3 keys to success Compost Soil Improvement and/or preparation

Making the Most of Every Opportunity – What I Suggested to a Reader

Opportunities don’t always come at times when we can do everything that would be best to take full advantage of the circumstances. So we adjust accordingly.

The main thing we want to remember is that whatever action we take should be in keeping with nature’s principles. And always keep the 3 keys to success in mind. (More on this as we go along.)

Reader, Susan, left questions in the comment area of a post. Her situation is the perfect example of a wonderful opportunity coming at a time that she’ll have to adjust what she does to fit the season and “materials” available.

A Garden Plot After Waiting 4 Years

She’s waited 4 years and finally got a garden association garden plot. It’s about 200 square feet and hasn’t been used for 2 or 3 years.

Weed growth was “crazy” and of course, has “reseeded” into the garden over the past 2 or 3 years of being unused.

It’s great the plot has not been used for 2 or 3 years because that gave the soil time to rest and rebuild.

Also, all those weeds were busy pulling up nutrients from the plot, dying, and replenishing the soil over the winter.

What to Do With the Weeds

I hope Susan still has the weeds she pulled.

And yes, I realize they had gone to seed, but in spite of that they can be used and will end up eventually returning more valuable nutrients to the plot for the plants to use.

Just the other day I sent a private email to subscribers entitled “Don’t Waste Your Weeds”. (If you subscribe to TMG you should have received it. If not, check your junk mail and then white list my email address.)

As I explained in the email, here’s what I’d do with the weeds if she still has them.

Put them in piles about 3 feet by 3 feet. Roll each pile tightly. Place it at the corner of the plot (or where they won’t be in the way) and let them decay. If you see some of the weeds growing on top or from the sides, just pull them and place them on top to dry and die.

They’ll decay and result in excellent soil/compost. You can leave it there for a while — even through next spring — just in case the weed seeds germinate. They’ll be very easy to deal with that way and those spots will be excellent for planting after that.

Since the weeds have seeded in the plot over the 2 or 3 years when it was not used, it’ll take a couple of years for the plot to be totally weed free.  But it shouldn’t be much of a problem if the soil is mulched and weeding is done 10 minutes every day or so.

Hopefully after Susan cleared the plot of weeds she covered the soil to keep it from losing moisture and to keep all the good stuff from oxidizing. (Covering the soil is the 3rd of the 3 keys to success.)

Double Dig, Till, Turn by Hand, or Nothing?

Susan asks:
“I don’t know if I should have it tilled, or just turn the soil myself, and then what to add. There are earthworms which I saw when weeding. The garden association has manure and compost for free.”

IF this were in the FALL rather than spring, I would suggest that she double dig her 200 square foot plot (or at least as much as she is able to do.)

Deep Soil Preparation is my first key to success in the garden.

If you want to review the 3 keys go the Home page and scroll down to the rectangle entitled Organic Gardening – Follow my 3 Keys To Successful Gardening . That will give you the links to posts with more details.

Possibly THE main advantage to double digging garden beds (along with adding organic matter and covering the soil – the other 2 of the 3 keys to success) is that it enables the soil to hold a lot more water. It’ll also drain properly because of the organic materials.

AND you only have to do it ONCE in the life of your garden assuming you don’t compact the soil again by walking on it or allowing it to stay bare.

As I mention in this post by double digging your beds to 24 inches, the soil will have the capacity to hold 25% (or 1/4) of the soil’s volume in water. In other words, 6 inches of water can be held in the 24 inches of the prepared soil.

This eliminates the need for watering in most cases. (I’ve never “watered” my garden in the 40 years I’ve gardened even during severe drought.

(I have watered seedlings when necessary with rain water I collect. Also, I’ve hauled a bucket or two of water to a cucumber plant after 4 to 6 weeks of drought.)

Adapting What You Do to Conditions

I don’t know where Susan lives, but in many areas the end of May is a bit late to double dig.

I would definitely NOT till the soil. Tilling would undo all the good stuff that’s been done by the weeds and leaving the ground alone for the past couple of years.

Nor would I turn the soil by hand (with a shovel).

I use to turn the top few inches of some of my beds with a shovel before planting in the spring and ended up finding out I get much better results when I don’t do that.

Earthworms Indicate Organic Materials

Seeing earthworms showed Susan that the soil has good organic material in it or the earthworms wouldn’t be there. (That’s what they feed on. When it’s finished decaying they won’t be there.)

Mulch – What to Use?

Hopefully Susan covered the soil with mulch after she weeded. If she didn’t here’s what I’d do.

If rain is in the forecast within the next few days, wait for the rain and then cover the soil with mulch. Since compost is free from the garden association  I would use the compost to cover the soil. Try for a depth of 2 inches. (She may have to replenish this as the season progresses.)

Then, obtain some straw, dried grass clippings, and/or pine tags and cover the compost with that. (Keeps the good stuff in the compost from oxidizing.) Depth will depend on what’s available.  I’d go for 4 inches if possible; but at least 1/2 inch if you can get it.

Manure – Spring or Fall?

Manure, assuming it’s free from residual herbicides and has been aged for about a year is ok for the garden. But it’s best added in the fall. If it were my garden plot, I would not add manure – especially not in the spring.

Looking Ahead – Double Dig or Let Nature Do it?

My best garden beds were double dug when I first started my current location’s garden 20 years ago. They’re the best beds. (Remember: You only deeply prepare your beds ONCE in a lifetime.)

I have two meadow beds that nature prepared.  I could not dig at all when they were started.

I removed the weeds and grass and mulched heavily.  That’s it.

I planted tomatoes even the first year. They did great. (Tomatoes love new soil.)

It takes about 3 years for nature to get the soil friable.

Organic Residues

It’s not the best idea to totally rely only on compost. As soil scientist Richard Parnes stated, the energy from organic residues “is required to maintain soil fertility and there is no substitute.”

If I had Susan’s plot of ground, I’d be looking for leaves this fall to cover the plot during the winter, feed the earthworms, decay, and add the organic residues that the soil needs.

Straw, grass clippings, kitchen scraps, pine tags, wood chips and other organic materials can be used. Leaves (and weeds) are on top of my list because of their high nutrient value.

Final Thoughts

All of us have times that opportunities are presented, but we have to make certain decisions about how we’re going to handle what needs to be done.

I thought Susan’s questions and the example of her situation would be of great value in helping other gardeners.

Hopefully it gave YOU some good ideas and helped Susan too.


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  • Theresa, keep encouraging us all! Little by little I am incorporating “the 3 keys”. Last fall I planted my first fall garden and it was fantastic. I tried the winter sown seed starting for the first time and it worked great. ( I have a new cat and he ate any seedling I grew in the house). I will keep working at it if you keep encouraging!! Thank you.

  • I must have a mental block; what do you mean by tightly rolling the weeds? Thanks! Julie

  • Thanks for this question Julie. I’m sure others wondered the same thing,
    You rake up the weeds into a pile. Then bend over the pile, gather the pile, press it down and literally roll it along.
    With every roll you compress it more (or tighten it). This may not be clear to you still, but once you do it you’ll know what I mean. The idea is to get it as tightly compressed as possible. (Decays better that way.)
    Hope this helps Julie.
    PS – After you do this — if you find you can explain it in more detail, please come back in and do so. I’m sure other readers would be most appreciative. Thanks Julie.

  • Great post. Sounds like you are back up to speed !!! Healing takes such time and energy. Even more than gardening!

  • Hey Carol,
    Thrilling to hear about the success of your fall garden!
    Sounds like your new cat kept you busy with all that mischief.
    Glad you’re finding TMG encouraging. That encourages me!

    Thank you Don!

    Julie, I haven’t heard from you so I’m assuming my reply was more understandable.?

    Bonny, I agree with you 100%! Healing takes a lot of time and energy!!!!!


  • Regarding the weeds: I have always thrown out my weeds. Are there any weeds that we should not add to our weed piles? We have a terrible problem with crab grass where I live. I’ve heard those called “evil weeds” that should be “set to fire.” I’d have to agree on that point. Haha!

  • I add almost all weeds. There was a time I would not have added what I call “wire” grass with the white stolons that spread it, but
    even that dies in my piles. Every once in a while a piece will live and when I see it I just pull it out and lay it on top.
    Invasive things like nutsedge I add to the pile BEFORE they seed.

    One advantage of leaving the decayed residue in the same place is being able to keep an eye on it and if you do have a problem you can easily fix it.
    I’ve never had any problem. But I DO WATCH.

    As far as crab grass — yes, it’s nuisance but all part of the game.

    As with most things — if it seeds — the wind carries the seed even further making more weeding. Yuk!

    Makes me sad for your garden that you threw away all those weeds over the years. I thought we had a conversation about that many years ago when you started your first garden.

  • Theresa,

    I think you mean kind of like rolling up sticky bun dough once you have spread the filling all over, is that right? Julie

  • Theresa, thanks for the tips using weeds! What a great idea as I have so many of them in my yard, flower and vegetable gardens! Usually, I’ve put them in a garden refuse barrel or thrown them on the driveway or garden path. I guess I can save the stuff from the barrels and put them in a pile like you suggested. I will do that this year. I have all kind of weeds and growth including wild onions ( I sometimes wonder if I can use them somehow), wild grapevines, violets, crabgrass, wiregrass, and numerous pointy or thorny weeds, ugh. More than ever this year, says my neighbor, probably due to the early summer temps here in Knoxville.

    Thinking of you often.


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