Last week I wrote about changing or adding new beds as work often done in the fall. In the end, gardening is about growing plants. The success, failure, or anything in between of growing plants that thrive is largely rooted (pun intended) in the soil. I’ll spend a couple of weeks discussing soil preparation.
Like preparing surfaces for painting, soil preparation is neither the fun nor the glamorous part of gardening. But just as preparing to paint is key to a good, long-lasting paint job, preparing the ground is the key to success in the garden. If done correctly from the beginning, little will have to be done in that area for years.
Unfortunately, there is no single method or set of instructions that can be applied to all situations. The soil to start with, as well as the plants to be used, will determine what is required.
Before you think about amendments to mix into your native soil, you need to get rid of any plants that are already growing in the area. If you’re converting lawns to garden beds, the type of grass you have may dictate what you need to do.
For cool weather grasses like bluegrass and fescue, I recommend turning the grass over to expose the roots to die. The dead grass and roots are then incorporated into the soil to add organic matter along with other amendments to be added later.
Another, perhaps easier, method is called the lasagna method, in which several layers of wet newspaper or cardboard are placed on top of the grass to kill it. Cover it with several inches of compost and several inches, of course, of sand or other small inorganic gravel. Depending on the weather and associated humidity, the grass will die and the newspaper or cardboard will break down in several weeks to several months. Once this is complete the entire area can be rotated to help condition the soil.
As much as I don’t like chemicals, if you have bermudagrass or a hodgepodge of weeds, I recommend applying a product that contains glyphosate (e.g. Roundup) which will kill the roots. It’s best if this can be applied a couple of times to make it complete, as any bermudagrass roots that aren’t dead will sprout and soon become a major problem. (Be very careful when using glyphosate as it is a non-selective herbicide and will damage or kill anything it touches.)
When the area is ready for amendments, the standard advice is to do a soil test to understand what you are working with. A simple test will reveal the levels of primary nutrients and the amount of organic matter in the soil. I recommend soil testing, but keep in mind that many of you won’t, so the soil amendment information I’ll discuss next week is general in nature.
As you may have already deduced, this process is not fast. These actions are best planned over several months and make a good fall/winter project.