaction soon followed by a white-knuckled grip upon the trowel and the gritting of teeth. Happily, there are a number of ways to deal with snails, a few of which actually work. When I began gardening, I tried one suggestion: crunching up eggshells and sprinkling them about each plant. This produced a 30%-50% success rate, which was something, but not quite helpful enough. I used Snail Death, a grocery store cure that looks like sawdust and is sprinkled about much like eggshells, but with the bonus of complete effectiveness. Its only problem was the cost. I needed to buy 3 boxes a week to keep the snails & slugs at bay, which—for my garden size–ended up being about $80 for one month. A gardening contact told me about ditomachous earth, for sale cheap at pool supply stores. It is a fine white powder made from long-deceased sea creatures. It doubled as soil enrichment, but still only had a 60% success rate among the snails, by itself, and had to be re-applied every day. What I finally settled on was a combination of diluted Pyrethrum (a natural pesticide—human and pet safe–made from crushed/dried chrysanthemum flowers) which I sprayed on and around my plants followed by a dusting of ditomacheous earth. Some garden centers carry Pyrethrum, but you may have to order it online. Combined with the sea-creature powder, it works on the snails like nothing else. It also discourages the ants, earwigs and black widow spiders from setting up shop in and around your garden plants. Apply both one per week, dusting the ditomaceous earth around plants only, not on leaves. Cost for both: approximately $3 per week, which is not bad considering you’ll be saving big on replacement plants and the cost of buying fresh herbs at the farmers market/grocery store. I have heard of using chili peppers, either pureed or powdered, mixed into water and sprayed, but have never tried it myself. However, one of my contacts buys cayenne pepper powder at the dollar store and tosses it around her garden by the handful, saying that it works on gophers, cats and insects alike.
  • ANTS, earwigs, spiders and tomato worms: see above solution(s)
  • DEER, rabbits and gophers: I lumped these together as the solution to these I have found to be same. Fencing may help a little, as might raised beds (with bottoms) but what really discourages these particular nibblers is crushed garlic cloves /garlic oil. One might plant garlic and onions about to help in this endeavor but the crushed cloves or garlic oil is much more effective. Animals don’t like that smell at all, and they can smell it long after it has faded to the human nose. For city dwellers this same solution keep out the cats, possums and racoons rather well. Yes, your garden will harbor a powerful aroma, but anyone who has lost an entire root vegetable crop to gophers–or watched their peach trees get stripped of every leaf–will tell you the odor is really not an issue compared to saving the food. The most effective way to use it is diluted oil sprayed around, or pureeing the whole garlic and diluting with water to spray. Whole cloves, crushed, work on larger veg-eaters such as deer. Bonus: if you live in a snake-prone area, you’ll find that they also do not care to be around the smell of garlic and will avoid the garden area entirely.
  • “CUT” WORMS: little, fat, pale worms that burrow just under the surface and nibble through an alarming variety of plants. These are not really effected by topical solutions, but my mother came up with a snazzy and green idea to for dealing with these wily nuisances. If you drink soda in those two-liter bottles, or drink bottled water, then cut the body of these into 3” high rings and push them into the soil around each of your seedlings, leaving just a little above the surface, or plant seeds within said rings. Cut worms apparently won’t dig down deeper than 3” nor will they go higher than the soil surface. Bonus: you’ve re-used items that most folks simply chuck into the recycle bin.
  • CATS: any city gardener will likely have their own cat story, be the intruder feral or belonging to an adjacent residence, mostly involving one of two scenarios: newly-planted beds being used as feline toilets, or newly-sprouted lettuces/spinach beds claimed as convenient napping spots. If the older, bolder cats ignore the garlic and visit your garden anyway, then I suggest fine plastic netting, draped over the violated beds. I tried this once and the cats did not return; they distrust the netting’s very appearance and it seems to be unpleasant to step on. One cat got caught up in the netting once after trying to play with it, but soon came down with an acute claustrophobia and sought his entertainment elsewhere. You can drape the netting over simple bent sticks, or fancy store-bought hoops but just get it up off the ground and plants. Berry/fruit/nut growers will tell you that netting effectively keep birds from stealing fruit and/or pecking at melons/squashes.
  • SQUIRRELS: haven’t run into this one as of yet, though squirrels abound in my area. They seem content with the large amount of oak acorns and leave my crops alone. A friend of ours told us a one-word solution for squirrels: shotgun. Apparently, they are quite a gourmet treat to consume, but their quickness is somewhat of an obstacle to being considered a steady source of food.
  • APHIDS: rose growers already know that ladybugs, while effective, cannot completely eradicate aphids from the stems they chose to roost in. Soap and water solution sprayed on the plants does seem to work, but you may need to give them a shot of Pyrethrum or garlic-water/oil once a week as well.

2 thoughts on “How

  1. I am pleased to read your story and see that Organic is on the move. We have a long ways to go and can not compete with big money. But do have the facts by doing it and learning together.

    I have found over the years that how the soil is prepared for planting is the best way to get the maximum plant growth and to control insects and disease. Promotions that come from the USDA and the Chemicals Companies benefits them more than the Farmers and Humanity. Shallow till and heavy equipment with water soluble chemical fertilizer is ruining our fertile soil. Plant roots are the foundation of healthy plants. The roots have to be able to grow. Shallow till limits them to grow through the hard pans to reach miner and trace minerals for the plants health. The soil has to be porous and able to breathe for Nitrogen and Oxygen to be captured and held in the soil. I get all my nitrogen for plants from 78% in the atmosphere. Oxygen is for the life in the soil also. When there is no Organic matter in the soil this process is stopped. Chemical fertilizer burns up the Organic matter and is just a plant stimulant. The plants are prone to insects and disease and the more and different chemicals developed do end up in the food supply.

    I have a reason to believe that Organic Farming and Gardening versus Chemicals is the only way to save our fertile soil. Fertile soil without chemicals grows Healthy plants that pass Healthy food up the food chain for Healthy Humans and Animals. I was Farming the Conventional way (Chemical). I experimented in 1950 doing Organic and Chemicals together. For three years I did both together and two experiments that convinced me that Organic was Superior and changed completely to Organic in 1953. In 1958 I won many awards in contests in Vermont and New England over hundreds of Chemical Farmers I wrote a Book “Learned by the Fencepost”– Lessons in Organic Farming and Gardening — published in 2011. I wrote it so any lay person can understand it. My Education was on the Dairy Farm in Vermont. The Book can be reviewed on Amazon and Kindle by typing the Title on Google. I would like to hear from you. I enjoyed writing it, as I was encouraged to do so, before my procedures were lost.
    I have been very pleased with response where other Farmers and Gardeners have read my book or used the similar procedures I have. All have said their soil continues to get better every year and produces more and better produce. Chemicals make for an impressive stimulated plant, but do nothing to build up the fertile soil. Instead the acid chemicals burn up the carbon (Organic Matter) in the soil and release it as CO2. Soil without Organic Matter is dirt without life.
    I realize that I am going to be accused of just wanting to make money on the Book. I wish but it will never happen. What I am hoping to do is make everyone aware that if just a fraction of the effort and money was put into saving our fertile soil as into Global Warming it could happen. Our water ways would be free of pollution and the environment would be cleaner. Monsanto is the Master at influencing by observation and untruthful results that are visible. There is hardly any discussion about roots that are the foundation of healthy plants that can ward of insects and disease. How the soil is prepared for planting and keeping it porous so it can breathe is the answer. The biggest harm acid chemicals do is to the invisible below the surface of the soil where all the root growth should not be restricted. My facts I have observed are the hair roots are the scouts that search and supply the trace minerals to make the plants healthy and ward of insects and disease. Roots are not needed with water soluble chemical fertilizer, but it does make the chemical companies rich. — Fertile Soil is the Life Blood of the Earth and all Food comes from the Soil —-Food and Health in this Order.

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