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breaking ground with spade in soil

How to Break Ground on a New Garden Plot

Maybe you've had a taste of fresh, home-grown veggies thanks to a neighbor's garden surplus, or you've been stalking our gardening blog for inspiration and ideas. If you're eyeballing that overgrown patch in your backyard, wondering if this is the year you finally haul out the old truck transmissions and build your own vegetable garden, the answer is yes. Here's how to do it!

How to remove grass and plant debris (without herbicides)

What's been your biggest garden-starting obstacle? It might be the prospect of clearing a backyard jungle. Let's assume napalm and the slash-and-burn methods are off the table and look at organic land-clearing methods.

"Skimming" standing plants

A shovel and sweat equity are the fastest way to remove plants at soil level. First, procure a grounded teenager and a shovel. (Remember, a shovel has a straight edge, and a spade is pointed.) Instruct the teenager to hold the shovel parallel to the ground and whack into standing plants with short, strong chops.

Removing sod

One or two days before breaking ground, mow and then water the lawn area so the subsoil is damp but not soggy. Cut a grid into the grass about three inches into the soil. Think of a giant pan of brownies with strips or squares 18" to 24" wide for ease of handling. You'll either roll the strips or break them up into manageable lengths for stacking.

Fetch the surly teenager and have them skim the sod so there is one to two inches of soil and root clinging to the strips. Store the rolled or stacked sod in a shaded spot until you're ready to use it elsewhere, or place an ad for it on Craigslist so some other sucker can install a lawn that won't do anything but attract neighborhood dogs.

Pulling out plants by hand

Most broadleaf plants will pull right out if the soil is consistently wet down to root level. Early spring is the best time for hand-to-weed combat, but be sure to wear gloves as some weeds will irritate the skin on contact.

Clearing land and garden plots with livestock

What better excuse to have sheep or goats in your backyard than a garden clearing project? Goats are best for clearing broadleaf plants and invasive brambles at or above nose-height while sheep are pros at eliminating grasses and tender broadleaf plants. For completely hands-off clearing, you'll need to bring the animals in a couple of years in a row to defoliate and "starve" unwanted weeds, vines, and woody shrubs.

There are serious drawbacks to this method. Goats and sheep deserve top-notch care, and they can't live on weeds alone. Many weeds, herbs, and ornamentals are toxic to small ruminants. If you hire a sheep or goat clearing service, the handlers will usually come out ahead to identify problem plants, but you should know ahead of time what might prevent you from bringing in a four-legged clearing crew.

If the animals have enough non-toxic, attractive browse and grass available, they'll only eat the harmful stuff as a last resort. They'll always eat white clover which may cause deadly bloat.

Sheep and goat poop isn't as "hot" as steer and horse manure, but it should be composted before using. See our notes below on manure contaminants for important facts on herbicide residues, and the garden fencing section for more tips on keeping goats contained. 

Killing weeds with plastic mulching

Heavy plastic sheet mulch kills and suppresses weeds through one of two processes:

  • Solarization: Clear plastic mulch uses the "greenhouse effect" to heat the soil, cooking many types of weed seeds and soil pathogens. 
  • Occultation/Tarping: Black plastic mulch, with or without the aid of goat sacrifices and black masses, heats the soil but also encourages weeds to sprout and deplete themselves.

High heat destroys many soil-borne diseases, but it also kills the good stuff. Healthy populations of good nematodes balance the bad, and fungus and bacteria in the soil microbiome help roots access nutrients and water. The good news is that beneficial soil flora and fauna can be reintroduced with healthy, home-grown compost and store-bought mycorrhizal inoculants.

We can't say enough about's weed solarization and occultation page for in-depth explanations and study overviews. Be sure to plan ahead, since solarization and occultation may require as much as a full growing season.

Are you concerned about using plastic? We totally get it. But you can repurpose thick 4mil to 6mil clear plastic sheeting from home remodelers, and landscapers often rotate out old — but still useable — black plastic sheeting. Properly cared-for, plastic sheeting lasts several seasons after which you can cut it up for smaller projects or use it to wrap and transport bodies.

Folded plastic sheeting, when used as mulch along garden rows, also reduces moisture loss. This is a big deal for places with high water bills and watering restrictions. It's also useful for warming your garden soil in early spring. Check out our mulching guide for more information and ideas. 

Preparing the ground for raised garden beds

We love raised beds, and so do the old farts in our family. The elevation is easier on cranky backs, you have more control over the soil's components, you don't have to excavate, and they let you grow healthy plants on poor or thin topsoil. Still, you have to make sure the ground underneath and around your beds is weed-free. Use any of the above natural ground-clearing options, then lay down a contractor-grade, water-permeable ground cloth. Smooth gravel or thick bark mulch in the aisles will keep everything looking pretty while making weed sprouts easier to spot and remove.

How to test your soil quality

breaking ground with spade in soil

Before you break out your rototiller, shovels, and digging forks, test your garden's native soil. Store-bought kits are fantastic for measuring pH and some do a very reasonable job measuring essential minerals. We recommend them for annual soil tests, but strongly advise our gardeners to use their state university's Cooperative Extension Service soil testing lab when they're getting their gardens established.

Here's a fun project for kids: Learn about your soil texture — the ratio of sand, clay, and organic matter — with this simple jar test.

Each state lab has its own soil collection recommendations, and turnaround might be a few weeks, but the fees are surprisingly low. For example, the garden soil testing service through Michigan State University is currently $23.00 and half that for commercial farmers. Think that fee is too high? Consider how much money and effort you'd waste buying, hauling, and incorporating unnecessary additives!

When you get your official soil test results and recommendations from the lab, read up on our soil amendment article to learn about natural nutrient sources. Gather everything you need to boost your beds before you break ground in earnest. 

Excavating and amending garden soil

The most labor-intensive step in establishing new garden beds can make or break your garden's success. Cut corners, and you'll pay for it down the line. Loose, deep soil with plenty of organic matter encourages vigorous root growth, efficient water absorption and retention, and easier weeding. This means more hammock time.

Double-digging now means half the work later

We really like this double-digging demonstration video from the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food System (CASFS) at the UC Santa Cruz Farm. We'd change only one thing: Loosen the soil to at least 16" (rather than 12" to 14" as shown in the video) for optimal root growth. This is more like "single-and-a-half" digging since traditional methods completely remove and turn the second layer as well as the first, but forking and amending the second layer is fine for most soils.

Rototilling: Great for lawns, not so much for beds

Consumer-grade rototillers aren't designed to break up soil more than six or eight inches deep, and you'll often have to make two or more passes to get there. Rototilling's fine for lawns, groundcovers, or large annual beds, but for veggies and perennials, double-digging is the way to go. Rototillers do come in handy if you're refreshing established beds, or if you're tilling under soil-building ground-covers. 

Adding soil amendments

The tilling or double-digging phase is the best time to beef up your soil with well-aged compost and minerals. The average application calls for two inches of compost worked into every six to eight inches layer of soil.

Be wary of aminopyralid herbicide residues in manure, straw, and compost. These chemicals are designed for hay pastures and are labeled as safe for livestock consumption, but they remain in the manure and the soil for multiple seasons and kill or weaken broadleaf plants. Manure and compost purchased in bulk or even in store-bought bags often contain enough aminopyralid herbicides to severely damage your garden.

If you're purchasing manure or compost from a local farmer or stable, don't be afraid to ask about their hay. Word is getting out about aminopyralid herbicides, but most people are still in the dark. If you've already stocked up on compost and manure from a dubious source, let it sit for a couple of years (turning it whenever you turn your compost) or use it on your lawn if it's aged and finely screened. 

Guidelines for garden fencing

sunlight through garden fence

Your ideal garden fence design depends on what you're trying to keep out, your city and homeowner's association rules, and your personal aesthetics. At some point, we'll tackle this topic with the detail it deserves. For now, here are some resources and pointers:

Adequate gate width: Leave plenty of room for wheelbarrows and machinery to pass through! 

Deer and elk fences: Wild ungulates can jump over 10-foot fences, but they're not as likely to hop into smaller enclosures. Eight-foot fences are ideal, but they can get expensive. You'll need 10 to 12-foot posts to properly anchor them in the ground, especially if your area's prone to frost heave.

Electric bear fences: If you have bears in the area, invest in an electric fence energizer. Offset a strand of electrical fencing wire (the larger the gauge number, the better the zap) three to four feet above the ground. Bait the fence with strips of bacon, so the bear approaches the wire with its mouth, rather than its heavy coat. Once your resident bears know the score, they'll be less likely to push down or climb your garden or orchard fence. Be sure to post warning signs.

Here are excellent resources for electric bear, sheep and goat fencing:

  • Kencove: Excellent resource for fixed fence energizers, galvanized electric fence wire, and fencing accessories. 
  • Premier1: The best solar chargers and portable electric fencing, hands-down.

When you contact your state agriculture extension offices, ask if they have any grant or consulting programs for anti-bear fencing.

Wildlife-friendly practices: Woven plastic bird netting or garden mesh can trap and strangle snakes, bats, toads, birds, and small animals, so use it with care. Never leave scraps laying around.

Proper bracing: Keep this adage in mind: If a fence can hold in water, it might even hold in goats. Shepherds might say the same about sheep, especially wily heritage breeds. If you're planning a welded or woven wire fence, attach the wire to the outside of the posts if you're trying to keep animals out, and on the inside if you plan on containing sheep or goats. Both will climb on the fences, so if you can afford it, use rigid cattle panels.

If you're using steel t-posts, Wedge-Lok braces work very well for garden plots, but they're not so great for livestock paddocks. 

Fresh gardens deserve fresh seeds! 

Why put all the effort and expense into breaking ground on a new garden if you're going to plant stale, low-quality flower and vegetable seeds? Contact us to learn more about how we source our seeds from disease-resistant, high-producing natural genetics, and why it's best to purchase fresh seeds carefully stored for optimal germination rates. Don't forget to bookmark our gardening blog for plant spotlights and growing advice!
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