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Garden Alchemy: Turning Sand to Soil

September 7, 2009
As summer turns into fall, we’ve entered a period of spectacular weather (finally!!) here in Maine: mild, sunny, dry days that are perfect for working in the garden. And, finally, I’m making some progress on the new fence border that was supposed to be this summer’s major garden project. Photo credit: Jean Potuchek
Fence Border, showing already planted, freshly dug, and still undug sections.

Creating new flower beds means digging and double digging, and that is always hard work. But it’s important work. I believe that in gardening, as in painting, 90% of a successful outcome is the time and effort spent in preparation. For perennials, preparing flower beds is especially critical because you hope that these plants are going to be living in this spot for a long time.

I’ll be honest; I don’t enjoy the hard physical work of digging new beds. (Perhaps this is why I kept putting it off all summer.) How difficult this work is and the nature of the difficulty depend on the nature of the soil you are working with. In heavy clay soils, trying to get a spade into the ground can make you consider whether you need a pick ax – or better yet a jackhammer! That’s not my problem here. The geology of Maine is glacial, and it can sometimes seem like the glaciers just retreated last week. What they left behind were granite ledges, boulders, gravel and sand. I am thankful that, on my property, gravel and sand predominate over ledge and boulders. In one sense, this makes digging new beds easy; sinking a spade into my sandy soil is sort of like slicing into butter with a warm knife. The flip side of this advantage, however, is that there is virtually no organic matter in the soil. Whenever I’ve sent this soil out to be tested, it has come back with impossibly low proportions of organic matter. It will give you a sense of how little if I tell you that I have never – not even once – turned over a spadeful of soil here and uncovered an earthworm. Honestly. Calling this stuff “soil” probably violates truth in advertising laws. So let’s just call it dirt.

Over the years of gardening here, I’ve developed a “recipe” for turning my sandy dirt into garden soil:

First, I begin by assembling the needed tools and ingredients

  • spade
  • garden fork
  • hoe
  • wheelbarrow
  • bucket
  • and for each 6 square foot section of flower bed
  • 1 cup wood ash (to raise ph)
  • 30-40 lb. bag of composted cow manure
  • 30-40 lbs. of compost

With the sod already removed from the new flower bed, I mark out a 6 square foot section. (This size is not arbitrary; an area this size, dug down to a depth of 1 foot, equals 6 cubic feet, the size of my wheelbarrow. If I had a smaller wheelbarrow, I would need to dig in smaller sections.) With the spade, I dig the dirt out of the section to a depth of about 1 foot and put it in the wheelbarrow. As I go (after every few spadefuls of dirt), I sift the dirt with my (gloved) fingers, pulling out roots and rocks and putting these in a bucket to be discarded. Although my dirt doesn’t have earthworms, it does have harmful cutworms and grubs, so I squish these between thumb and index finger and add them to the discard bucket, too. By the time I complete this process for the entire section, my wheelbarrow is full to the brim with dirt. I then take my garden fork and systematically work my way across the floor of the dug-out section, sinking it in up to the hilt and prying it back and forth to loosen up the soil about another 10” in depth. Once this loosening is complete, I add half the soil amendments (1/2 cup ash, and 15-20 lbs. each of manure and compost) and mix them into the loosened soil with the hoe. Using the spade, I now remove about half the dirt from the wheelbarrow to the dug section. When this is done, I divide the remaining soil amendments equally between the garden section and the wheelbarrow, mixing them in thoroughly with the hoe. Then I remove the rest of the improved soil from the wheelbarrow to the garden section. (Once the wheelbarrow is light enough to manage, its contents can just be dumped onto the garden section.) Finally, I use the hoe to even out the top of the newly dug area and to square off the edges.

The entire process takes 1 1/2 – 2 hours per section, and it definitely leaves my back aching. But when it is completed, voila! The top of the soil is now about 10” higher than the level of the original dirt, and by dint of garden alchemy, sand has been transformed into a 2’ depth of fluffy, moderately rich garden soil.
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