Soil - More than just dirt

So you want to grow your own veggies at home? Are you put off by the digging and constant weeding? I may just save you hours of back breaking work if you just take the time to read this post. It will be worth it I promise.

I'll start by telling you the story of my dirt patch. 

Soil is the foundation of any good vegetable growing. It is something that must be built upon year after year to get the best results from your garden.

When we bought our house many years ago we discovered a dis-used vegetable patch a fair way in out in a paddock. The location meant that easy access to it was not going to happen. There would be no trips out to the garden in my slippers to pick some quick herbs. I decided on a better location a short distance from the kitchen. Once I started learning the permaculture principles a few years later I understood that I had made the best choice for its location. As little time spent between walking from kitchen to garden is ideal. Planning of your gardens location is essential if you get to make a fresh start at your house.

The problem with our property is that about 1/2 a meter down you hit gravel. We learned a huge lesson on its strength when trying to bury a cow one day. The first year in the garden I dug directly into the ground. It was back breaking and not very pleasant. I composted flat out trying to create some lovely soil and realised how much I would need to get the soil to a reasonable level. I was discouraged.

The next year I had almost given up until I realised I needed to build on top of the dirt already there. I needed to work the soil in the same spots to improve with each year I worked it. We build some large vegetable patches using some wood boards as the cost was significantly less than (my much lusted after) sleepers. We ordered top soil to fill up the boxes. When it arrived it was also at a low grade quality and full of weeds. I did not know then, but I do with every new bed now, that I should have placed a thick load of newspaper/boxes/magazines directly onto the freshly cut grass or earth you have chosen before you place down the wooden boxes or underneath the soil. This suffocates the weeds and stops them from being regular visitors in your veggie patch by growing up through your soil.

I finally had some veggie patches I was happy with. The maintenance, especially the sorrel and the twitch, was rampant. I spent the next two or three years digging and weeding trying not to let it beat me. It was hard, back breaking work. About this time I began working for Bill and Lisa Mollison on Tagari farm. I learned how to use thick boxes/magazines/newspaper (anything that will break down) on top of the soil and to mulch directly over it. To plant out the beds you either water it down to soften it and wait a week or punch right through it and plant into the soil below. The boxes smother the weeds and stop them from smothering your vegetables as they grow. 

I usually mulch each bed twice a year. I now just dig over the loose beautiful soil prior to mulching and pull a few weeds that may be lurking. It does not require any back breaking work and generally the weeds are under control.
The paper material breaks down under the mulch on top and creates a kind of compost system directly in your vegetable patch. The increase in worms are testament to that. My soil is now soft, fluffy, dark and rich.

I have had discussions with other organic gardeners and there is speculation that the chemicals contained in the boxes/magazines have potential to build up in your soil. I feel that it is still better to have them than the weeds. After the boxes break down I just pull out any lurking plastic that may have been on the boxes in the form of tape and pop it in the rubbish.

Recently I have taken to building other wire compost catches on top of the garden beds to quickly throw all the garden compost in them. I can move them easy and there is no wastage from moving the compost soil from another place.

I often add ash from the fire and dig out the chook house to add some more goodness to the soil. Beware of adding too much chook poo as it can burn your garden from its richness. It is best to dig it though sparingly or put the chook poo on top of the soil and let the sun and rain break it down a bit more before digging it through your soil. A worm wee farm or cow poo tea to further fertilized you garden is also a bonus.

I am about to double my garden space and put up a hot house frame I was given. I am going to be building new patches in old spud boxes and other moveable patches. The septic tank lurks beneath in the new area and there needs to be access to it should there be a problem. Plus I am not really keen on building on soil fertilized by our own waste.

The garden is ever growing and evolving. It is nice that it is now 'working' and the chore of growing your own food is no longer a chore. These things do not happen quickly but they do not need to be hard work either.
How is your soil going?

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Michelle Walker is a Tasmanian born creative. An Artist for life, Visual Arts Teacher, Graphic Designer, Photographer, Hairdresser by trade and mother to two beautiful children.