Breaking Ground

We started building our garden in late summer/early autumn after we moved in. Everything was still green, but the temperatures were starting to cool off. I knew I wanted to have raised beds and enough of them to do at least a 3 year crop rotation for my heavy-hitting crop families. That was the starting point at least.

It was cost prohibitive to bring in outside soil, so we decided to till the soil we had. And because either we love ourselves or we hate ourselves, we decided to make it a workout by doing it all with hand tools. I’m still not sure which it was.

I marked off our yard to make six raised beds, each roughly 3’ x 10’ with 2’ wide pathways between and around. Together, my partner and I took turns turfing the grass, turning the soil, and chopping up the clumps. And taking care of Taylor. To be fair, my partner did more of the soil work and I did more of the childcare work. To each the best of their abilities. 

One of our neighbors wanted to get rid of a bunch of landscaping bricks and was kind enough to give them to us for free, as long as we took them all. That was just fine by us. We used these bricks, salvaged lumber, and some cinder blocks left in our yard by the prior owners to build our raised beds. 

After we had the beds built, I snagged all of my neighbor’s bagged leaves (because, autumn) and piled them on top of the raised beds. Since I’m writing this a year later, I can tell you that wasn’t the best idea. While leaves are a fantastic soil amendment, they really do need to be chopped up and mixed in if they are going to decompose – at least that was the case here in our frozen tundra of a backyard.

An early spring view -- leaves held down with black tarps, quick hoops of various heights, and early pea trellising

This year, I snagged even more leaves from our neighbors (I’m getting a bit of a reputation here…) and I’m trying new tactics. I chopped up several bags of leaves with my electric lawn mower  and worked them into the top layer of soil in my beds. The remaining leaves I’m saving for use as lining in my compost stations and for mulching during the growing season.

Back to last year’s garden prep…

In the fall, before the ground got too cold, I also added a bunch of worms to the garden beds. When we originally turfed and turned the soil, I was surprised and a bit worried to find no worms or bugs of any kind. Seriously, zero life in this soil. I have my own worm bin that I keep inside with red wiggler composting worms, so each time the colony got a bit big (they reproduce at a disturbing rate) I would bury a handful of them in a garden bed.

I also, somewhat impulsively, dug up 4x8 garden bed closer to the house to be a strawberry bed in the spring. And I pre-dug 4 holes in the mulched area north of our black walnut tree for red current bushes, which would be planted around the same time as the strawberries. I then back-filled the holes with slightly raw compost and worms, mixed in with the dug-up dirt. This was all after I got overly excited and order all of these plants online…

In the spring I discovered that the leaves in the six garden beds just stayed a matted soggy mess, so I took the shovel and tried to break everything up and turn the soil a few times. I ended up removing a lot of leaves and using them to line my compost stations instead. During that process, I also extended the beds another two feet so they were all closer to 3x12.

Besides the leaves, I also discovered free coffee grounds compost at a local coffee shop (Grounds for Coffee on 30th). While they don’t let folks have the compost anymore (it’s used for their community garden, so they are still pretty rad in my opinion), I did manage to snag about 50 gallons of coffee grounds to spread over my garden beds. Taylor REALLY enjoyed breaking up the used coffee discs.

Pretty awesome, right?

During the growing season, I tried to keep the soil nutrient rich by mulching with grass clippings (one neighbor has a lawn care business, so grass clippings were easy to come by), organic fish fertilizer, and the occasional application of organic blood meal. I also planted some habitats for pollinators and beneficial insects like ladybugs with coriander, dill, yarrow, and more. I’m happy to say the soil now has a lot of good critters living in it.