I’m digging this Friday. Literally. I started a post early this morning, but took a break to work in the garden before it got too hot. It’s been in the upper nineties all week, with record-breaking temperatures over a hundred for the last two days. Today’s forecast is “only” for the low nineties and I’m praying that the promised rain really comes.
My goal was to prepare a bed for my four new strawberry plants. We already have a strawberry bed on the other side of the house, started last summer with just four little plants from a friend’s garden. (Well, six originally but two died). Those plants produced tiny, very sweet strawberries that were best right off the vine – so that’s how we ate them! They’re just now reaching the end of their harvest, but man, was it a good one.
In addition to those yummy beauties, we wanted some larger strawberries that we could freeze or make into jam. (As if they would last in my house without being eaten! But one can always hope.) Since I was already at the farmer’s market for some pepper, tomato and eggplant plants – you can read this post about my poor seedlings to learn why – I picked up some strawberry plants as well.
A big thank you to the wonderful folks at Waterpenny Farm in Virginia for hooking me up with some great plants this year. (Check out their website to find out what a waterpenny is and why they chose that name for their farm).
It took me a week of wandering around my yard to find the perfect spot for my new strawberry venture. No, not because my property is that big but rather because it is so small.
Strawberries are perennials – whatever real estate I gave over to them would be out of the annual rotation for good. And since they like sun, that meant giving up prime garden space.
Or creating it.
The perfect spot
I found the perfect spot. It was a weedy patch between the sweet potatoes and a shrub that now has lots of sun under it, thanks to the large branch that Mother Nature took off during a storm last winter. It’s too small and inconvenient to use as a regular part of the garden rotation, but perfect for establishing a nice patch of strawberries.
I started by loosening the soil with a garden fork, one of my favorite garden tools. This part isn’t totally necessary but I wanted to be sure to get out the roots of some vines that liked to climb up the shrub. They’d been annoying me for a while and I didn’t want them bugging my new strawberries.
Next, I wet the ground thoroughly. (See the rain barrel in the back – convenient, eh?) Over the damp soil I laid a thick layer of newspapers (6-10 sheets) to smother weeds and create some great habitat for earthworms. Some folks suggest wetting the pages first so they’re easier to handle and don’t blow away, but I didn’t bother. (Translation: I forgot).
I covered the newsprint with some rich yummy soil and…wait, you’re wondering where the rich yummy came from? Ah, so you noticed the baked clay in the early photos. Yeah, it’s true. In Maryland you either hand sand or clay and I’m stuck with the latter. But that hasn’t stopped me from getting lots of great produce through cheap barefoot gardening (a redundant phrase, BTW – barefoot gardening is all about being cheap. And lazy ).
Getting good soil
If you don’t have good soil – import it! Many towns and counties sell compost and mulch dirt cheap. What did you think they did with all the leaves they collect from your curb every year?
I get mine from neighboring Prince George’s for $20/cubic yard plus delivery – last year that amounted to $75 and a HUGE pile in my driveway that I’m only now using up. Even if you don’t want that much, local garden shops will often carry the local stuff in bags.
It’s wonderful rich sifted compost that’s broken down so far that it’s basically soil. And that’s how I use it. So, as I was saying, I hauled a wheelbarrow of the stuff over and raked it over the paper. How thick? 4-6″ for small plants, up to 12″ for big guys with deep roots, like cabbages.
I used about 4″ because that’s how much there was when I spread the wheelbarrows’ contents. (Did I mention that I’m a lazy gardener?) Then I put the plants in, spaced about 12″ from one another. Over the summer, they’ll send out little runners and fill in the space between them with new plants!
A note about transplanting: when I pop the pants out of their little black plastic pots, I like to loosen the soil a bit before putting it into the ground – just to give the roots a little space. Then I fill in the hole and make a little well around it to catch the water. This is especially important in this spot, which is on a bit of an incline.
Finally, I got a bucketful of wood mulch and covered the whole patch, so it wouldn’t dry out. Many counties also sell leaf mulch, but we make our own. Given the amount of shrubs and trees we trim, my husband decided to invest in a second-hand chipper we found on Craigslist. It’s definitely not a requirement in the barefoot garden – rather one of those fun little extras.
The whole process, from garden fork to mulch took less than an hour, including filling the wheelbarrow and pausing to turn the drip hose on the potato bins.
While I was working, this robin kept stopping by to check on my progress. Clever bird knew that digging humans and freshly-turned soil meant yummy worms and grubs coming to the surface. Help yourself!
Sheet mulching is a wonderful technique that is a mainstay of every barefoot garden. You don’t even have to dig up the grass or weeds! My husband laid whole sections of newspaper right on top of a section of lawn last year and now it’s growing peppers and tomatoes! Only use the black and white pages (remember this is for food plants – the black ink is soy based and safe. who knows what’s in the colored ink).
I learned about sheet mulching and other wonderfully lazy gardening techniques from Ruth Stout, the grandmother of barefoot gardening. Her classic book, “Gardening Without Work,” is out of print, but Mother Earth News published an excerpt, which you can read here.
(Ruth took barefoot gardening to a whole new level, having tended her yard au natural – a technique I would not recommend without a lot of sunscreen and very tolerant neighbors). Ruth died in 1980 at the ripe old age of 96, so maybe she knew something we didn’t, eh?
How does YOUR garden grow?
Setting out plants? Establishing a new bed? Gardening in the buff? Let us know in the comments below!
Danielle Meitiv is a writer, marine science geek, gardener and mother who goes barefoot whenever possible. Danielle is also a huge fan and sales affiliate for Holly Lisle’s online courses: How to Think Sideways: Career Survival School for Writers, and How to Revise Your Novel. Follow @Danielle_Meitiv on Twitter, and on Facebook: Danielle Meitiv’s Barefoot Blog, and Danielle Meitiv.Follow @danielle_meitiv