The Cranky Gardener

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Garden Planning 101: Here's the Poop1

I woke up this morning to a white world. It's the first snowfall of the season for us. Not a blizzard, just a beautiful wet snow clinging to the tree branches, transforming the landscape into a winter wonderland.

Why am I talking about snow when I should be talking about soil amendments, you wonder. Two years ago I planted four Red Twig Dogwoods (Cornus stolonifera) near my vegetable plot. They are absolutely spectacular in the snow. This is a great landscaping plant. They are inexpensive, grow quickly, and give you wonderful colour in what is normally a drab season. Don't expect the beautiful spring blossoms of the regular Dogwood. The blossoms are small and of little note. It's the colourful bark that makes this plant a winner. Trim them back rather severely in spring to encourage them to send up multiple stems.

Ok, now we'll talk about garden soil. If you're a new gardener, I want you to pay very close attention. You will never achieve satisfactory results in your vegetable patch if you have poor soil. But the good news is that you aren't stuck with the soil you already have. No matter what kind of soil Mother Nature has placed in your garden, you can improve it.

I know people who spend tons of money on plants and seeds but never properly prepare their garden beds. And they wonder why they always have low yields. I once asked a frustrated gardening friend if he liked to take off his shoes and wiggle his toes. Then I asked him if he liked to eat every day, or just a couple of times a year. I believe it was at this point where he called me a smartass, flopped down on the swing, kicked his shoes off and asked for iced tea and a sandwich. Well, Duh!

What I was trying to make him understand is that plants have requirements for growth just like animals have. They need water, nourishment, light, oxygen, warmth and support. They may live under less than ideal conditions, but they won't prosper. Three tomato plants, planted in good soil, properly placed and supported, well mulched, fed and watered will out produce two dozen planted in hard soil, crowded together, and then left to pretty much fend for themselves with an occasional watering.

If you're preparing a new site you first need to remove the sod. Don't just turn it under. It will re-root and you'll have to spend the rest of the season digging it out. Trust me, it's less work to get rid of it in the first place. If you have Bermuda grass then I recommend you find the person who planted it and smack him – twice. You're never going to get rid of it all. The roots go to China. Your best bet is to garden in containers the first year so you can smother the grass. Lay out your plot, spray it with enough Roundup to dampen the area completely, cover it with a thick layer of newspapers, then cover that with heavy black plastic and leave it for an entire year. The combination of the weed killer, the darkness, the lack of moisture and the heat generated from the sun on the plastic should do the trick. But with Bermuda grass, you never know.

You've probably figured out that I've been fighting Bermuda grass in my garden. I hope the man who planted it roasts in hell right along side the guy who invented speed bumps and the city administrator who decided that it was ok for carwashes to have all the water they want during a drought, but that home gardeners would be fined for watering our vegetables and fruit trees. When I called city hall to complain that my new pear tree was drying out, I was told to have my husband go out after dark and pee on it. You know what I did? I put some clean galvanized trash cans in the back of the pickup and drove it through the car wash! True story!

But I digress. Once your plot has the sod removed you need to spread a layer of compost over the top at least an inch thick (2.5 cm) then turn it under to a depth of at least 8 inches (20 cm). Once the soil has been turned over you will need to let it lie for two or three weeks before you plant. In an existing garden plot, you will need to rake off the mulch about three weeks before planting to allow the soil to warm up, or you can till it into the soil for added organic matter.

If you decide to use a tiller instead of digging the plot manually, you need to know that repeated use of tillers will actually encourage weed growth, will lead to soil erosion and will kill off your earth
worms. So, use the tiller only when absolutely necessary. They're helpful but shouldn't be used exclusively for digging and cultivation.

Vegetables like soil with good drainage. Most grow best in a soil that is neutral to slightly acidic. A pH of 6.5 to 7.0 is desirable. A few vegetables prefer a somewhat alkaline soil, however. These include
Asparagus, Melons, Spinach and Swiss Chard. In order to find out the pH of your soil, you can purchase inexpensive test kits at garden centres. Or for American gardeners, you can take a soil sample to your local University Extension office. If your soil is too acid, you will need to add lime. If it is too alkaline, you will need to add sulphur.

You also need to determine your soil texture. Is it sandy? If so you will need to add organic matter to help it retain moisture. Sandy soil is dry and usually low in nutrients. Is it clay? If so you will need
to add organic matter to help it loosen and drain properly. Clay soil is sticky when wet and bakes hard, well, like a brick, when dry. Too much silt in your soil? You'll need to add organic matter to improve
the texture. Silty soil is fine and powdery and packs as hard as clay soil. Are you starting to see a pattern here?

Perfect garden soil, or loam, has a balance of sand, clay and silt. But few of us have perfect soil – at least not in the beginning. 'Oh Cranky One, how do I know which kind of soil I have?' you ask. There are a couple of ways to test your soil. To check for clay, you will need to get a moist ball of soil about the size of a large table grape. Roll it between the palms of your hands to make a rope. If you're successful, then your soil is more than 15 % clay. The longer the rope, the higher the percentage of clay. To check for sand, take a small chunk of soil and put it in the palm of your hand. Add enough
water to make a puddle. Then rub your finger in the puddle. If it feels gritty, you have sand. If it feels smooth, you have silt.

The bottom line is that regardless of your soil composition, you will need to add organic matter to it to improve its texture and to increase your vegetable yields. The best soil amendment is good old
compost. Where do you get that, you ask? Next time we'll talk about composting. It's easy. Really! But there are many other ways of adding organic matter to the soil. If you mulch with grass clippings, shredded leaves or seedless straw, you can gently work them into the soil. Or you can buy peat moss, aged sawdust, composted manure, well-rotted manure (cow, horse or sheep) or cocoa hulls. To loosen hard soil, you can add vermiculite or pearlite.

I said we'd talk about organic vs inorganic fertilizers this time. Simply put, organic fertilizers are preferable to inorganic. The nutrients are more easily absorbed by your plants and you don't have to worry so much about getting your soil's nutrient composition out of balance. The best fertilizer is still manure. If you have a source, then you're crazy not to use it. But make sure it's rotted. Fresh manure will burn your plants. Other organic fertilizers include liquid seaweed and fish emulsion. Native Americans used to put a fish in a hole and plant their corn seed right on top of the fish. And good compost feeds your plants as well as improving the soil texture. But I'm not a purist. I've used inorganic fertilizers in the past and probably will in the future. For one thing they're inexpensive. And they store well. So, if you can't find a local source for manure and can't afford mail order organics, then use inorganic mixes and step up your compost production. Between now and spring we'll need to do an entire column on fertilizers.

So many researchers are on low-carb diets that I thought I'd do a low-carb recipe this time. My husband and I both enjoy stir-frys. They are delicious without the sauces and MSG. And who said you have to have rice or noodles? Just skip them and eat a larger serving of the meat and veggies. This is one of our favourites. It has a higher ratio of meat to veggies than most stir-fry recipes.

Almond Chicken


  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts cut into thin strips
  • 1 medium-sized onion cut into pieces about 1 inch square
  • 1 cup - 100g, 4oz - of celery sliced thinly on the diagonal
  • 1 cup -125g, 5oz - firm summer squash (white patty pan if you can find it) cut into 1 inch cubes
  • 1 4 oz - 100g - can of sliced mushrooms
  • ¼ cup - 25g, 1oz - slivered almonds
  • 1 garlic clove, mashed
  • Peanut oil for stir-frying
  • Salt to taste

Heat a steel wok or a heavy skillet. Add a small amount of the oil to the hot wok. Sautee the almonds and set aside. Add about 2 tablespoons of oil and stir-fry the onions and celery until tender but not soft. Remove. Add the squash and mushrooms. Stir fry until the squash is tender, but not soft. Remove. Add another 1 or 2 tablespoons of oil and the chicken. Cook until the chicken is done. Add the garlic and salt to taste. Return the vegetables to the pan, mix and heat through. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with almonds.

The Cranky Gardener


11.12.03 Front Page

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1Plant names capitalised for clarity.

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