Sunday, December 13, 2015

It's All About the Dirt

Unless you are growing in hydroponic or aquaponic systems, it’s the heart and soul of your farm. Soil.

So in honor of World Soil Day - December 5th, 2015, the next few blog posts will chronicle the story of the soil here on the farm and its recent journey from leached out water logged to restored. 

In this 2015 International Year of Soil, the soil here at Eden’s has taken a bit of a beating. 

With over 50 inches of rain, nearly 30 of it in just a couple of months late winter and early spring, the constant, heavy, flooding downpours not only kept us from planting what we wanted, but leaching of the nutrients in the soil had apparently become an issue beyond what I estimated and yields were low - very low. 

Leaching is something I have dealt with somewhat before. I had simply added more organic fertilizers to the compost mix those years, beefed up the frequency of foliar feeding and things seemed to perform adequately. 

I know, my CSA and market customers know, my chef friends know – we’d all seen it with our eyes and tasted it with our mouths; this farm produces wonderful and bountiful yields! 

I was doing things pretty much the same. Organic matter was being added back in each year, slowly, as the mulch and leaves broke down and manure aged, at the very least in the troughs where the plants were growing. And, I still used pretty  much the same fertilizer schedule as in past years. What had changed?

Rain. And lots of it.

I thought I was going to be able to start moving organic matter onto the rows on a much thicker, faster and more efficient basis with the new loader over the winter. However, my tractor – can’t cross water – no, inflatable wings didn't come with the loader. I need a Bat-motractor from Gotham City.

Nor can it keep from getting stuck in what amounts to quicksand when things are really wet out there. The utility company gave me a complimentary 2' rut at my gate during one of their service calls last winter, making it nearly impossible to get out to the field with the tractor - to farm or to improve the rut - until the soil was much drier. And we just were not getting enough dry days in-between the deluges.

This meant a bit of a delay in moving compost out as fast as I wanted. Heck I couldn’t even prepare soil to plant potatoes, much less drive around with bucket loads full of mulch. Trust me – I tried. Ahem. Don’t ask.

Many of the summer crops had been planted, in-between monsoons, in rows I managed to get prepared by hand, but seemed to be failing miserably or yielding very low and not always good looking veggies.

Of the few rows prepped with the tractor, before the spring rains, things were noticeably better. I got a great melon crop out of just a few rows this year.

But the vast majority of crops performed poorly, with low yields. I knew something was wrong. 

The rest of the rows were composted with the tractor's loader, and fertilized during the "flash-drought" as it was dubbed by some. By late October, the soil was re-saturated and transplanting and direct seeding for late fall and early winter crops began. Finally!

But then in a few weeks I noticed that seeds that had been direct sown would germinate, and stop at their cotyledons leaves.

Plugs that I’d bumped up into larger pots for another farmer, were double the size of any transplants from the same batches out in the garden – the ones that had actually survived.

I took a PH meter to the soil to see if something had changed. It was registering much lower than the prior year. When I say low, I am talking LOW – like almost 5.0 and as low as 4.5 in unamended areas.

Last year after the rainy spring season we'd had, it was right at about 5.0 and a just a little higher in most test areas, and then I had been halfheartedly considering planting a field of pick your own blueberries and calling it a day. Now, with the PH even lower – I was nearly kicking myself for not having done it for real!

But I felt this was certainly indicative of something being wrong. Out of balance. With that drop of  PH, certainly other things were lacking, too.

I’d added extra nitrogen to compensate for any of the compost that might still be “active’. I’d added various basic soil amendments like I’d done the first several years – and each year for the first 4 or 5 years, the yields increased as the soil got healthier.

Then in year 6, and in year 7, 2014, I first noticed some things, like tomatoes, losing ground. I took a PH reading to find it had dropped to the 5.0 reading, down half a % from the time I had taken it a few years prior – when things were doing pretty darn well.

I started reading how excessive rain can cause a drop in the PH levels, causing the soil, specifically sandy soils, to become acidic and wreak havoc on the nutrients.

There are some “quick fixes” you can find at just about any East TX feed store; “fixes” that can end up making a total nutritional mess of the soil.

And then there were the long term fixes. I had opted for the latter. That is where the need for last year’s fund raiser for the loader came from. 

I knew if I added compost and got the biology back in the soil with the use of home brewed aerated compost teas and Texas Worm Ranch's Worm WineTM, it would build up the soil, and the micro-organisms, bacteria and fungi. In good time Nature would repair itself, as I continued this cycle towards the goal of a closed loop system.

I guess I was 2 years late to the fix. The compost hadn't been added until after the soils had been stripped of just about everything useful, leaving me with a lot of sand and a little red clay. I needed results - now.

Had the gardens been fully amended with the decomposed mulch before the first monsoon spring in 2014, much less enduring another record season of winter/spring rains in 2015, perhaps things wouldn’t have become quite as depleted as they are now.

Or was there something else going on?

I called our ag extension office here in Dallas County to see if they could offer some kind of guidance. Maybe there had been something really strange grown, or dumped, here over 100 years ago or something that had some mysterious affect on the soil. I didn’t know? I just knew that everything I’d been doing, following the advice of my mentors, was not working any more.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t really offered any help and in fact was told that “we don’t have anyone here that can help you on that scale.” No offer was made to take my name and number and have an extension agent who could help me, call me back at another time.

Frustrated, and standing out in my dying field, I just hung up and nearly cried. 

How could I have worked so hard all this time to have nothing but native "weeds" like henbit, purslane, lamb's quarter, pigweed and Bermuda, pencil and prickly pear cactus and mesquite trees – oh, and the asparagus – surviving? 

A colleague of mine who practices bio-dynamic farming, as well as organic and sustainable methods, was taking a break from growing, so he could, you know, actually make a living. But he agreed to take my case as a consultant and help me remotely from Houston.

He had experienced a very similar situation on another farm just a few years ago. In fact, the soil lab had sent a hand written note back with their soil test declaring it the worst soil they’d ever tested. It too, was very sandy and depleted. Little to almost no organic matter, too. I hoped that at least I had that advantage, with all of the compost I'd spent the last half of the summer spreading out there.  At least the top soil had some OM in it. I was beginning to feel a sense of hope again.

He knew it would need a big boost in the arm of various raw materials and amendments to help the current crops and act as a temporary bridge until Nature and the Worm Wine could do the rest. And this calculating of all of these test results and minerals, etc., is unchartered territory for me. I knew I'd need some help.

I've always gardened based on how the plants react and what the soil needed based on experience. Not soil tests. I’d been taught to “read weeds” by one of my first farm mentors, and a cool book by Charles Waters, in order to know what amendments to add – and so far, mostly it was N and OM that I needed - and it had worked for many years. But it seemed two seasons of excessive flooding rainwater had begun to undo everything I'd done thus far. 


So, I’ve taken soil samples from the aprox. 3 acres currently under production and
 mixed them together and
sent them off to Texas Plant and Soil Labs for testing. I hope I don’t get any sarcastic hand written notes back with my results. LOL

To be continued…..

PS - Heather has a few classes coming up soon at her Worm Ranch in Dallas. Check it out.


Eat Your Food - Naturally!

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Lost Blog Posts....

A few of my blogs were posted directly on the Eden's website. Going forward, I will post them both here, on Blogger, as well as my web site and with

Here's the links for those posts that were not captured here this spring/summer. They'll redirect you to the website.

Reading Materials - With Consequences 4/21/15
Farmers, ranchers, and most ordinary citizens don't sit around all day and write page upon page of rules and regulations - but, we need to read what those who DO write them, write.
Reason being, that what is written, if passed into law, could very well affect your access to local food, and the means for making a living bringing it to you of many Texans.
Judith McGeary founded FARFA many years ago with the hope of helping fellow Texas farmers and ranchers - and beyond - by using her talents and strengths to help navigate and influence, to a degree, some of the legislation that affects us when it comes to our livelihoods - and your access to our products.  Be it raw milk, farm fresh produce or grass fed meats, we want to preserve our rights to access the good stuff!  (read more)

OL' MacDonald  04/15

I’m taking a break from doing my taxes. Maybe, if you’re reading this, you are, too. Or, maybe, you’ve done what I honestly intended to do, and did actually start to do, got yours out of the way early.
At any rate, I can think of a hundred things I’d rather do anyway than my taxes. So, as the end of the day approaches and my head is full of farm thoughts, scrambled with numbers, spreadsheets and formulas, I thought I’d write a bit - to clear the cobwebs.
I was thinking lately about the hoops, or rings as it may be, that I jump through on any given day, to have animals here on the farm.(read more)

Here Comes the Sun! 4/29/15
I was so happy last night when I checked the forecast for the rest of the week and saw lots of yellow suns on the chart! Wow have we had some long stretches of cloudy and wet weather this spring. The potato field where the clover had grown over the winter barely got mowed before all of the rains started. Needless to say, perhaps, we will not have many potatoes this year from our gardens. The field is still too wet to do anything in with the tractor and it needs to be mowed again after all of this rain. The clover is trying to rebound! (read more)

Hip-waders and Arks 5/22/15
Ok, so it’s more like goulashes and scattered plywood tossed over top of standing water and deep mud.
But at any rate, it’s more rain, in less time, over a longer period of time, than North Texas has seen in many years. Many, many years.
In fact, since I’ve been farming I have not ever experienced this kind of ongoing flooding, lack of sunshiney days and uncertainty about the future of an upcoming season.
If you see me working moonlight at Garden CafĂ© to fill in the financial gaps, you’ll kn ow why. I’m only half-joking.(read more)

Hell or High Water 5/24/15
Friday morning when I sent the weekly farm report out to my CSA members, we’d already received nearly 11 inches of rain for the month of May. By the next morning, an inch more had fallen. And today, Sunday morning, we are at 13.38” – and the rain is still steadily falling.  Erosion has washed away soil and mulch. I’m concerned about crops, old barn foundations and roofs. Extremely soggy and soft conditions, keep me from pulling the tractor out of the barn to do anything much other than a quick mowing when I can manage to get a dry enough spell to cross the creek at the pond’s mouth. The weight of my small frame, sinks up to ankles, higher in some places, just going to feed chickens, horses and dogs. Spring 2015 will certainly go down in the history books.(read more)

Piece of the Pie (5/30/15)
A couple of weeks ago, I was given the bull horn and asked to address a group of local food agtivists at the annual March Against Monsanto here in Dallas. How exciting!
I try to bash something or endlessly complain, without at least offering up some kind of resolution. I like to see progress and the only way that's going to happen is if we take real action steps, not just protest marches. Although, they can bring attention to issues, unless folks go home with something to do - not much seems to change.(read more)

The Sun is Back - Now What?
Besides doing the Snoopy happy dance, many gardeners and farmers have some work ahead of them to restore their water-logged crops.
First and foremost, get those mosquito dunks and bits sprinkled out in the standing water that can't be dumped or drained. (Made by Summit - available at Eden's and just about every garden center/department I know of. Some municipalities have dunks for free.)  (read more)


Believe it or not, farmers are already thinking way ahead of tomatoes, zucchini and watermelons. When we're not mowing, weeding or harvesting, we’re already focusing some of our time on fall and winter planting schedules. That means we’re also going through our seeds, seed catalogs and taking inventory of the various soil amendments and seed starting supplies we’ll need to get those things going - like cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, garlic, onions, etc. (read more)

IT'S ALL GONE TO THE DOGS CATS! (Part 1) 8/11/15
If you have any experience living where there is a feral cat population, you know how quickly the number of cats can increase – exponentially! Since I’ve owned this farm, stray or feral cats haven’t really ever been much of an issue.
Well, the only 2 strays I did find, ended up house cats – so, no issue, right?

(Ed, originally misnamed as "Eden", joined the rank and file of indoor housecats when Eve rejected his company as shop partner. Too fidgety, she said.)
But I was about to learn, and learn quickly, what an issue a couple of seemingly innocent stray cats could become.
 (read more)

IT'S ALL GONE TO THE DOGS CATS! (Part 2) 8/23/15
Thankfully, feral cats can have guardian angels. And 3 of them have come to my rescue and that of the cats here at the farm.
First up is someone I know from the local food scene who saw my plea-filled post on Facebook. Kim Pierce who writes about our Market Days from time to time, ushered my situation over to a couple of ladies she knew, who are also cat guardian angels.(read more)

On My Soapbox 9/6/15
It’s Fall CSA Share sign up time, for many farms, including mine here in southeast Dallas County. That means I’m on my soapbox. So, kick off your shoes, grab something to drink and check this article out. It’s a bit longer than a “blog” entry, so I guess I'll have to qualify it as a self published article. Oh well. I was on a roll, what can I say?
Back in 2007 or so, a certain book crossed my path. I’d started toying with the idea of starting up a farm using the CSA model and Sharing the Harvest was the go-to instruction manual as well as history book on the subject.(read more)

Looking on the Bright Side
I hope you enjoyed the story of the farm cats. I’m sure enjoying having these 3 little rascals around my office, but soon they should be all cleared by the vet and ready to go outside to romp around the farm and hang out in the shop at night.
It’s good to have cats in the shop because organic soil amendments left unattended for very long periods of time out in the open, can be subject to curious rodents’ teeth…..
Having Eve staying in the shop at night, generally eliminated this issue. With her now being retired, cotton meal has become, shall we say, mouse meal. (read more)

 So, putting my blog here as well as on my website going forward, so you have two chances to catch it! ;)

Thanks for following Life on the Farm Blog!

Marie Eat Your Food - Naturally!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

March Comes in Like a Lion....What a Roar!

Winter 2015 is nearly in the books - thankfully. It's been a wet and wild ending to it, that is for sure. Things started out pretty mild, but February left and March entered with a fury of ice, bitter cold winds, snow and killing temperatures here at the farm in Balch Springs, TX.

Not something most of North Texas is accustomed to. Average winter time temps - low 50's and plenty of sunshine.

Being from Chicago originally though, I knew how to dress, what precautions to take for freezing pipes, etc. and I did what I could to cover as many of the things growing in the garden as I had coverings for. But that doesn't stop all of the damage. Hoop houses and low tunnels helped a lot. But there was still damage.Winds rip off covers. Excessive and constant moisture floods seeds waiting to germinate. A pipe still burst somewhere near the barn and  even part of the hoop house itself is getting flooded from the soaking wet soil surrounding it. I may build a mote for next rainy season.

On the surface, things looked pretty green.
Before - beautiful, full heads ready for harvest

After the first round of freezing ice pellets & winds
But under the green, lay burnt tips of frisee, no longer desired by the chefs it was earmarked for, tattered kale covered in aphids, water logged rows of seedlings - now likely drowned - and more rye grass, shepherds purse, and hen bit than ever before. Why is it that winter never seems to damage the unwanted plants? I mean one can only eat so much hen bit and the chickens and horses make too big of a mess to let them in the gardens to take advantage of the rye grass! Heck, the small flock didn't even want to come out from under their coop! LOL
Protesting the snow

So, what do we do now? We cut back the kale and hope for regrowth. I wait for the soil to dry out enough so that the tractor doesn't get stuck and mow down, then disk in, the overgrowth.  I order more seeds. And we re-group.
Is there time to replant what is lost? Not really. There's such a short window between our no-frost dates, coolish weather and scorching heat going into the spring, that I've decided to focus on increasing the warm weather crops instead.

We may still have kale, and the romaines seemed to make it pretty well, Swiss chard, under the covers, looks great and was in fact harvested for the CSA Saturday. So all is not lost. Just not what we usually enjoy this time of the year. Winter harvest was delayed and then pretty well vanished in two weeks.

Now one crop that did do well this winter, in the hoop house, was our Brussels sprouts. One of the toughest to grow, longest to mature crops of the winter - did the best.

And no one is complaining. I have received emails and text messages this week as my CSA members enjoyed the tender, butter-like texture of the top leaves as well as the sweet, tender golf ball sized sprouts and they're looking forward to spring, too.

More rows, earlier, for squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and melons! 

That's how I'm looking at it, anyway. Sure, I'm disappointed that we won't get those tender broccoli heads this spring.
(The plants got so confused with the up and down temps this winter, they started to put on heads before the plants were really ready to support them. I may get about a bag of heads if I cut all of the quarter sized tops.)

Harlequin bug eggs - resemble tiny barrels
But if I re-plant brassicas now, odds are that I'll be fighting insects worse than ever as broccoli prefers cool weather - not something we can expect much of after April. Broccoli, being a 60 - 65 day crop, will end up maturing in the heat of May and end up plagued by bugs. Harlequin bugs love to attack all sorts of brassicas in the late spring. Here is what to look for.
Beautiful, but damaging to late maturing cool season brassica

Plus, the soil is still so wet, it can't be worked for at least a week anyway - pushing back planting until late March - which, in Dallas, is too late for planting anything considered "cool" season. So, instead of fighting Mother Nature, I'm planning for more warm/hot season crops instead. I've planted more eggplant, tomatoes and peppers and can't wait to try some new melons this year, too.

Days after the rains ended - there is still standing water in our sandy soils

Onward to the warm season I push!

Defeat tends to breed determination in this farm girl. I have a wonderful core membership of CSA families who stick with the farm through feast and famine and get just as excited as I do when I report that "the carrots are up!", and just as disappointed to see the devastation when it hits. I roll up my sleeves, they send in the next installment to their annual membership, and look forward to the next harvest. I couldn't do it without them!

Work-share and volunteer CSA members help "clean-up" the aftermath of the winter storm

This special relationship between farmer and community is what makes the job so very special to me. I don't feel like I'm in this alone, even though most of my days are spent doing solitary tasks with only the chickens, LGD's and my ewe looking on as I work.

But I can't wait to see the looks on the faces of my youngest visitors when they come by and  feed the chickens, eat a carrot fresh from the ground and show me their latest discovered rock, insect or flower from the field.

Thank you to my CSA. And, thank you to Nature for the winter storm. Even though it caused some setbacks on the farm, I know the trees, ponds, lakes and streams needed all of the moisture it brought.  

Plus, it did afford me a few extra days "off". I got to join fellow local food colleague Amanda of the DFM at a fun, new, and actually pretty "*clean" restaurant that one of my favorite chef friends opened - right in the midst of all of this weather - down in Deep Ellum. And I've had way more time in the kitchen to cook than I usually have.
Luscher's Red Hots - A REAL taste of Chicago!

*"Besides being just damn tasty meats and sausages, we only use clean meat from well treated animalsI know you are particular about sourcing and animal treatment. ALL of the meats used to make our sausages and other products are regionally sourced and pastured, raised steroid, hormone and antibiotic free and are AWA (Animal Welfare Alliance) approved." Chef Brian Luscher - owner/chef  

(Needless to say, hearing this warmed my heart and made my stomach happy!)

Rescued frisee & Swiss chard salad with sauteed daikon made a nice lunch

Till next time -


Eat Your Food - Naturally!

PS - I'll be speaking at 1pm this Saturday in Dallas at a cool urban feed store called Trinity Haymarket on Market Center Blvd. Come out and say hi!

Friday, January 30, 2015

Tales from the Past

This past weekend a distant colleague, a woman I've never actually met but share farming as an occupation, posted a request on an all women's farmer forum I belong to. She was asking for examples of how others found ways to re-energize their farming spirits when circumstances seemed to drain the enthusiasm out of them.

She'd fallen on some tough times, (it's the dead of winter, and she farms in the North for one thing), and was in need of some encouragement. Finding encouragement is something that can really make or break farmers when the odds seem stacked against them.

Gratefully, I'd had a particularly uneventful weekend myself, for the most part. In as much as, no one had broken in to the (now, after 2 break ins, emptied out) yurt at the back of the property; tried to steal the storage shed, (again); cut through the fence and driven across it in a golf cart to get to their stash of stolen vehicles on a neighboring property (they'd finally been busted); or been blasting heavy obnoxious unfamiliar music at night so loud even my computer's volume in my house, couldn't drown it out - a multiple times a day daily occurrence with the new Zumba studio rocking out next door.

No, this past Sunday in fact, I mentioned while it wasn't a dull moment by any means, was relatively calm only having had to make 2 trips to the big box "hardware" store for a hand tool I rely heavily upon; break up a hen fight between some newly introduced, (one disabled), hens in the herb area; break up a cat fight between one of the escapee house cats and a neighbor's barn stray; and first thing in the morning, discovered the presence of a broken water pipe that would now need to be located, dug up and repaired - forcing me to shut off the water to the barns used to water the animals - until I can find time for that unscheduled project.

But other than that, it was a relatively quiet day, for Life on the Farm.

One of the other ladies on the forum, in offering her support to this colleague, posted a most wonderful read. A series of letters written by a woman who, along with her husband, held down a farm of hundreds of acres for 28 years in Oklahoma. Now that in and of itself can be filled with a bit of strife as we all know the weather there can be a great challenge during any given year. But add to it that these letters were written in the mid 1930's, during the worst, (to date), "drouth" and historical (hopefully never to be repeated), dust bowl era.

It made for an interesting read and put any of my worst days on the farm back into perspective, not only for a daily blessing check, but for the potential that we may be heading back into another climatic event such as what brought many farmers to their knees - and ultimately, out of business, and even ending in death for some who couldn't escape the ill health caused by the dusty air.

The author speaks in these letters about the "new" methods of farming on contour lines, water-catchment techniques and rotating crops and cover crops for erosion control. These are methods, among others, of the permaculture techniques that I and many of my colleagues are quickly, if quietly, embracing. In fact, many are preparing now for the potential worst to come of water rationing; much more restrictive than what we've seen in our lifetimes. Water rationing that pretty well put many garden centers and landscape contractors either out of business or nearly so, back in the early part of last decade. 2005 saw some municipalities outlawing the installation of seasonal, annual (read, water thirsty) color flower change outs on residential or commercial properties. I know it severely hurt my fledgling garden center business with a store-front full of flats of beautiful color plants without new homes to go to. We have flirted with various restrictions each summer since. No one sees it getting better soon.

So, I share with you now, for reflection as well as for insight, the link to those letters written back in the 1930's. May her words prove both inspiring as well as encouraging and informative to us as we march forward looking at another "climatic change" in our earth. Regardless of what you think is causing it, it's happening. And if we're to continue eating, we need to learn from the past, and embrace some new - old ideas.

Now go eat your food, and get your hands in the dirt - Naturally!

PS; Since originally composing this blog, my farm adventures escalated in losing at least a half a day's work trying to fill-in and getting the tractor really good and stuck in an over-sized hole, courtesy of the utilities company truck, at my pasture gate - with more rain on the way; a hawk lunching on one of my little bantam chickens; and not getting my transplants in - because I couldn't get the right equipment out to the field to finish prepping the beds - thanks to the sinkhole at the gate! Still - nothing compared to life in the 30's on a farm.


Sunday, January 4, 2015

Back to the Ground - Part II

Last post I mentioned that I’d share some gardening tips with you. Since I started gardening back in the 80’s, a lot of new things have come to market, but for organic gardening, it’s pretty much the same story – feed the soil. But what if you are starting from scratch – in other words, starting from a lawn - how do you get started?

I wish I’d learned about permaculture a long time ago because my farm, and previous yards, would look a lot different. But, we learn and implement what we do as information becomes available to us and from that, we often grow. In this case, literally!

So I’m going to share with you a bit of a modified version of how I used to suggest starting a garden from an existing lawn area. And this is true even if you just have an overgrown patch of weeds, too. But many reading this are converting lawns to gardens – and YAY for that!

I generally start out my gardening classes with the disclaimer that my way is by far not the only way and that I don’t hold all of the answers. 

Much of what I have learned and apply today, was learned by listening to others who have much more wisdom and experience than me. I always try to remember my sources to give credit, too. That way you can look up more information or clarify something I’ve said. 

In this case, the method I’m going to share with you is part of a permaculture technique called “Sheet Mulching”. This technique has been called a variety of things and is taught by many others in various forms, including brilliant homesteader and wonderful gardener and author Ruth Stout who wrote How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back.

Toby Hemenway is the author of an awesome book called Gaia’s Garden. If you’ve not ever read it, I’d really suggest picking up a copy. It’s a great resource guide that I was told about while taking a permaculture class given by Larry Korn, who studied under another great teacher, farmer and author of yet another great book, called One Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka. So what I’m going to share with you, is nothing new, but it’s certainly revolutionized many people’s gardening attempts, and it seems permaculture is making a broader appearance lately. 

Step 1, in my opinion, is to start small. Seriously. Once you get an idea of how much time the upkeep will take you for the size plot you start with, you can gauge whether or not you’d like to increase the size the following season. But let's not bite off a huge chunk and let it get away from us the first season. It's not really difficult to grow some of your own food, but it will take some time.

Plot location is as important as plot size in that you need to have at least 4-6 hours of (preferably) morning sun. Afternoon sun really doesn’t benefit growth as much do the sun’s rays during the early part of the day. There are some plants that can grow without much sun, and if you’re patient, you can still have a garden with only 4 hours of morning sun. But let’s hope you can find a corner or plot somewhere with a bit more than that. 

So, now let's say we’ve selected a nice, manageable slice of land that gets at least 4 hours of sun.
Here’s the abridged directions of what Toby calls the “Ultimate, Bomb-Proof Sheet Mulch”;

I would change one thing around, just to make it a bit easier, and that is to mow grass/weeds low before you start, rather than after his step 1, as he outlines in his book. Leave the clippings on the ground.

  • Water area to be prepared the day before – or better yet, plan to do this the day after a good, soaking rain.
  • Add any soil amendments needed for your soil type. Such items would include, lava sand, rock phosphate, perhaps some kelp meal. We’ve discussed soil amendments a few times before (or you can check the web site for more info.)
  • Loosen heavy clay, using a garden fork. You are not digging or turning the soil. Just push the garden fork in and rock it back and forth a bit, all around the site. This adds air to the soil and allows amendments to soak in faster as well as give soil critters some wiggle room. 
  • Add a thin layer of a source of nitrogen. You can use a general organic fertilizer like Texas Tea or Lady Bug, cottonseed meal, feather meal or even some decomposed farm animal manure. Horse and chicken manure is in abundance here, so that’s generally what I use.
  • Layer with several sheets of newspaper, or, much easier to use, large pieces of cardboard. Be sure to overlap the edges by about 6 inches, to block out light. That is KEY! Newspaper needs to be about ¼ - ½ of an inch thick. Weeds can push through otherwise. Wet each layer thoroughly as you lay it out. Hopefully, you saved some rainwater from the last rain event.
  • Sprinkle another thin layer of the nitrogen source over the “sheet” layer.
  • On top of this, add 8-12 inches of a bulk mulch material, like finely ground tree trimmings, leaves, (abundantly available this time of the year) or even old straw bales. Be careful NOT to use old bales of Bermuda grass hay. It can have seeds in it and we don’t want to go “there”!
  •  Wet this layer down well. It will encourage rotting of any weed seeds that may be present and help material to break down faster. The consistency of a wrung out sponge is what you’re looking for.
  • Now, add a layer, about 2 inches thick, of compost. Homemade is the best, but if you’re just starting out, you may need to buy some. Give me a call and I can order it bulk for you and have it delivered to your house. I have a favorite source I’ve used on and off for many years back when I was doing landscapes and had a more active garden center. They test their compost regularly and it’s safe for use in a vegetable garden.
    • (Before you partake in any “free” compost, ask questions.
      • What is their source of raw materials?
      • Do they test it for herbicides? (You don’t want to apply some kind of herbicide ridden compost to your new garden. Not only would it defeat the organic component, but if it’s got a broad leaf weed killer present, you’ll also damage your desired plants’ growth.)
  • If the compost isn’t moist, wet it down.
  • Top off with a nice clean, weed free layer of shredded mulch. I like to get free mulch from local tree trimmers. You can also use a thick layer of leaves, however when they dry, they tend to blow around. Mulch’s job is not only to provide a nice, finished look, but to help reduce erosion. 
Note; You may choose to edge your garden plot with metal edging, some decorative bricks, non-treated lumber, or, just give it about a 12" mulched border between any remaining grass and your first "row". That way, you can keep the weeds and grasses from sneaking over into your garden across the mulch more easily. 

That’s it! You now have a garden in the making. Go back inside, make some hot tea, look at some seed catalogs and dream!

The winter rains will help break down the layers of newspaper or cardboard and all of that yummy organic matter will be creating a wonderful, living layer of topsoil, complete with earthworms and other beneficials, and a growing bed for your new spring garden, while you wait out ol’ man winter.

You actually can plant sooner, if you want to, by slicing open the newspaper/cardboard and setting weather appropriate seeds or transplants over the openings.

Onions are not fans of weeds and this type of weed free garden bed may be a super easy vegetable to start with. “Onion Sets” are available here at Eden’s as well as in most other garden and feed stores. Look for “short day” varieties.

NOTE: I suggest waiting until about mid February as onions are biennials and can be “tricked” into their 2nd growing season by our topsy turvy temperatures. But many people have planted early and get a decent to very nice crop planting at various times. There’s no hard and fast rule with onions and when you’re not planting hundreds of row feed, you can afford to take a few risks. But just a word of caution; if planted too early, some may begin to flower before they finish making a full sized bulb under ground.

If you’re a rookie, you may want to start with transplants this spring for things like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, which can be a bit tricky starting from seed.
But for squash, melons and other larger seeded veggies; go for it! Direct sow them, according to directions on the seed packets or our spring planting guide (available at the shop), and get ready to watch them come up.

The roots of seeds or transplants will find their way into the nice, rich and weed free plot you’ve created without breaking your back, a shovel, renting a sod cutter or hiring a crew to dig up the grass.

Git Yer Hands in the Dirt & Eat Your Food - Naturally!