No dig or Tilling Gardening!
How much easier can it get? Turn the eroded, neglected dirt of an empty urban lot into a growing space. The use of compost, mulch and cardboard is all it takes to create new top soil. As you can see from the illustration, the concept is very similar to making a compost pile; interlayers of brown and green materials. Only difference, the compost has already been cured and no longer hot. Mulch or brown materials in the layers aid in air and moisture circulation. Ideally, calcium rich organic material can be mixed in; mollusc shells or limestone are good sources. For the St Stephen’s garden, we sourced from an equestrian center. The operator collects and turns the horse manure, to help it cure. Horses are four-legged compost bins, feeding on grass, alfa, salt, grains,…etc. The perfect materials for a compost. A pile is ready for the garden once it’s dry and doesn’t smell like ammonia anymore, it should also be very granular.
Prep the space by cutting down or removing the grass / weeds, layer in 1 inch of compost over and cover with cardboard. Make sure the edges do overlap and water down the boards, they are dry and will act like a water wick, seedlings will dry up. Cover with mulch, also about 1 inch thick and watering down. Final layer is the compost or horse manure, a thicker layer is best; in our case the two pickup trucks from volunteers had a combined 4 cu yd of materials to dump. This created a bed about 3-4 inches thick. For the next few days have a regular watering routine over the area to help introduce moisture to the bed. Everytime check the soil beneath for amount of water penetration. The method with horse manure or compost is optimized for seedlings, where planting each unit with compost and dirt mixture, limestone or calcium nutrients can be placed in the bottom of each hole. Mulch should then be distributed over the area and around the plants to protect the topsoil from exposure and rapid evaporation.
This technique is not an end all solution to a victory garden. It’s more about restoring the topsoil lost from the decades of erosion, compaction and overwatering. Bringing back a natural and fertile topsoil takes time, maybe 3 years to get an optimum environment, using organic material. A previous urban farm I started three years ago is now finally supporting a diverse amount of wild-life, insects, birds and earth movers flourish. Of course the job is never done as cultivation is a human act of imitating what nature is already doing and well. It takes observation and action on our part to follow the steps.
Next step is to start some seedlings to get in the ground, maybe some short season vegetables or plan fall line.