Working the Soil

In addition to adding compost and other amendments, a gardener needs to fluff up and aerate the soil to make it more porous for water and air. The conventional way to do this is to till the top few layers of soil, but this practice actually strips the rich topsoil and damages microbial populations.

Instead, double digging or simple aeration of the soil by poking it with a pitchfork maintains the soil’s fertility. Adding mulch on top of the carefully worked soil helps keep moisture in and extreme heat away from plants’ roots.

The first year I begin a plot, I usually choose to double-dig the soil if it has been packed down and ignored for years. This method retains natural, living soil levels while aerating and loosening soil much deeper than conventional tilling. It also raises the soil level, giving you a raised bed with greater surface area than a flat plot.

Raised beds help keep the soil warm –useful in areas prone to mold. They also improve drainage and soil consistency. You end up with happier plants, more planting space, and fewer weeds. In arid climates, you may want to build a wall around your raised bed to conserve water by reducing evaporation and to help keep the soil cool. Depending on how you want your garden to look and the space you have to work with, beds can be any shape, including a traditional rectangle, a spiral, or a keyhole shape, round with a path down the middle for access.

To double-dig, you will need a spade; a wheelbarrow or tarp; compost; manure or peat moss; and a pitchfork. Announce to the land a day in advance that you will be disturbing the soil so that microorganisms and worms can prepare. The living creatures of the soil can hear you and will respond to the energy and intention of what you say. Ask the land if double digging is the best course of action; you may be told that you only need to aerate this area by poking the tines of a pitchfork into the soil, which allows in air and water without disturbing soil layers. If the soil agrees that double-digging is the best course of action, then proceed the following day or whenever the land instructs you to do so.

First, determine where you wish to place your garden space, based on available light and water. A ten-foot-wide bed can be harvested easily from either side, so don’t make your bed any wider than that. At one end of the bed, dig a trench one spade deep, one foot wide and as long as your bed. Put the dirt from this trench into your wheelbarrow or onto the tarp.

With the pitchfork, poke down another foot –or as deeply as possible- into the soil to aerate. Do not turn or otherwise disturb the soil. Dig another trench next to the first and lift the soil into the first trench. You can add compost now into each newly filled trench, or you can add it all as a surface treatment sifted into the newly aerated soil at the end.

Keep digging and turning trenched and poking into the undersoil until you reach the end of your bed, and fill the last trench with the soil from the first. If you have not added compost as you go, now spread compost, manure, peatmoss, and other amendments onto the surface of the soil. Using your pitchfork, sift the amendments into the softened soil. Shape your bed and very loosely pat everything down. Move slowly and deliberately, listening to the essence of the soil as you work.

When you finish, invite the earthworms and other allies back into the soil. Let it sit for a few days or weeks before planting –this is a great activity to do early in the spring when you cannot put in seeds but are anxious to get into the garden, or in the fall if you have begun a new bed space.

The following year, simply aerate your bed with a solid, sharp pitchfork. Poke it into the soil of your garden beds as deep as it will go and gently lean back to loosen the soil without disturbing plant roots or soil layers. Pull the fork out and push it in again a few inches away. Repeat throughout your bed, wherever you wish to plant.

Aerate at the end of the growing season, and again in the spring before you plant. This will help prevent compacting without disturbing the natural balance of the living soil. Worms prefer undisturbed soil (because bacteria prefer undisturbed soil with lots of air and organic matter), so aerating without tilling or digging will make your garden a more attractive home to these powerful allies.

Another method for improving soil fertility and consistency each year is to layer seed-free mulch on the soil and around your plants. Mulch includes any organic matter covering the soil to retain moisture and maintain a steady temperature. Heavy mulching with many layers mimics nature’s way of forming soil and provides soil allies with lots of nutrients. Put mulch around seedlings, add mulch throughout the growing season as needed, and heavily mulch the bed in the fall.

You may decide that double-digging is too much work, and instead create a bed by aerating the soil as described above, then constructing a bed entirely out of piled mulch, layering compost and different kinds of mulch until the bed is at least a foot thick. Between each layer of mulch, include a layer of compost. You can plant right in this mix, adding mulch around the base of plants as the layers settle and decompose; this technique is often referred to as “lasagna gardening” because of the layering process.

Cabbage in RowsThe time it takes to double-dig, aerate, or mulch your garden bed provides a marvelous opportunity for a moving meditation. As you dig, lift, turn, and amend the soil, you get to know its essence more deeply. Open your senses as you work, and sink into present awareness. Stay present to your breath, the smells and sounds around you, the consistency of the dirt, and anything else you notice. You may find that your body remembers an ancient dance with the land cultivated by our ancestors thousands of years ago.

You may begin to hear the song of the land more clearly. A garden prepared with consciousness of our relationship with the earth produces plants with greater life-force energy.

This article was taken from Sacred Land by Clea Danaan

All images were found on Google.com

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