Gardeners' Dirt: Starting a garden - it is all about the soil

By Charlie Neumeyer - Victoria County Master GardenerEdited by Charla Borchers Leon
Jan. 23, 2014 at midnight
Updated Jan. 22, 2014 at 7:23 p.m.

Master Gardener Colin Bond utilizes raised beds in his garden area.  This is a "no till" approach to starting a garden that also allows for good drainage.

Master Gardener Colin Bond utilizes raised beds in his garden area. This is a "no till" approach to starting a garden that also allows for good drainage.

"Wow. What a beautiful garden." Those words are music to the ears of all gardeners.

While gardeners plant vegetable and flower gardens for various reasons, we need affirmation from others that our labor is worthwhile and appreciated.

Many people will look at the final product and never realize the amount of planning and work that the gardener has invested to produce the final effect.

Choose your site

Whether you are planning a vegetable garden or a new flower bed, the preparations are the same.

You need to create a plant list - vegetables, flowers or both.

The next step is to choose an appropriate site. According to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, vegetables need at least eight hours of sunlight each day. If you plan on mixing vegetables and flowers, be sure to check the light requirements of these plants for compatibility.

If you do have large trees in your yard, try to place the garden so that the shade will occur in the afternoon.

Clear the site

Chemical method

The first task will be to clear the area of vegetation. The first method uses chemicals - primarily, a glyphosate-based product. These products will kill all vegetation in the sprayed area. Be sure to read and follow all label instructions.

If Bermuda grass is present in the area, multiple applications may be needed, as it is notoriously difficult to eradicate.

Earth-friendly suggestions

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension also has some organic suggestions for weed control. These include the use of acetic acid (vinegar) and citric acid sprays.

Another earth-friendly method is to solarize the soil. According to Dr. William Johnson, Galveston County extension agent, solarization is most effective during the hot summer months.

Clear the area to be planted of all vegetation, irrigate the area thoroughly and cover the area with clear (not black) plastic.

According to Johnson, "good, short-term control can be gained in a month," but he suggests two to three months for the best results.

After you have cleared the site, you have a decision to make in preparing the area.

Create raised beds

You can opt to create raised beds using timbers or rocks to hold the soil in place. One big advantage to this method is that you do not have to till. Build the frames for your raised beds, add top soil or growing mix, and you are ready to plant.

Use tiller or shovel

If you opt for the traditional style, the soil needs to be turned either using a tiller or by hand using a shovel.

Before you begin turning the soil, check for moisture. If the soil is dry, irrigate the garden area, as moist soil is easier to deal with whether you are using a shovel or a machine. If you are using a tiller, start with the highest depth setting and work your way down to the preferred depth.

Making multiple passes with the tiller will take longer, but trust me - it will be much easier on your back.

Enrich the soil

Enriching the soil before planting is important to good crop/flower production, so add compost and fertilizer at this stage.

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension suggests topping the area with a 1-inch layer of compost. Research also notes that while compost does enrich the soil, it does not contain all of the nutrients that plants need to thrive. So this is a good time to add fertilizer also.

You may choose chemical or natural fertilizer, but in either case, be sure to follow the manufacturer's recommendations.

Remember: More is not always better. Thoroughly incorporate the compost and fertilizer into the soil.

Choose a format

Now, you have another decision to make. If you are preparing the area for landscape uses, you are ready to plant.

If you are working on a vegetable garden, you have some options. The traditional vegetable garden has rows. In some cases, the rows are raised, and the seeds or plants are planted on top of the row.

You can create the rows by hand using a shovel, or, if you have access to a garden tractor, use a plow attachment. The obvious advantage of raised rows is improved drainage.

If drainage is not an issue, you may simply smooth the area out, mark rows with strings or, better yet, with drip irrigation lines and plant along the lines.

In either case, plan on putting newspaper, cardboard and/or straw between the rows to control weeds and to create a walking path.

It's all in the preparation

No matter which method you choose, doing a thorough job of preparing the site will save time and labor later on. And if you are going for the "wow" factor, when it comes to gardens, it's all about the soil.

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at



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