So you've dug up soil for a new vegetable garden and are less than pleased. Heavy clays, low organic matter content and mixed top and subsoil layers are typical of urban Front Range soils around homes. What are your options?
Just like a human baby can’t do everything that an adult can do, a new garden soil can’t be expected to grow what a long-time garden with carefully cared for soil can. And don’t think that tossing a handful of fertilizer on these tough-to-garden soils will solve your problems. Poor physical soil conditions are the issue, not fertility.
Foot-long ‘Imperator’ carrots are likely not in your immediate future. Perhaps golf ball like ‘Thumbelina’ carrots are a more achievable objective. Better yet, rather than thinking about carrots that require loose soils for root development, consider fibrous rooted, pioneering crops such as lettuce, spinach and kale.
Another thought is to work on soil building your first year. Apply 2 inches of organic compost in the spring and mix in to the top 4 to 6 inches of soil. Plant a summer cover crop such as buckwheat (photo right), till it under in the fall and immediately plant a winter cover crop such as winter (annual) ryegrass. Let the roots of these crops do the work of penetrating these tough soils. Through their burial, add fresh organic matter to feed beneficial soil microbes and build your soil. Ideas on cover crops for Colorado conditions can be found in the CSU Garden Note #244, Cover Crops and Green Manure Crops.
Raised beds with hard sides (wood) or soft sides (soil beds photo left) are another option. Moving or importing desirable soil to construct these beds increases the depth of useable soil and jump-starts your efforts at building a good garden soil. Note that they too will likely require soil building measures such as compost additions and planting cover crops.
A final thought is to avoid overtilling your soil. Beating it up with a tiller is not the answer to building a good soil. Have a good reason to till (turning under a cover crop or mixing in compost for example) and don’t till frequently. Also till at moderate moisture content – not too dry and not too wet. Care for your garden soil and it will care for you.
How do you manage your garden soil? Comments welcome.