Does growing a vegetable garden sound like something you'd like to do, but you don't feel equipped? So, here's the deal. Find some dirt, and then plant. It's that simple. If you want to grow food, the first step is to find some dirt. Consider the usable ground you have. Take a look around. Maybe it's that patch of front lawn that you're tired of mowing, or haven't mowed at all. Could it be the bare spot in the back where the dog likes to poop? Step One is to find some dirt, and don't be judgy about the dirt you have. Your dirt is full of potential.
Dirt is made up of four things: minerals (from decomposed rock), air, water, and organic matter (Faber et al 38). The organic material originates from living organisms (or stuff that was once alive), and a single teaspoon of soil may contain as many as 4 billion bacteria, 1 million fungi, 20 million actinomycetes and 300,000 algae, (Faber et al 50) not to mention those friendly earthworms, which together with the beneficial microorganisms work to produce healthy soil. Even though dirt is packed with minerals, organic matter and microscopic critters, it still has space (pores) which hold water and air. Water isn't surprising, but why air? Plant roots and most microorganisms “breathe,” and the soil takes in oxygen and releases carbon dioxide. Ideal soil for growing plants is 45% minerals, 5% organic materials, 25% water and 25% air (Faber et al 38).
Determining soil texture by feeling, Dennis R. Pittenger, UC ANR
So, what about that dirt you are eying as a potential vegetable garden? About half of soil is made of minerals, and soil minerals are categorized by size: sand particles are the biggest, silt is medium-sized, and clay particles are smallest. A quick test will help you learn more about your own dirt. First, take a small handful of moist soil. Rub the soil between your thumb and forefinger, and notice its characteristics. Is it sticky, smooth or gritty? Does it hold together, form a ribbon or thin strip, or fall apart? A sandy soil will feel gritty and crumble in your hand; a clay soil will feel sticky and form a strong ribbon, whereas silt feels smooth and slippery. Soil texture falls into three general categories based on particle size: coarse (sand), medium (silt), and fine (clay). The best soil for home gardens is a medium-textured “loam,” which means it has a relative balance of sand, silt and clay with 5 to 10% organic matter.
Medium-textured soil is the ideal, Jack Kelly Clark, UC ANR
As you hold your own dirt in your hands, you may already be able to tell whether or not it has a favorable balance of minerals. The appearance of your dirt when it's dry can offer clues, too. Does it shrink and crack into blocky structures? That would be clay. When you add water, does the water puddle easily (clay) or drain quickly (sand)? Even if you're not blessed with a perfect, loamy soil, that's ok. A sticky clay soil may be harder to work with, but clay plays a crucial role in soil fertility, so clay soil is often rich and holds moisture well. A sandy soil is less able to retain moisture and nutrients, but it's easier to work with. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to improve your dirt so that it moves away from the extremes and closer to a balanced loam.
Hands in the soil, John Ober
Your objective is to give your dirt some tender loving care, and your soil will return the favor by giving you healthier plants and better produce. Your soil's mineral composition is what it is, but one element we can be altered is organic material. No matter what kind of dirt you have, adding organic matter will make it better. Organic materials include grass clippings, fallen leaves, straw, wood chips and bark, hulls, plant clippings (chopped small) and everyone's favorite...manure. Now, here's an important point: it takes time for the organic materials to break down and start to enrich the soil, to become usable to plants. So, what's the best and quickest way to get those things into your soil? Compost. Compost is already mostly decomposed organic matter, so it mixes into the soil and continues to decompose slowly, releasing nutrients to plants and improving soil texture. Compost costs money, but you can also make your own in as little as 2 to 3 weeks at little or no cost. This article has a complete description of DIY compost: Compost in a Hurry (UC ANR Publication 8037).
Maybe you're thinking, why can't I just throw on my leaves or grass clippings and dig them in? You can do that, but unfortunately, that reduces nitrogen (the nutrient plants need most) in your soil for a while because the soil microorganisms will be competing with your plants for nitrogen as the microbes eat up all those grass clippings and leaves. You would still end up needing to add nitrogen fertilizer. The next best thing to do with your organic material (if you're not using a compost bin) is to turn it into mulch.
Growing garlic with mulch, Jeanette Alosi
Think of mulching as another method of composting that involves placing a thick layer of organic matter on top of the soil and letting it decompose very slowly. It's even better to put a layer of newspaper or cardboard on the ground first, wet it, and then spread out the organic material on top, about 4 inches thick. The organic matter and the paper or cardboard underneath will break down over the next 6 to 10 months. To add plants, push aside the mulch, expose the paper or cardboard, and cut an "X" large enough to accommodate your plant. Fold back the flaps, dig a hole, and add your plant. When done, lay the flaps back in place and re-cover with mulch. Remember that front lawn that you're thinking could be a vegetable garden? This method of sheet mulching is one way you get rid of the grass! Cover it, mulch it, forget about it. If you want to learn more about lawn removal, here's an article containing complete instructions: Lawn Removal: Do It Right.
Healthy soil produces healthy plants, and mulching and composting are two ways to turn your dirt into the rich loam that gardeners dream about. Even better, they require no chemicals, and you won't have to spend any money if you're resourceful. In times like these, it's good to know you can get started gardening without emptying your wallet. It's simple. Find some dirt, and make it better!
California Friendly Gardening, sheet composted vegetable garden, Christine Lampe, UC ANR
UC Master Gardeners of Butte County are part of the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) system. To learn more about us and our upcoming events, and for help with gardening in our area, visit our website. If you have a gardening question or problem, email the Hotline at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a phone message on our Hotline at (530) 538-7201. To speak to a Master Gardener about a gardening issue, or to drop by the MG office during Hotline hours, see the most current information on our Ask Us Hotline webpage.