Reviving a dead garden?
June 25, 2010 11:01 AM   Subscribe

I moved into a house with a large, dead backyard garden. The garden's soil is hard as rock, and there are no weeds. Bad, right? I'd like to plant herbs and vegetables, but I don't know how to start.

I thought I only had to break up the soil, mix in a new bag of soil, and start planting my basil, rosemary, bok choy, whatever. Or just make mounds/rows of fertile soil on top, and plant in those mounds - at least that's what my parents did for their garden, about twenty years ago.

And then I tried to cross-reference this against gardening websites and books, and it seems that this is not The Right Way. The right way(s) seem so complicated and expensive, and the information is geeked-out beyond my newbie comprehension. Surely it can't be this complicated? Help! How do you revive a dead garden?
posted by Xere to Home & Garden (25 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Where are you located?
posted by Seamus at 11:05 AM on June 25, 2010

I would probably take a chunk and have a county extension agent (or the like) test it.
If nothing is living there, I might be worried about soil contaminants.
Some friends recently found their land is contaminated with massive amounts of lead. Not fun.

If your dirt tests positive, you will have to build raised beds.
posted by Seamus at 11:07 AM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're in the US, your state may do free/cheap soil testing; your local extension office will know the details, and will definitely have people who can translate the results into a set of practical steps for reviving your garden.
posted by holgate at 11:07 AM on June 25, 2010

I've found that herbs are pretty forgiving, provided they get enough sun. Basil in particular seems to thrive on neglect. In any case - if you can borrow (or rent) a small rototiller, it'll help bust up the hard soil and make it a little easier to work. You can also use it to mix in some soil amendments - compost and so on. They're not too expensive - I bought one a few years ago, and use it every spring to mix things up again. It gets loaned out a lot to neighbors, too.
posted by jquinby at 11:08 AM on June 25, 2010

Test your soil first (I didnt actually do this, but it is prudent advice)

Then pick every weed you can in the soil.

Then turn the dirt over a little with a shovel

Then get a few bags of quality top soil (you will need more than you think you will) and spread over the top

Rent a self propelled roto tiller and give it a few good passes, to mix everything together and aerate the soil.

Wait until next spring to do this then plant what you like.
posted by BobbyDigital at 11:09 AM on June 25, 2010

Response by poster: I'm in Los Angeles.
posted by Xere at 11:12 AM on June 25, 2010

Oooh, oooh. I have actually a pretty decent solution. Depending on where you're located, plant daikon radishes for the first season. They are supremely hardy and will break up the soil. Then, rent (or get a guy with) a rototiller. Buy a crap ton of manure (way more than you think you need), some vermiculite and have the guy till it into the soil. You should have some pretty decent soil at that point. Plant away!

If it doesn't work, raised beds are super easy and actually really nice looking if you do it right. I built my own but there are some premade ones out there as well. Look at Square-Foot Gardening for some ideas about soil. I did pretty much what Mel said and I have the MOST gorgeous veggies and fruit.
posted by Sophie1 at 11:12 AM on June 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm in L.A. as well and all of this worked for me.
posted by Sophie1 at 11:13 AM on June 25, 2010

The answer is nearly always compost to soil problems. I would suggest buying a bag of compost for each 2' x 3' section of the garden and mixing it in. Renting or borrowIng a rototiller for this would be best. You want to keep adding organic material (compost) until it the point where a fistful of the soil will just start to hold together when you gently squeeze it.
posted by saradarlin at 11:14 AM on June 25, 2010

Rather than mounds, I'd make trenches in which to put the fertile soil, leaving hard-pack between them so you'll have less weeding to do.

I'm not sure what you saw that was The Right Way, but the only problem I'm aware of with breaking up hard-packed dirt and adding organic matter (I'd use manure or compost, rather than fertile soil) is that you can create an erosion problem.

You might need to tweak pH and add other nutrients (thus the need for testing), but breaking it up and adding material that will loosen and enrich the soil is a pretty good start.

And according to this thread dandelions are good for the soil, too.
posted by DaveP at 11:16 AM on June 25, 2010

I built some raised beds and filled them with a few yards of new soil. Dirt can be surprisingly expensive.
posted by adamrice at 11:28 AM on June 25, 2010

+1 Square Foot Gardening. It's simple to start, and it's fun and rewarding. You might also want to start your own compost heap ASAP. You'll have to buy some at first, but if you have your own heap it will be much cheaper in the future to maintain your garden.
posted by CheeseLouise at 11:29 AM on June 25, 2010

We are clay central so we had to do the raised beds.
posted by stormpooper at 11:36 AM on June 25, 2010

If you are really not wanting to invest much time or money before you start planting you can try just planting in bags of potting soil or even very good topsoil. Just lay them flat in your garden and cut a window out of the topside. Plant directly into the bag. (My mom says this works great.) At the end of the season just dump the bag onto the garden and throw away the plastic. It will help improve what soil is already there and allows you to plant right now instead of after hours and hours of work.
posted by stubborn at 11:52 AM on June 25, 2010

NO weeds? I don't know squat about that part of the country, so maybe that's normal. But it strikes me as being suspicious. I would be concerned that the previous people had doused it all with some kind of weed killer.

Before going to very much trouble, I would bring in a chunk of soil and try to germinate something fast-sprouting. (Peas, beans, radishes, something like that.)

If it turns out that the soil has been poisoned, you'd have to do some serious abatement measures.
posted by ErikaB at 11:59 AM on June 25, 2010

As a rule, dirt or sand or compost is cheaper if you buy it by at least the half-ton. A half-ton is not as much as you think it might be. I called up to buy a half-ton of sand to foot a patio and the sand people apologized profusely that for orders under a ton they had to charge me extra. How much extra? "Well, your total will be $73 with delivery." !!!!! since sand runs about $1 for 10 pounds when buying by the sack, that was SAVING me $27 and a world of hassle.

Anyway, there are calculators online to help you figure how much compost or manure you want, and then you can call places in the yellow pages to find out if they deliver that amount and what it costs. It's really a lot easier and cheaper if the dumptruck just dumps all the manure in your driveway than if you're hauling sacks for weeks.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:00 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, get the soil tested by the Cooperative Extension Service. If it's full of lead, cadmium, mercury and alien life forms, ask them for advice. They have lots of expertise on gardening. LOTS.

Start small. Stake out an 8 x 8 area, and layer on organic matter. You can start with a thick layer of newspaper, even, as the inks are usually soy-based. Compost, composted manure, mulch, at least 3 - 6 inches. If you can dig it in a bit, swell. A slightly raised bed, 2 x 4s or 2 x 6s is not too hard to put together. Plant things you like, esp. things that are really handy to have in the back yard, like lettuces, basil, arugula. Radishes are easy, fun and fast. Plant some summer squash, which is pretty hardy. Water, fertilize, pick off slugs, pull weeds.

Also start a compost heap. I am a lazy composter. I get some wire mesh fencing, preferably free. Make it into an O, and secure the ends together with, oh look, bread wrapper twisties. Add compostable material, like, leaves. I have been known to stop and take lawn clippings on trash day for the compost heap. You'll read that you're supposed to balance what goes in to it, turn it, water it, etc. It will compost faster if you do that. Move the tube to a new location in spring, and harvest the compost to add to the garden.

The thing with gardens is: Just start. It doesn't have to be the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Grubbing in the dirt is really fun, and watching things grow, that you planted, and then eating them, that's really great. Improve the soil every year, and eventually, you will have a lush backyard.
posted by theora55 at 12:27 PM on June 25, 2010

wow, no weeds! You are in LA, so it must be very dry. Even weeds need some water. You can do raised beds, which work very well. If you want to rehabilitate the entire backyard you need organic matter and water. My husband would dig up an area 4'X4', mix in manure, humus and compost, water it, then plant some small plants like like lettuce. He would keep doing this and over time a large area was rehabilitated. You will probably need a pick to break up the cementy soil you have now.
posted by fifilaru at 1:02 PM on June 25, 2010

To convert rocky and rock hard soil, I've had great luck with "lasagna gardening".

If the area has grass, cover with black plastic for month or so to kill it.

Put down a layer of newspapers to keep the weeds down (dunk in a bucket of water so they don't blow away until you get the next layer over them), top with alternating layers of compost/manure/grass clippings/topsoil/dry leaves/whatever organic materials you can get your hands on.

Ideally, let it "cook" over the winter, or plant right in the layers.

The rock hard ground will break up, no tilling needed.

Add layers periodically.
posted by superna at 1:03 PM on June 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

There's always going to be a lot of disagreement about The Right Way, in gardening as in every other realm of human endeavor. And in gardening, it's complicated by the fact that what's Right in one place may be Wrong, Wrong, Wrong in another, depending on local or regional particularities of soil, climate, etc.

If your soil is rock-hard, you may well have clay, which is challenging. Try digging up some (a couple of handfuls), put it in a bucket, and wet it enough to make it pliable, and then roll in your hands. Does it make a ribbon, the way modeling clay does? Or is it gritty and crumbly? If the former, you have clay, and in that case, I'd strongly urge you NOT to use a rototiller--that's a good way to create a hardpan layer. Layering on lots of organic matter as superna describes is probably the best approach, and raised beds may work best, although they create other problems in a dry climate like SoCal.

In your shoes, I'd get in touch with the Master Gardeners service through the county extension office (it looks like they have a helpline).

Best of luck!
posted by Kat Allison at 2:35 PM on June 25, 2010

gardening is as expensive as you want it to be. I would recommend Steve Salomans Book Gardening when it Counts:Growing food in Hard times for a great overview of gardening for little money and maximum yield. I would just use a spading fork and break up the soil with that first, and also start a compost pile. The compost should mostly consist of grass clippings and dead leaves all shredded up (most lawnmowers do a good job of this without you have to do anything extra). In southern california the climate is good enough to get two plantings a year in so I would start shooting for a winter crop as your first. Maybe, after spading, plant a cover crop of clover or some other nitrifying ground cover then rent a rototiller (probably won't ever use it again) and rototill the cover crop in a couple of weeks before planting. This is the best/easiest way to get some organic material in the soil and improve your soil. AFter this first cover crop go with compost made from yard waste. Most likely your neighbors will be thrilled you will take the yard waste (grass and leaves-nothing woody) off their hands. For a cheap irrigation system bury a soaker hose along your rows about 4" below the soil and use this when your plants need water. No evaporation or runoff from this. You can use neighbors/local restaurants coffee grounds (this is known as seed meal to farmers) mixed with lime and some kind of blood meal for fertilizer. You don't need anything fancy or to spend a ton of money on stuff, you need a few tools-

a spading fork
a good shovel
a good hoe (rogue hoes are awesome)
a good rake (grass rake is best)
a wheelbarrow is real labor savor
a compost bin is nice and you can build one pretty cheap
a source for water (a hose bib for your yard is good)
a source for soil inputs (compost and fertilizer-traditionally from livestock on the farm but your local home depot will have it all and your neighbors can supply all but the lime if you are creative)
lots of sweat

Weeding is best done by hand for small plot, not by trying to keep tons of mulch on the soil-Salomans book gives a lot of good reasons for this.
Good luck and challenge yourself to see how much of your own food you can grow-you wil be amazed how much a small plot will provide once you get the hang of it.
posted by bartonlong at 2:44 PM on June 25, 2010

Every time you till the soil, the wind takes the topsoil away. Think about doing no-dig gardening or "lasagna gardening." Over time, the worms do the work for you.
posted by answergrape at 8:13 PM on June 25, 2010

The simplest thing to do is just to build a couple of raised mounds and plant your vegetables in that. 4 feet wide by 8 feet long by 20" deep is two cubic yards of soil. Scratch up the existing surface and dump garden soil on top of that. This width means you can each into the middle of the beds without stepping into and compacting the soil. I had a client who had mounds for garden beds, and I just planted shallower rooted plants around the edges, and deeper rooted plants in the centers. Find a rockery or landscape supply that will deliver soil by the yard. (Where I live, a yard of good garden soil is 35 bucks, which is what 4-5 bags of 2 cubic feet of soil costs for a third as much product.) If you want to be fancier, you can frame the beds.

If you want to really fix all the soil in your yard, get a soil analysis done at a lab. It will tell you exactly what you need to do to fix your soil.

I also like Sophie's suggestion. You can also use alfalfa instead of daikon- alfalfa has an enormous root system, and is a nitrogen fixer, so when you cut it down and compost the tops, the nitrogen in the root nodules goes into the soil, and then the compost you make goes on top. My friend who has a doctorate in soil science recommends alfalfa and sunflowers for this type of soil remediation. You start the alfalfa or daikon just as the rainy season starts, then till with the compost in spring. You can do this every winter, and you can do this on a small scale in your raised beds, just to boost nutrition.

It's not uncommon for a yard to have no weeds in summer in California, if the soil is very dry and compacted. They re-appear in the winter, when rain starts. However, as several people mentioned, there could be other issues with your weed-less soil.

Rather than mounds, I'd make trenches in which to put the fertile soil, leaving hard-pack between them so you'll have less weeding to do.

Trenches cause problems with drainage. Raised beds drain well, which is why they are used in clay soil situations. Plus no one wants to dig out two cubic yards of clay soil to make a vegetable bed.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:14 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

stubborn: "14If you are really not wanting to invest much time or money before you start planting you can try just planting in bags of potting soil or even very good topsoil. Just lay them flat in your garden and cut a window out of the topside. Plant directly into the bag. (My mom says this works great.) At the end of the season just dump the bag onto the garden and throw away the plastic. It will help improve what soil is already there and allows you to plant right now instead of after hours and hours of work."

Along these lines, check out excellent article from Mother Earth News about planting directly in bags of soil. It may be more expensive than bulk soil, as others point out, but if your existing soil is no good, this can really help.

I've used clover as a nitrogen fixer combined with daikon for improving drainage, with pretty good success. Clover and alfalfa are great for nitrogen and organic matter -- you just mow/chop down and add to your soil -- and the daikon punches big holes in the hard soil and improves drainage. I've heard you shouldn't let it go to seed, though, as it spreads easily/fast and is hard to eradicate because it grows so fast and so bigly.
posted by librarina at 11:02 PM on June 25, 2010

Trenches cause problems with drainage. Raised beds drain well, which is why they are used in clay soil situations. Plus no one wants to dig out two cubic yards of clay soil to make a vegetable bed.

In a dry climate like L.A., a "drainage problem" can also be called a "water conservation plan" that lets you use less water in the dry season.

With clay soils, you need to break up some of that clay, either through tilling or root action, in order to get deep enough soil for good root formation in the future. You don't want to over-till by any means, especially once you have broken up a bit of it, but simply layering good soil on top of clay, without some plan to break up the clay and rehabilitate at least a few inches of the hard-pack means having to haul in a lot more organic material than you otherwise might.
posted by DaveP at 4:51 AM on June 26, 2010

« Older Where can I buy a vuvuzela offline?   |   Are there jobs out there for cultural... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.