Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
March, 2010
Regional Report

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Organic matter will transform your garden soil.

Creating Garden Beds with Minimal Labor

My two previous reports described basic desert soil characteristics and how to amend desert soil to create enriched garden beds. This report covers a less laborious method (in other words, little or no digging) for transforming native soil into a richer concoction for growing annual vegetables, flowers and herbs.

Have you ever hiked through the forest and observed Mother Nature's system of soil building? She allows leaves, pine needles, tree branches, animal waste and other organic debris to pile up on the ground's surface. Periodically moistened by rain and snow, fluffed by wind, and churned and consumed by microorganisms (such as bacteria and fungi) and larger soil-dwelling critters (such as beetles and earthworms), the litter is eventually transformed into rich, dark humus. The ultimate end product of decomposition, humus is dark, rich and sweet smelling.

Copy Mother Nature in your yard with a method of soil building called sheet composting. Basically, you layer 6 to 12 inches of varied organic matter on top of the soil (in sheets) to decompose in place. Another option is to layer organic materials and plant immediately, which I describe below. Although you don't have to do any digging, if your soil is compacted hardpan it helps to loosen at least the top few inches of soil before spreading organic matter. This allows moisture, nutrients and roots to penetrate more easily.

Preparing Sheet Composting for Planting
Remove weeds and rake area smooth. Sprinkle an organic nitrogen fertilizer, such as alfalfa meal or cottonseed meal, to cover the area. Follow recommendations on the packaging for amounts. (Blood meal or fishmeal are other organic nitrogen sources you may use. Their scents, although not overly strong to humans, may attract pests, including dogs that dig enthusiastically to uncover the source.)
Layer 6 inches of compost or aged manure on top of the nitrogen.

Watch out! Fresh manure develops a "hot" zone as it decomposes, which may burn plant roots. If only fresh manure is available, wait at least two months to transplant.

Apply water to moisten the materials to the consistency of a wrung-out sponge.

Spread 1/4 to 1/2-inch of cardboard or newspaper layers on top of the compost/manure layer. Hold them down with bricks, rocks or shovelfuls of soil to stop them from blowing as you work. Soak the paper layer thoroughly with water. Then spread 6 inches of straw as the top layer. Water it as you work to ensure even moisture throughout.

Filling Planting Holes
Pull apart the straw layer to create a hole the size of your fist. Use a trowel or utility knife to cut an opening in the paper/cardboard layer. This opening allows future plant roots to spread. Fill the hole with a handful or two of soil from your existing garden. It harbors millions of decomposer organisms ready to start breaking down your sheet layers.

Sow seeds or transplant seedlings into the soil and care for them as you would in any garden situation.

Next Year
Within a year's time, your organic matter layers have broken down and you can turn them under to enrich the soil. If you started with soil that already contained organic matter, you may plant directly in the year-old material without turning it under. If you garden in soil that doesn't contain much organic matter, turn it under and rebuild the layers as described above to repeat the process.

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