3 Things of Primary Importance When Starting A Garden

Insuring a Great Return of Investment on Your Effort

My First Garden

We lived in apartments in the city for our first 14 years of marriage.  Bill and I had never raised flowers or vegetables but doing so was one of our dreams.  When we moved from the city to the country we could hardly wait to “dig up” some ground and plant vegetables.

My first year of gardening started out in an area that was one foot above sea level and seemed at times to be one foot below sea level. During rainy times water would lay in puddles and sometimes remained that way through June. Herons and mallards frequented the yard like it was a pond. Then the heat would come and bake the ground.

As you can imagine it was not very conducive to growing anything.  To make matters worse the soil wasdense and mostly clay, which is probably the worse soil to deal with before it’s improved.

We started small with beds about 3 1/2 feet x 7 feet.  Our tools: two shovels, two trowels, a rake, and a pitch fork which were already on the property where we lived.  Bill of course could dig two beds (sometimes 3) to my one bed.

After the shovel passed the first few inches it was all yellow to orange clay. I remember thinking to myself: this soil will never give me anything.  Nonetheless, it was all I had to work with and I wanted to garden even if I failed!  I took off the first few inches of soil that were ‘dense but decent’ and put them aside and tried to at least break up the hard clay.  Sometimes I was not strong enough to get the packed clay out, so I just broke it the best I could. When I was able to get it out, I would put leaves,  pine needles, or straw in the bottom of the trench and then replace the clay. Then I’d add more straw (etc.) and place the ‘decent, but dense’ soil on top.

Because of not being able to break up the clay into anything but huge chunks and also because of adding large amounts of rough organic matter (the leaves, pine needles, or straw) the beds were about a foot higher than when we started.  Several people stopped and asked if they were graves!  Eventually the beds settled to about 2 to 4 inches above regular level.

It Didn’t Take Reading About it to Mulch

At that time I had never read anything about gardening, but it didn’t take reading for me to realize that all that ‘just loosened’ dense soil was going to be compacted again by the rain and crusted over in the baking sun leaving me with not much better conditions than before the beds were dug.  Out of desperation to protect my investment of time I covered them with straw or pine needles which worked perfectly.

It not only kept the ground soft, but added organic matter necessary to make good soil and feed plants.  (I never added lime or chemical fertilizers which probably still has my neighbors scratching their heads since that was traditional for most of them.)

The Results

It was not more than a year or so before the soil in the beds was black, rich, and friable for at least 6 to 10 inches down.  Herons and ducks no longer visited because the “pools” of standing water were gone.  When neighbors could not plant their traditional, bare gardens because of a wet spring, I could. My beds were moist, but well drained.  When the droughts came in summer, my plants always looked good —and I NEVER watered.

Over a period of twenty years we dug up almost an acre of ground doing little by little.  Our neighbors said the yard with its big trees and beautiful flowers looked like a park. When I sold perennials many customers would kid about “throwing in some of that good soil” to go with the plants.

Double Digging

I read later that what we had done was called double digging the beds.  Some folks think it is a must with every garden. Others say —-no way!  My opinion is – the worse your ground the more your need for double digging.

And if you can’t water a garden, double digging will help hold water for use by plants in dry times.

The experience set forth above taught me 3 things of primary importance when starting a garden or any new bed for that matter.

1. Keep your bed or border small enough that you will be able to manage it without going into overwhelm. If you take on more than you can chew the tendency will be to give up and you’ll have nothing to show.  If you take it little by little  – or as much as your time will allow (even if that is only 10 to 30 minutes at a time) you will be encouraged to continue and consistency will reward you.

2. Take the time to prepare your ground. You don’t necessarily have to double dig if your soil does not necessitate it or if you just plain don’t want to.  Nonetheless, your greatest effort in gardening should be in the preparation of your soil: getting the sod up, taking the grass out, loosening the soil, and adding organic matter in some form. By not shortcutting here you will have something to show for your efforts. Time spent in this step is one of THE MAIN ways to cut work to a minimum in the future.

3. Protect your investment by mulching. As mentioned previously, mulching will keep your ground from crusting. It will also add a continual supply of organic matter, not to mention almost doing away with weeds.  (Some sneak through now and then, but nothing compared to what bare soil allows to grow.)

These three things done well will give you more to show for your time and effort with each passing year; a tremendous return on your investment.

Final Thought

We are allotted only a certain number of springs. Lets get started!

Pictures: #1 Onions in mulched bed with light snow.

Picture #2  Primrose in April of 2009 in mulched bed.

All content including photos is copyrighted by All Rights Reserved.


  • I just found your blog and have been reading some of your old posts, but haven’t read it all yet. I would like to tell you about my recent organic gardening experiences.

    I have mostly clay and rock in my yard and have four 6′ x 8′ raised beds where I usually grow some tomatoes, squash etc. I have to depend on my hubby to do a lot of the hard work, like building the beds, and in the past, he has been a less than enthusiastic gardener. He likes the fresh veggies but I had a hard time convincing him that the veggies would do better if he made the beds deeper (they were only one board deep before this year, lol). He has been amazed at the difference this has made in the tomatoes.

    We live next door to his parents, who have always had a veg garden that is about 50 x 100 ft. In the past, it has been his job to prepare their garden (plowing and tilling, caging tomatoes, staking beans, etc.), while his parents did the planning, planting and the day-to-day work.

    My in-laws are in their 80’s and are resistant to putting any organic gardening into practice. They have relied heavily upon massive amounts of chemical fertilizers and harsh pest control (they love to douse everything with Sevin dust).

    We have had to take on more and more of the work for their garden for the past few years, and it has resulted in a bit of a power struggle between us (really me)and them. For the past two years, my husband has been adding old leaves when he plows their garden in the fall and again in the spring. He put in a little sand to help it to drain better and plowed much deeper than the in-laws normally liked. The result has been a much deeper soil that doesn’t dry into a hard crust as soon as the weather turns hot and dry. It is not perfect yet, but it is much better. Then of course, we had a very wet year this year and discovered that better drainage would be nice.

    When it came to choosing what to plant this year, I let my MIL have her choices. She likes Celebrity tomatoes and we planted about 60 of those and about 12 cherry tomatoes of mysterious parentage. My MIL is a seed saver, which would normally make me very happy, BUT… she has a huge stash of seeds that she keeps in the freezer. Some of them are more than 10 years old and I believe are not reliable. We have used some of her old bean seeds and they just don’t produce any beans. It is a very disheartening thing to plant veggies and get nothing after months of tending them! So I bought all fresh seed, except for the bush beans, where we used her saved seeds. We also planted banana peppers and bells, cucumbers, pole beans (Kentucky Wonders), okra, and several types of squash. Everything has produced amazingly, except the bush beans, which only produced a handful of beans. I’m still getting okra and Kentucky Wonders. The banana peppers have produced very well, while the bell peppers have been undersized although plentiful.

    Now, I’m not going to say we didn’t use any chem fertilizers – we did, but very sparingly where we knew the soil is still poor and needed an immediate solution. I am proud to say, though, that we used NO pesticides and had absolutely amazing results. In previous years, Japanese beetles have eaten a lot of the stuff in that garden. This year, though, I would put a little soapy water in a small container and visit the garden 2-3 times a day, pick off the beetles and put them in the soapy water. Or, if I happen to be in the garden without the soap solution, I would just smash them with my fingers. We used Milky Spore in our yard several years ago and even though none of our neighbors have used it, we have a lot less Japanese beetles than many places.

    Interestingly enough, the in-law’s garden has never had a problem with tomato hornworms, and while I’m sure it is because of their extensive use of Sevin dust, I think anther factor might be their use of newspaper as mulch around the tomatoes. I think this keeps the mature caterpillars from dropping off the tomatoes into the ground where they pupate. In my own raised beds, I have had quite a few tomato worms over the years, but I use pine straw as mulch. My method for tomato worm control in my raised beds is to look for the eggs on undersides of leaves (small translucent green spheres) and crush them, or if I see frass (caterpillar droppings – black bits, as big as 1/4″) on the leaves of a plant, I look for the caterpillar. I like to collect a few of these every year and put them in a container, feed them tomato leaves until they are ready to pupate, then put them in a mayo jar full of dirt and let them emerge. The moths pollinate many of the trumpet-shaped flowers, in particular, moonflowers and petunias. The moths are quite beautiful.

    Now I mentioned before that my hubby has been less than enthusiastic about gardening, but there are a couple of things that have changed his outlook. One thing is our pond and caring for it, which is something he likes to do. He loves fishing in the pond. I explained to him that run-off from the garden was making for some unfavorable conditions in his pond, the overuse of fertilizers and the pesticides are not good for his fish. He immediately began to think more pro-actively about organic gardening.

    The other thing that changed his mind is weeding. Like many other organic gardeners, I had come to accept the fact that weeding meant many hours spent pulling up unwanted plants. We had a lot of rain here this year so the weeds were growing very fast. I had spent about 4 hours weeding one Saturday, and was heading out to the garden for another long weeding stint on the following Sunday and DH joined me. After long hours in the sun and still seeing more weeds, hubby decided to use a hoe. It just didn’t work right and being a child of technology, the first thing he did was use the Google and YouTube to find out about hoes.

    He found that there are chopping hoes and skimming hoes. Chopping hoes are used to dig holes, and that’s the type of hoe that most people have. The skimming hoe is a different tool. It is used like a broom, no bending over. The blade skims just under the surface of the dirt, cutting the weeds off and not disturbing the soil so that weed seeds are not brought to the surface where they will sprout. There was a skimming hoe in the tool-shed and it had never been used. The angle of the blade is different than the chopping hoe. So, DH tried it and it worked beautifully. So now he spends about 30 minutes total each week hoeing with the skimming hoe. The garden looks fabulous. He was so excited about this, and I am too, because now he will go out and take care of all the weeds!

    I’ve frozen lots of veggies from our garden and look forward to doing even better next year. I have plans for more changes to the in-law’s garden next year – plans to cut back some of the branches of overhanging trees that are affecting the garden plants. I want to do it judiciously, not just cut willy-nilly, so if you have any advice for that I would appreciate it. The trees are oaks and I’m thinking of growing some pecan trees to replace a few oaks across our property. What do you think of that? I’m a bit ambivalent about it, as I’ve never even thought of cutting down trees, but pecans would be wonderful to have for the nuts as well as the shade, and grass can grow under them unlike the oaks.

    I’m so glad to see all of your helpful information on organic gardening and doing things more easily. It is so helpful to read that someone else has faced the challenges of organic gardening!

  • Dear Laura,
    Welcome to TMG! I really enjoyed hearing your organic gardening experiences and appreciate your taking the time to write them.

    Congratulations on the NO pesticides! That’s definitely a big step in the right direction.

    Sounds like you are subtly performing miracles and making great changes. Using the explanation of how fertilizers and pesticides work against the health of the pond was a grand idea to help you husband see one of the benefits of organic gardening.

    I loved your story of the skimming hoe.

    Regarding the tomato hornworm — you may want to read my post:

    This year I’ve only seen one and it already had the cocoons on it. Last year I saw a dozen or so — but they too were already taken care by the cocoons of Braconid wasp.

    You are wise to prune judiciously. It would be good to trim now while you can actually see what is being shade and if its even necessary to room a limb or not.

    Oaks are wonderful trees. The roots go down and deep. They’re beautiful and of course the leaves are great. I’ve never had enough oaks so I’ve never been in a position of having too many and never wanted to replace them with other trees. But as you mentioned you want to replace some of your oaks with pecan trees. They’re wonderful — if you can get the right kind. Unfortunately — I don’t know the right kind.

    Where we use to live our neighbors had very old pecan trees that were huge and FANTASTIC! They gave tons of pecans.
    When we moved to our current property — we had two pecan trees on the property. (I am assuming that one was male and one was female since I think that is what is needed to produce pecans. ) I don’t know how big they were — certainly not as big as the ones I mentioned above — but still at least 25 or 30 feet tall. For years there were never more than a dozen pecans. Lightning hit one tree and then we took the other one out also.

    That is the extent of my experience with pecan trees.

    Probably your husband has had a lot of experience with mixing soils — but just in case I’m wrong — I wanted to caution against adding sand to clay soil (and also vice versa). Many times you’ll get the opposite condition of the one you want. And at times — a mixture of clay and sand can give you a cement like soil.

    Leaves are one of the most wonderful things you can get to improve soil. They will definitely improve your drainage. Where we use to live and I gardened for 20 years — we had hard clay soil. We were only one foot above sea level. No one around the neighborhood could ever get into their gardens —- except me. Even after only 3 years of improving the soil it drained wonderfully and I could always plant a month ahead of my neighbors. The paths were muddy even though they were mulched and so I would wear boots to the garden. But my beds were perfect and well drained.

    I long for my improved clay soil now because it was THE BEST. At our current location we have sandy soil — which although we have improved it — it still keeps the characteristic of sandy soil — in that it drains a bit too well — although nothing like what it did before we improved it.

    Again, thank you for telling me about your experiences. I think TMG will give you a lot of information that will make your garden even better.

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