How to Prepare Garden Soil for Organic Vegetable Garden

Sometime back one of our readers wrote to us about his ridge gourd plant that he was growing in his backyard vegetable garden. And he wanted to know if there is any special way to prepare garden soil for farming in the backyard. I am making this post to help him out on preparing a raised bed garden. And I am sure this will be useful to many others who want grow organic vegetables in raised vegetable beds.

In organic farming and especially in natural farming as made famous by Masanobu Fukuoka we follow a ‘no till’, ‘no dig’ method of farming. The tiling and digging is all done by the microbes and other organisms living in the soil. Our job is just to make sure that they are comfortable and well fed. In this post I’ll be taking you through the steps of preparing your garden soil and maintaining it, for a ‘no-till’, ‘no-dig’ method of natural farming.

Division of Garden Space

Divide your garden into raised beds and walking isles
Divide your garden into raised beds and walking isles

The first and foremost task in preparing your garden soil for organic vegetable farming is to clearly divide the garden space into vegetable beds and walking aisles. Walking aisles as the name suggests are the pathways where you walk and vegetable beds are areas where you grow vegetables. Once the beds are made, you should not be walking on the raised beds as it leads to compaction of the garden soil. The garden should be designed in such a way that you should be able to access all parts of the raised garden beds from the isle. Making sure that you can access any part of the garden beds from only one point in the walking isles makes sure that area is used efficiently. Generally by extending our arms we can access upto 2 feet of a raised garden bed. If there are walking isles on both side of a garden bed then you can keep 4 feet as the width of the raised bed. If you can access the bed only from one walking isle then its width will be 2 feet. The width of the walking isle is generally kept 2 feet as it is enough for an average person to walk on and do gardening activities. But feel free to change these numbers according to your physicality.

Create a Lasagna Garden for a Head Start

Now don’t get me wrong. We don’t grow lasagna in our garden. Lasagna Garden here simply refers to the way the garden soil is prepared. It just has a good resemblance to the process of making a lasagna. Just like there are layers of veggies, meat, pasta sheets and sauce in a lasagna your garden bed is going to have layers of different types of organic materials and garden soil.

Prepare raised beds by burying layers of organic material
Prepare raised beds by burying layers of organic material

To prepare a bed first you need to dig out the soil (though this involves digging, this is a one time job only) up to 9 to 10 inches from the vegetable beds. Do not dig the walking isles. Now you need to throw in different kind of organic materials into it along with some of the soil, cow dung manure, compost, wood ash in layers. You can use any kind of organic materials. Some of them are,

  1. Dry brown leaves
  2. Dry Green leaves
  3. Grass clipping
  4. Twigs, branches of plants
  5. Weeds (Make sure they are not bearing seeds)
  6. Puja Flowers
  7. Coffee grounds
  8. Tea leaves
  9. Corrugated sheets
  10. Vegetable and Fruit Peels (Make sure they are dried up)

You need to take care that the ratio of  your greens to browns is in between 1:1 to 2:1. This helps in faster and proper break down of the organic materials. If you are wondering what are greens and browns here is an excellent resource you can read up.

Here are the steps of layering the vegetable grow bed.

  1. Spread some cow dung manure in a thin layer.
  2. Spread 3-4 inches of organic material.
  3. Sprinkle a little amount of Amrut Jal to make the organic material slightly moist. This helps in faster decomposition. If you don’t have Amrut jal you can use plain water.
  4. On top of it sprinkle cow dung manure, wood ash and some soil. Manure is a source of microbes which will breakdown the organic material. Wood ash helps in bringing down the acidity of the decomposed organic material.
  5. Additionally you can add some neem cake for pest and disease control.
  6. Now go to step 2 and repeat  for 3 to 4 times until the entire bed is filled up.
  7. Finally cover the bed with the leftover soil. You’ll end up with a garden bed which will be slightly raised w.r.t to your walking isle. By the way if your soil is really bad don’t hesitate to mix in some compost to the soil.

Building Garden Soil by Mulching

Creating a lasagna vegetable bed gives a good head star. But you’ll have to keep building the top soil all the time. Now this may sound like a huge task. But in reality you really don’t have to do much. Nature will do all the job for you. You only have to let it.

All you really have to do is mulch. Cover your vegetable beds with 4 inches of loose organic material. Grass clippings, leaves, cleaned and dried sugarcane baggasse and paddy straw are some of the things you can use.  From time to time keep sprinkling Amrut Jal to supply nitrogen. The mulch serves four basic purposes.

  1. Protect the microbiology in the soil from direct sunlight and rain. Microbial life in the soil does not exactly like the heat of sunlight. They do much better under some shade. When you provide shade microbial life flourishes. Moreover the mulch layer will prevent evaporation and thus maintain moisture which again is essential for microbiology of the soil.
  2. Prevents nutrients from the soil getting oxidized and evaporated into air. Prevents leaching of nutrients due to heavy rains.
  3. Builds top soil through decomposition. This is also known as sheet composting or in situ composting. When you mulch with organic material its not just going to sit there quietly. The lower layer which is in touch with the soil will start decomposing and will become top soil. Giving a sprinkle of Amrut Jal time to time will make sure that the decomposition happens faster. As the mulch decomposes you need to put more organic material to keep the thickness of mulch at 4 inches. So keep checking and adding mulch time to time.
  4. Prevent weeds from growing in the garden soil by blocking sunlight.

Useful Tip – Weeds generally have a very deep root systems which helps them to survive. As the roots go deep they pull out lot of minerals from under the earth. Hence mulching with leaves and stems of local weeds helps a lot in soil building.

Protecting Raised Garden Beds

Layering the raised bed with plants of different height is a great way of protecting garden soil
Layering the raised bed with plants of different height is a great way of protecting garden soil

Soil building in your vegetable garden is a continuous activity. You need to keep the ground well mulched all the time. The waste leaves, old and dead plants come into use when your vegetable garden becomes a complete functional unit. Just chop and drop them on the raised bed and you are done. The mulch protects the soil from sunlight and rain. But when the sun is very hot or there is lashing rains you need more than just mulch to protect your garden soil. And again the solution comes from design.

If you grow plants of different height on the same bed together they can provide an added layer of protection. For example suppose you grow okra on a garden bed. Then in between the okra plants you you can grow brinjal. And then whatever gaps are left you can grow a creeper bean to cover it up. If you get a bird’s eye view of the garden bed then you should not be able to see the mulch layer through your plants. Which means that planting vegetables of different height has given an extra layer of protection to your garden soil. Another way to cover up the bed is by planting creepers with big leaves. Plant anything like a pumpkin, bottle gourd or cucumber and let is spread over the raised bed to cover it everywhere.

To make sure that the vegetable patch always remains fertile follow crop rotation on them. Rotating your crops on the same garden bed ensures that the same type of nutrient is not getting used always and your soil is not getting imbalanced.

And lastly as I pointed out in the beginning of the post you should never ever step on to the garden bed. It will compact the soil and make it hard. It will also kill a lot of microbiology in the soil. Additionally you also must check the mulch getting compacted. Sometimes when that happens anaerobic bacteria get activated as there is not enough aeration and you really don’t want that.



How Not to and How to Water Plants in Pots

Popular clip art of a Happy Gardener
Popular clip art of a Happy Gardener

The happy gardener. You see him/her everywhere; on TV, on bill boards in magazines. And its mostly a very happy and content looking person watering plants with a hose or a watering can. And the water falling on the plants in an almost poetic manner with shower like effect. The image conveys the beauty and happiness involved in gardening (and sometimes it is also to sell some gardening equipment). Most gardeners I have met tend to water their plants in this popular way as it feels and looks really nice as per them. Unfortunately this is exactly how you should NOT water plants in pots or in garden. This post is a guide on How Not to and How to Water Plants in Pots. Though I’ll stick to container gardening, the same is applicable to all gardens.

Where you should Water your Plants

  1. Water plants at roots; Not on leaves
    Water plants at roots; Not on leaves.

    While it is okay to ‘bathe’ your plants once in a while to remove off the dust from leaves, it is not okay to water your plants on the leaves. Plants need water at their roots and not on the leaves. The roots pull moisture from the soil and through capillary action send it to the leaves. So you should help plants by watering at the roots. Moreover moisture on the leaves if left overnight can cause fungal attack. Hence avoid wetting leaves of the plant while watering.

  2. Generally the branch roots of a plant (the ones that suck moisture and nutrients for the leaves) spread out to all directions. Water needs to be given to this system and not at the base of the plant. Watering at the base of the main trunk of the plant will loosen the grip of the plant in the soil. Hence water away from the base of the plant. You can water along the rim of the container for most effective watering. Generally the canopy of the plant gives an idea of its root systems. So while watering plants outside, you can follow the spread of the canopy and water around it’s projection on the ground if you your plant is on the ground.

When to Water your Plants

  1. Water early in the morning or late in the afternoon (if not possible in the morning). Watering in the morning makes sure that the plant has enough moisture to be used throughout the day. If by any chance you are unable to water in the morning, water your plants late in the afternoon. It should not be too hot when you are watering in the afternoon. At the same time there should be enough time for leaves to dry off in case they get wet. Never water your plants when the sun is over your head. Heat leads to excess water evaporation.
  2. Water only when soil dries out. Don’t water for the sake of it. To check if
    Excess watering causes nutrient leaching
    Excess watering causes nutrient leaching

    you need to water your plants you can put a finger inside the soil. If you feel the moisture, then there is no need to water the plants. Excess watering will lead to nutrient loss and also water loss.

  3. Sometimes in summers you’ll notice drooping leaves during the day time. Don’t rush to water your plant in such a case. Do the moisture test with your finger. Water only if the moisture has dried out. Otherwise just leave the plant. The leaves will spring back to life when the sun goes down. Drooping leaves result due to faster evaporation from leaves than the amount of moisture the roots can pump to it.

How to Water your Plants

  1. Ganga flowing to earth through the matted hair of Lord Shiva
    Ganga flowing to earth through the matted hair of Lord Shiva

    Water your pots to make the soil moist and not dripping wet. Not only its a criminal waste of water, too much water in the pot can lead to root rot if the soil or your potting mix is not a well drained one. On regular observation you’ll be able to figure out the water requirement of each pot. Water accordingly. Over watering also leads to leaching or wastage of nutrients.

  2. Water with as less force as possible. It is best to just take a watering pipe with almost no force in the flow of the water and place it in your pot along the rim. Water jet disturbs the soil.
  3. Lastly on to some mythology. Though I am supposed to write about How to water plants in pots, you must be wondering why I am suddenly diverting to mythology. Well just read on to find out. In Indian mythology there is a story of the great river Ganga coming
    Use thick layer of mulch to arrest speed of water
    Use thick layer of mulch to arrest speed of water

    down from the heavens to the earth. But her force is so much that it would destroy the earth. So the great yogi Shiva uses his matted hair to arrest the force of the river Ganga coming down from the heavens. And that is exactly what you have to do by using a thick layer of mulch. Mulch helps in arresting the speed of the water falling on the base of your plants. Hence mulch your pots well. The other thing about mulch is that it catches the dew at night and when the dew condenses it flows down to the soil. Hence mulching also acts like a automatic watering system.

Water is an important natural resource and hence you should always aim to conserve it. Use as much surface water as possible and conserve ground water. Harvest rainwater, reuse domestic waste water (water in which vegetables have been washed). And most importantly water correctly and water efficiently. You not only conserve water, you also keep your soil and plants healthy and happy.