Photo by Rick Gush
It’s early spring, and that means that I’m spending a lot of time preparing the soil in the garden beds prior to planting. I like working with the dirt, breaking up the clods and getting rid of all the weeds. The sight of a freshly prepared bed is almost as exciting to me as the later view, when the plants are bearing fruit. Things don’t always grow perfectly, but there’s something perfect about a newly prepared bed that triggers the imagination to envision rows of lush and perfectly growing plants.
I use a 1/2-inch metal screen for most work, digging the soil out of the garden bed and running it through the screen. I also add the amendments through the screen to more fully break it up. After each few shovelfuls through the screen, I scoop out the rocks left behind in the screen. Over the course of several years using this admittedly arduous practice, I can really clean and invigorate the soil in a garden bed. Plus, the removed rocks make a swell pathway material.
For garden beds into which I’ll be seeding directly, I use a 1/4-inch screen. This gives a really finely pulverized soil mix that I can adjust to be quite rich in organic matter. I scoop out a trough where I’m going to plant, run that soil through the screen and refill the trench with the fluffy mix. I also use the quarter-inch screen to make potting soil.
Most of the soil in my garden is really young — a mix of recently eroded minerals that clump together in a sticky mass when wet and harden into brick-like clods when dry. It’s amazing what good potting soil I can make by running soil through the screen and adding organic materials.
Obviously, my soil sifters are some of my favorite tools. But I have a few garden beds that I’ve already worked to the point that they have few rocks and a high organic material. I grow the slightly more demanding things like lettuce, basil and arugula in these mature beds.
Still, the soil in these garden beds has to be worked each time before planting. In these beds I don’t need to use the energy-consuming screens. Instead, I use a pounding log. I use a trowel or little shovel the break up the soil, then I take the clumps of dirt and smash them on the firewood log I’ve put in the bed. The solid surface of the log makes it really easy to break up the clods, and the bigger pieces fall away together where they can be picked up and smashed again. The log is a humble tool, but it lets me prepare the lettuce bed in much less time than any other method I’ve tried.