Tilling Your Garden – Go Deep!

One of the best things you can do for your brand-new garden before you plant a single seed is to double till your patch. We don’t mean till it twice along the surface, we mean till it twice as deep. About 2 feet deep. Urban and suburban soil has been covered with lawn, compacted and neglected below the surface. If you want a bountiful harvest from fertile soil, you have to peel off the lawn and dig deep to bring your soil back to life.

Here’s how to deep till your garden patch:

• Mark off your garden patch with wooden stakes and string (followed by your garden spade) or just with your garden spade if you are following a meandering edible landscape design. If you own or have rented a sod-puller, use it now, and put the removed sod layer in your compost pile. Otherwise you will use your spade to slice off the top layer of grass and roots once you start digging up blocks of soil.
• If it has not rained recently, water your garden patch deeply (but do not flood it). You want moist soil when you do this, not dry dust or sopping wet mud.
• Start at one end of the garden patch. Have a plastic tarp (or wheelbarrow, something you will probably need if you have a very large garden space) nearby. Use your garden spade to slice a long line from one side of the garden patch to the other, and one foot down into the topsoil. The width of the trench you are digging should either be about a foot wide, or the width of your garden tiller, if you have one. It has to be able to fit into the trench.
• Remove the topsoil from the trench in manageable blocks (no more than a foot wide and deep) and toss it onto your plastic tarp. Set your spade aside, and if you have a garden tiller, set it down into the trench to till the deeper subsoil you have just exposed. If you don’t have a garden tiller, use your garden fork to loosen up the subsoil another foot deeper. This is a good time to add compost or rotted manure, using your garden tiller or garden fork to mix it well with the subsoil.
• Once you have tilled the subsoil, it is time to remove the sod from the topsoil blocks sitting on your tarp (if you didn’t have a sod-puller to do that beforehand), using your garden spade like a knife – or using your Hori Hori knife, as it is considerably sharper than your garden spade. Try not to tear the tarp.
• The sod can go in your compost pile. Using your garden spade or garden fork, break up the remaining topsoil on the tarp. Add compost and mix well, then spade it back into the trench.
• Repeat the preceding steps, trench by trench, until you have deep-tilled your entire garden patch (or patches).

Yes, it’s a lot of work and takes twice as long. But if you combine deep-tilling with raised bed gardening and intensive planting, your harvests will be bountiful.

1 Comment so far

  1. Christine Desparte on September 17th, 2010

    Great article. Even though my organic garden is established, or maybe because it is established, I am going to try this method next spring. I had not considered removing the top foot of soil and tilling below.

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