Starting a backyard garden without a tiller


For my new backyard garden, I tried two ways to make new garden beds.

If you look at the middle left in the photo above, where the orange marigolds are, you’ll see where I stripped the sod off and then double dug the bed.  I thought I had taken photos of the sod stripping, but this gives you an idea of the process.

For my garden, I  used a straight edge spade and outlined the garden beds first.   Then I cut what I had outlined into 4-5 inch wide strips with the straight spade.  Each strip was then cut every 5-6 inches.  So far I haven’t removed any of the grass, I’ve just cut lines in the grass with the straight spade.  I tend to cut smaller chunks than a lot of people because I have small hands when it comes to lifting the sod out.  When all the cutting was done, I started at one corner and slipped the  spade under a 4 X 6 inch piece of sod and popped it up and out.  If I feel like a lot of the soil clings to the grass, I toss it dirt side up to the side and let it dry out for a day or two, then I crumble some of that dried top soil off the grass roots and back into the bed.  What ever is left I put on my compost pile.

Depending on the size of your new bed, this process may seem daunting at first, but just go slowly.  I tend to just remove a couple of rows of sod a day and then spend the rest of my gardening time doing something more fun!  When all of the sod/grass was finally removed, I did my double digging, which I also did not think to photograph.  I guess I was too excited about starting the new garden and seeing all those wonderful earth worms wiggling around.

Since the new garden was to be 20 X 20 feet, I decided I wouldn’t sod- strip and double dig the whole area, at least the first year.  For the second method,  I pulled out a pile of newspaper and went to Earl May and bought a large bale of straw for around $8.  I covered the grass where I wanted another new bed with newspaper, 5-6 layers deeps.  I soaked the newspaper with water (I sprayed mine down with the garden hose) and then covered the newspaper with a 4-6 inch layer of straw.  I did part of the garden this way in the fall and expected the grass to be dead and rotting by spring so that I could just turn the rotted straw into the ground, but perhaps because we had a mild winter, this didn’t seem feasible in the spring.  The newspaper covered with straw looked pretty much as it had in the fall, so I just left it the way it was.   In part of this area I “planted potatoes”.  I simply laid my seed potatoes on top of the straw, covered them with a scoop of compost and mounded a little more straw over the top.  My potato harvest was not huge, but I was pleased with my return on such little effort.  In my photo, you can also see where I planted pole beans by putting several scoops of compost on top of the straw and then planting the bean seeds in the compost.  I paid extra attention to the parts of the garden I did not sod-strip and double dig, watering and fertilizing more, since I knew the roots wouldn’t reach as deeply as in the well dug beds.  Now that fall has come, I have gone back over the newspaper/straw areas and turned all that into the ground and will probably double dig it in the spring.  But at least I reduced my sod-stripping labor the first year by mulching part of the garden with newspaper and straw.

Finally, I let some of the 20 X 20 foot garden area remain in grass.  This was the area where I walked a lot, areas between beds, and also the little shady spot where I put my chair.  I loved letting some of that grass grow, remembering what even Kentucky bluegrass can do when left undisturbed.  It grew tall and waved gently in the summer breezes.  They say the land in Iowa is the most altered land in the world.  Most of Iowa was prairie, before man and his plow came to change the landscape.  By leaving a little grass as a reminder of the prairie, and choosing to keep a machine out of my garden and try my hand with a more gentle soil preparation technique, I feel more connected not only to my garden and its soil, but to the history of the land I live on.

Backyard Gardens

backyard garden

When I was a child, I spent a lot of time sitting behind our garage, because just over the back fence was Frank Atwell’s most amazing garden.  It filled his whole back yard and inspired garden lust in me the rest of my life.  Fast forward to 2013, and I now have my own back yard garden.  Yes, I live in a rental, but the landlord said as long as we take the fence down when I leave, I could have free reign over the lawn!  The summer of 2012, I participated in a community garden on Maple Street.  There, I was introduced to John Jeavons’ Grow biointensive gardening and I wanted to continue to experiment with this.  Over the next few days, I’ll show you how I turned a 20 X 20 foot piece of lawn into a little piece of paradise with just my spade, some newspaper and straw.

Growing in the Garden: Bunnies!

Soon after the gardening season got under way in the spring, I was watering the potatoes when I heard a very loud, hysterical squeal!  What the………..I had my guesses… so I got a long stick and started poking around in the straw.  Sure enough…bunny nest!  Well, I worried over the bunnies for several days, kept poking open the nest and half hoping it would cause the mother to move them away to a safer place.  I lay awake at night thinking of this year’s garden philosophy, working WITH nature, not against it.  And then I would dream about what wonderful compost bunnies might turn into…circle of life and all that!  Finally I decided to  just deal with it and let them alone.  I had visions of the whole family setting up their dining room in our garden, but one day I picked a couple of the little guys up and held them, and they jumped out of my hand and ran away.  The others followed, and I didn’t see them again!  Now the deer…..umm, that’s another story!

What’s your favorite melon to grow in the garden?

It’s been years since I’ve tried to grow cantaloup, but this year, my motto was:  “Try everything!”  I bought some plants at Early May and wound up with a few melons that looked like this (and a few that looked oddly shaped and never made it past the golf ball size).  I can’t even begin to describe the thrill of seeing YOUR OWN MELONS growing right there before your eyes! I had to really discipline myself to wait until I thought the first one might be ripe (Who knew it would be so hard to know when the thing was ripe?).  Turns out I could have waited a few more days on that first one, but it was still sheer bliss when I cut it open and saw the orange firm flesh and tons of little seeds……a “real” melon, grown from my own fingertips (and Earl May!).

This particular variety was not very sweet (don’t remember the name and I didn’t write it down…ooops), even when it was quite ripe.  Do any of you have a favorite variety of melon you’ve grown?  What’s the sweetest musk melon you’ve ever tasted?

Double Digging is for the Birds!

I dug potatoes the other day and right now, as I write (11:09pm,) I am boiling up some of the ones that got nicked by the spade.  I’m planning a bedtime snack of mashed potatoes to calm my heartburn from the homemade pizza sauce I had for supper!

Although most of the summer we’ve had a shortage of rain bordering on drought,  a recent welcomed shower plus the fact that we did double digging in the spring made digging the potatoes pretty easy.  You’ll also see straw at the back of this photo which we used to cover seed potatoes that we planted very shallowly.  The straw was wonderful for keeping the weeds down and the moisture in, but I’m not sure it did a lot for the size of the harvest.

Double digging is part of the method for John Jeavons’ Grow More Vegetables that inspired our garden.  In the lower right of the photo you see one of the digging boards that Steven made for us.  As you double dig, you stand on the board to spread your weight and keep from compacting the soil.  It was a lot of work, and when everyone else is planting and you are “still digging”, you can be tempted to give up, but the pay off later in the gardening season is worth it.

For several days in April  as we loosened the soil to a depth of about 12 inches, a robin kept us company, enjoying the worms and grubs we exposed.  So I guess double digging is not just for the garden, it’s for the birds too!

Ok, now I am off to soothe my stomach with some mashed potatoes.  🙂

Row cover, a gardener’s best friend

At the Ames  community gardening plots, there are lots of….well…challenges.  The plots are nestled in a pretty setting between two patches of woods behind the Iowa Department of Transportation.  I loved the way the woods provided shelter on some of the windy days this summer, but woods also provide nice habitat for deer and woodchucks! I’ve heard people complain about deer in Ames, but being an apartment dweller, I’ve never had to deal with their eating habits until now.  So, garden cover to the rescue!  People often ask me, “What is all that white fabric laying around your garden?”

My first garden in Ames was at the ISU Student Organic Farm when it was located on Mortenson Road.  One of the reasons I came to Iowa State was because it had a Graduate Program in Sustainable Agriculture and I eagerly went to Borders and bought several books on organic gardening.  Row cover was suggested for solving critter problems in the garden, including mammals, birds and insects.   It’s not something you can usually find at big box stores.  This year I found mine at Earl May over on 16th street.

The photo above shows what is also called “floating row cove”r over my little patch of sweet potatoes.  I was pretty sure deer were making a salad out of this after I saw the vines snipped off and hoof prints all around!

I also covered peas and beans (I pulled the row cover aside for these photos so you could see what is underneath.)  I wanted both of these to climb, however, and after inserting some bamboo stakes, it was hard to keep the cover in place.  I finally decided the tender plants were out of danger and removed the cover all together….and… guessed it…….SOMEONE snipped everything off!  It doesn’t pay to get careless as a gardener….shoulda kept my best friend right there in place!