You’ve selected your garden space, a prime sunny area in the corner of your yard that, until now, has just been an extension of your lawn. But, what’s the best way to turn this ground into a producing garden? How do you go from hard-packed lawn to tomatoes and beans and corn and peas? You have two options: a ground garden or raised beds.
Ground gardening, or row-cropping, is probably what pops into your mind when you think about a garden: long furrowed, rows carved straight into the earth. A ground garden is the consummate traditional garden.
Ground gardeners rave about the ease and flexibility of their method. There’s no infrastructure involved; plants go straight into the tilled earth. Ground gardens require less water and less fertilizing since plant roots aren’t subject to the restricted environment of a raised bed. And, gardens can easily be expanded, by tilling additional soil, or dismantled and replanted as lawn, if needed.
Ground gardens, however, do have their drawbacks. The soil in the ground will warm up later in the spring and cool down quicker in the fall. If you live in a warm climate, this isn’t an issue. But, if you live in an area with late freezes and early frosts, ground gardens will give you a shorter growing season than raised beds. Ground gardens tend to take up more space which can be problematic in small yards, and ground gardens are more likely to be tromped on by children, pets, or klutzy gardeners (like me).
Also, unlike raised bed gardens, ground gardens are subject to the soil in your yard. If you’re very, very lucky, you have a yard that has healthy soil, perfect for growing a vegetable garden. If you’re more like the rest of us, your soil will likely need a little help in achieving the proper garden soil pH and the correct combination of soil nutrients.
That soil test you promised me you’d get will let you know what you need to add to your soil.
When constructing a ground garden:
Break-up the soil at least one foot deep (a foot-and-half would be even better).
This can be accomplished by rototilling or good, old fashioned shoveling. Remove any rocks and roots. The soil should be an even silty, consistency when you’re finished. You can use a pitchfork to aerate the soil and break apart large clumps of dirt. A pitchfork is also handy in breaking through rock-hard topsoil.
Enrich your garden soil before planting.
Work compost and fertilizer into the soil. One of the best fertilizers to start with is herbivore animal manure. Cow and horse manures are commonly used, as are manures from chickens or rabbits. Bat dung or bat guano is one of the best fertilizers you can use, but it’s more expensive than other options.
Before using animal manure, make sure it’s been property aged (dried) or composted. Never use droppings from carnivorous animals, like dogs or cats.
Level soil to avoid water runoff and drainage issues.
Rake through soil before planting. This is better accomplished with a bow rake (a metal rake with wide spaced tines) rather than a leaf rake, which will catch and pull soil towards you. For easy leveling, flip the bow rake over and use the flat, non-tine side to smooth the earth.
Create a garden plan and construct rows and beds accordingly.
Decide which vegetables you’d like to plant ahead of time, so you can choose their spot in your garden. Hoe rows for corn, beans, peas, and other row crops now and also create the beds and mounds for your tomatoes, squash, melons, or cucumbers. This way, you’ll know where everything is going before you start planting and you can make any adjustments necessary. It’s much easier to rearrange your garden while it’s still just earth than after there are seeds and plants in the ground.
Leave enough space between your crops, so that you can easily move around and tend to your plants. You can mulch between beds to help cut back on weeds.
Ground gardens are more likely to get trampled by children and pets, so if you can’t fence off your garden, consider using a small border to mark off the garden space to serve as a reminder for kids and a training tool for dogs. Hopefully, your dogs are smarter and more open to training than mine.
There are all types of borders available for purchase: brick, stone, wood, and plastic. You can also use all of those rocks you dug out of your garden patch to create a border. Cost efficient and helps you get rid of a large pile of rocks.