Soil is everything.
That’s one thing my brother-in-law, Peter, succeeded in pounding into my head during my year of helping him and my sister grow their own food on their homestead in Maine. So when I bought my Washington townhouse last December and started dreaming of the vegetables I’d grow in the 150-square-foot front yard, I knew the first thing I needed to do was to start improving the dirt.
In Maine, Peter and my sister Rebekah have spent many years adding compost and other organic amendments to the land. And at the Temple Garden in Washington, where I had a community plot for a few years before it closed, gardeners spent 20-plus years improving the soil, one plot-holder at a time. My little townhouse yard, raised five steps above the sidewalk below — and just a few yards from cars and the street — is another story altogether, and a mystery to me.
I decided to start not by digging and tilling, because who knows what I might find? Instead, I’d improve the soil from the top down. So I took the first opportunity I could — on a surprisingly warm day in January — to pull up the sod that had been plunked down by renovators soon before the place went on the market. (Because it hadn’t had a chance to root, it zipped up easily, and I transferred it to the dusty strip of dirt between the sidewalk and the street, where it has since taken hold.) Then, using a version of a no-till technique dubbed “lasagna” I had learned in Maine, I unfolded layers of newspaper all over the bare-earth yard, wetting it to keep it down and then covering it with a mixture of topsoil and compost and, finally, bark mulch. The newspaper would (hopefully) kill the stubborn weeds by depriving them of light and air, and as it decomposed would (hopefully) attract earthworms, which would (hopefully) turn the compost and topsoil and the ground underneath into the (hopefully) fluffy garden beds I desired.
Did I say hopefully? The problem is, the technique needed more time than I had to give it. Typically, this is something you do in the fall, so the newspaper and the compost and the earthworms can work their magic all winter. So I figured I’d hedge my bets and also use raised beds, at least this first year, letting me depend even less on the soil underneath by creating a new environment on the surface.
One of the big attractions of the square-foot gardening technique I adapted is that, by filling cedar boxes with a new soil mix and lining the bottom with weed-block fabric, you’re controlling more — and leaving less to chance. I figured that the newspaper would do at least part of the job of the fabric.
The following will be heresy among his devotees, but I also decided not to use SFG guru Mel Bartholomew’s formula for “Mel’s Mix” — a blend of compost, peat moss and vermiculite — primarily because I didn’t want to be putting a nonrenewable resource like peat moss or a commercially mined product like vermiculite into my garden. Instead, I used Chesapeake Compost Works’ Garden Mix, a 50/50 blend of organic compost and topsoil produced in Baltimore, in most spots, and another mix by Mr. Natural in a few others. (I supplemented with more topsoil plus worm casting and compost from Compost Cab.)
The signature elements of square-foot gardening are those raised beds, set up in 4-by-4 squares to make them easy to reach into from all sides, and the grids that organize each box into 16 one-foot squares, making it easy to control and track the planting and the harvest, and helping you pack a lot into a tight space.
I’m following those principles, with one minor adjustment: I packed things in even tighter. When I put together the interlocking-bed kits, I had to connect some of those boxes rather than leaving a path between, cutting off access from one side. My arms ought to be long enough to make it work.
Because I’m not using the weed-block fabric, my plants should be able to grow deeper than the six-inch beds, down into the “lasagna” and possibly even a little bit of the underlying soil.
Just so I know what I’m working with — and in case I decide to go a different route next year — I also took soil samples (always recommended, but especially in the city) and sent them to the University of Delaware for analysis. The results hadn’t come in by the time our weather was warming enough for me to get some seeds — and seedlings — in the ground, so I proceeded with fingers crossed. The last weekend in March, I put in seeds (among those I ordered from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange) for peas, beets and two varieties of carrots, and the first weekend in April I bought a few seedlings from a Washington farmers market vendor, Four Seasons Nursery, and from Old City Farm and Guild and got those in, too: kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, herbs and broccoli raab.
The latter, I’ll admit, represents a backtracking from where I was a month ago, when, after going to a day of workshops called Rooting DC, I heeded the call of experts who encouraged gardeners to keep things simple and to start small. They inspired me to use my online garden planner to rethink priorities and prune out items that I thought would take up too much space for the payoff, including broccoli and cauliflower, big plants that mainly produce just one head. But then I saw the broccoli raab seedlings at Old City, and I caved in, telling myself that the plant’s smaller shoots, branches and leaves might make it a justifiably productive use of space.
But I could be wrong: about that, about the “lasagna” technique, about the liberties I was taking with square-foot gardening, about lots of other things. In fact, the early status of my front-yard gardening adventure could be summarized by my response to a neighbor who took an amused interest in my digging and planting as he walked by one day last week.
“You got a green thumb?” he asked with a smile.
There was only one answer I felt comfortable with: “We’ll see.”