Here are my go-to sources for quinoa growing supplies.
Soil and Compost
- Digging Fork, instructions for picking one up locally from the distributor
- Transplanting Widger. [a butter knife works too…]
Here are my go-to sources for quinoa growing supplies.
A fellow Master Gardener, Emily, who has space in a different community garden recently asked me for help setting up a new garden bed. She’s gotten interested in the system that I’m using to grow grains in order to make high-quality compost and so she wants to give it a try. I’m very excited to help, and I’m learning a lot from the experience.
Here’s the funny thing: I had an idea in my head about what it would take to grow in that space and prepare the bed. However it has of course turned out to be a lot more complicated than I first thought.
Fortunately before I showed up there with seedlings ready to plant, I stopped by to have a look at the soil. I brought my usual digging tools and thought that we would dig a test hole in order to see what we were up against. Well I discovered very quickly that we were up against a very solid clay. In the course of about half an hour I was able to dig a modest 9 inch hole that held water for as long as we looked at it. Obviously we weren’t going to do the whole hundred square feet this way.
The normal advice in this case would be to get wood and do a raised garden bed. However I didn’t want to advise this road for a few different reasons. For one, it’s been my experience that having at least 2 feet of loose soil for plant roots is a big win. It would take a lot of ways and construction in order to make a 2 foot deep, 5 x 20 raised garden bed. Also we had no reason to believe that the heavy clay soil was polluted and so I figured that we might as well try and make use of it. Emily had a soil test done, and it didn’t indicate any problems.
So we basically had two options: a slow one and a quick one.
The slow route is one that takes a reasonable amount of effort over a long period of time. The general idea is to wet and then loosen the soil with a garden fork on a regular basis, and work further and further into the soil. This can work especially well if it’s done during the rainy season, when there’s lots of water falling from the sky and when the ambient temperatures are not going to dry out the bed. However given that it is late May in San Francisco, and also given that Emily and I have energy around this project right now, I encouraged her to look at the fast option.
Normally I wouldn’t use the words “jackhammer” and “organic gardening” in the same sentence but it just made too much sense here to ignore. When I was doing under slab plumbing last year for a habitat for humanity development, I got lots of first-hand experience on the magic of a 30 pound jackhammer outfitted with a clay spade attachment. If you were to naively watch this tool in action, you might think that the soil was a little on the hard side, but not too bad. However if you were to then try taking your strongest garden digging fork to that same soil, you would find it bounced right off. The jackhammer is a thing of beauty in this situation. However I have discovered that it is not quite as simple as I thought.
So I admit that going in I had a model in my head that I would simply be using the jackhammer as I use my digging fork. And that as such I could do a standard double date using this jackhammer, and get it done in a reasonable amount of time. Well I discovered that it isn’t so simple.
Emily did a fantastic job of covering the many checkboxes that one needs to cover before doing a dig like this:
And I’m sure there are other things to check as well.
In the end, through a lot of effort by the five of us, we were able to take the entire bed to varying levels of depth, from 2 feet to 6 inches, depending on the spot. We simply ran out of time to do it all. And as I describe further below, I have some specific ideas on how to structure the dig differently next time to make the best use of time and energy.
For several days before the date, Emily had been watering the space thoroughly. Granted it was so compacted that were not sure how much of the water actually made its way down, but during the dig I was able to clearly tell which areas got more water than others. Needless to say they were much easier to work with.
Emily rented the jackhammer locally for four hours and so including transit time that gave us about three hours of digging. The initial hour went relatively slowly as we got set up and figured out what we wanted to do. One of the participants sagely pointed out that we’d be better off digging from both ends of the bed at once, so that two crews of people could be working parallel to clear away loose dirt. He was absolutely right, as this sped things up, although it meant less breaks for me and for the jackhammer.
The next hour was more steady however we ran into the realities that I described earlier concerning how a jackhammer is different from a digging fork. Nonetheless we were able to dig some trenches 2 feet deep, and work in straw and a fertilizer strong in humic acid, to help break down the clay. We had originally planned to put this humic acid mix on some of the bed, but not the rest of it, to see if we would notice a difference. But between heat, fatigue, and a nagging worry that the clay would reharden if not properly tamed, I decided to just put it everywhere.
The final hour was an increasingly frantic scramble to loosen as much of the remaining area as possible, even to a shallow level.
I would say that we dug about a quarter of the bed 2 feet deep, another quarter of it about a foot deep, and the rest somewhere between 6 inches and 9 inches deep. It isn’t what I was initially hoping for but it’s a start, and I think it’s something we can build on.
As a sage teacher once said to me, “With the ideal comes the actual.” To me this means “do what you can and keep moving forward.”
If I had to do it all over again here’s how I’d do it. One of the key points is that in “version 1.0” I tried to do a traditional double dig, and parts of it took forever, for limited marginal benefit. So for “version 2.o” I’d focus my time and energy on the methods of digging, given the tools, that give the best return.
When we came back to set up the corners and the borders of the bed, I discovered that the length was a bit on the short side. In practical terms it just means that one side of the bed will be “hardly dug,” and so the alfalfa that grows there will have to work that much harder. But if I’d just loosened another 6″ beyond, then we wouldn’t have that problem.
I observed that the deeper I got the jackhammer into the ground, the harder it was to maneuver it and pull it out again. Thus I optimize for only going down as deeply as I could do quickly.
A complication of the jackhammer is that it can be hard to tell at a glance what soil is loosened and what isn’t. Thus it would have been very helpful to get the loose soil moved away so we could more easily get to the next part in layer.
I noticed that if an area had been watered just a few minutes before, it made a big difference in terms of how easily I could maneuver the jackhammer.
My thinking is that this would make the next loosening step a lot easier, and is a reasonable trade-off in terms of how deep to go.
Although ideally we’d like to get 24 inches down, my experience with the jackhammer is that it was a tremendous amount of work to try and loosen any further than 9 inches down at a time. So this is about going after the somewhat low hanging fruit, although nothing is particularly easy about this process.
One of the big concerns with a project like this is preventing the soil from returning to its previous compacted state. Thus we added materials that we thought would help with texture. Ultimately, I think it’s the roots of the grains that we’ll grow that will do the most, but for now, we wanted something to at least make us feel better.
Or as the bag of clay loosener said “Water it good,” which I got lots of amusement out of while sweating behind the jackhammer. Anyhow, this is a unique opportunity to get a lot of water into the soil while it’s loose, which will support plant growth.
Not surprisingly, we found that the bed was now a fair bit higher than it had been when we started. We had injected a lot of air into the soil by loosening it.
It is really critical to keep your soil at and fluffy as possible. This way the soil can hold a lot more moisture, support more biological activity, and be the best possible home for the roots of your plants.
Thus I strongly advise having some kind of barrier to remind people not to step on your garden bed. Put up signs if you need to.
If you need to get into the bed to work on it, have a plywood digging board. I have a main one that is 2′ x 4′, and several smaller ones that are 2′ x 2′. They spread your body weight and really help to minimize soil compaction.
Now that you’ve put all of this energy and effort into preparing the bed, it’s really important to water it every day in order to establish a good level of moisture and have the bed ready for growing. Once you get your garden going, then it’s the plants, the roots, and the canopy that’s going to hold in the water.
I also think it’s a smart idea to put landscaping cloth on top of the soil in order to hold in more of the moisture. I am consistently delighted when I peeked under the hardware cloth that I put down on a recently prepared and watered area of my garden and find a day or two later that it still looks moist and is considerably moisture to the touch than surrounding uncovered areas.
The core of the root systems will be in the top 3 to 6 inches of soil and so this is where you want the compost to be present. Although the next 18 inches of soil are very helpful for the root system, and for things like drainage, you’re going to get the best bang for your buck by having your apply compost be in the top 3 to 6 inches.
After a pretty intense three hours on jackhammer duty, you might’ve thought that I would’ve wanted to do nothing but lie down under a tree. However I was so excited to see the workable garden bed that we’d just created that I couldn’t help but take my trusty garden fork and do some additional loosening. We went from an impenetrable clay to a heavy but workable garden bed that I am confident we can plant into. It was a wonderful team effort of hard working people. I look forward to discovering how well our grains grow on this elevated, windy spot in San Francisco.
If you want to get a garden plot in the Beresford Community Garden, here’s how it works.
People tend to stay a long time, although there’s some turn-over every year as people move away, get tired of it, etc. Also the waiting list can shrink as people move away, decide they aren’t interested, or otherwise aren’t findable when contacted.
New spaces come available in early spring, so it’s realistically 3+ years to get offered a spot, possibly longer depending on how things go. But if you’re really interested and committed, I’d say go ahead and get on the list–you never know when suddenly things open up. I’ve heard murmurs of another community garden elsewhere in San Mateo being in the works, which makes perfect sense given the size of the waiting list.
I named my blog “The Ground View” because I want to talk about practical, real, ground-level topics, but so far I haven’t written much about actual “ground” aka soil. Going forward I’ll be working in more topics around soil and growing food.
Earlier this year I needed a garden fork, and so I set out researching the possibilities through Amazon and other customer reviews. However I had several false starts, for a simple reason: many garden forks are easy to break.
When I say Garden Fork, I mean the long handled one that you use to loosen soil about 9″ deep or more. In moist or sandy soil, this isn’t a big deal at all, but if you get a heavy soil, or one that is sufficiently dry, or some combination of those, then once you lean your weight against the fork, drying to raise the soil, it can put a tremendous force on the handle.
As an example I came across a very innovative looking handle design that has a circle, instead of the usual D handle, that looked really fantastic. However upon a careful reading of the reviews, I saw that more often than not, they eventually break–sooner than you’d think–and I also saw that the manufacturer had a poor return and repair policy.
And so I ended up in the land of $90+ garden forks. Yikes! But it actually makes sense economically, and here’s why: a top quality garden fork, assuming it doesn’t get stolen, will last you a very long time. But a cheap garden fork has a good chance of breaking in a couple of years. So I can spend $50 on a fragile garden fork every two years, or I can speak $90 once and use it for many years–I’d say 5 years is a conservative guess, and 10 might be more likely. Suddenly $90 isn’t looking like a lot, assuming I’m still growing food then. And I get the benefit of a great tool!
Clarington Forge All Purpose Garden Fork
A mentor of mine swears by Clarington Forge, because of the quality, workmanship, and versatility of their tools. You get a strong tool that lasts, and that is relatively light weight. Also as he puts it “you can feel the quality in your hands,” and I get that. I smile every time I pick up my garden fork! Yes it’s that good.
Here is their U.S. website. In the UK they go by “Bulldog Tools.” I have the D handle long garden fork. When I bought it I considered the strapped fork but it was out of stock at the time. Also I don’t think the strapped fork comes in a long handle version, although I think I could live with it.
What I love about this fork is that I can use it for so many different things. It’s easy to handle, comfortable in the hand, and versatile. I’ve used it to double dig a bed, to dig potatoes, to turn compost.
The one criticism I have of this fork is that I wish they had an option for a more modern handle. When I was into the challenging part of my double dig, I found it difficult to get two hands on the D-handle in order to transfer all of my weight into the soil. I did a little experimenting with building a slip on handle-width extender out of PVC, but I never finished it.
A big driver of the cost of a Clarington Forge fork is the way it’s made. This video: http://www.claringtonforge.com/blog/how-its-made/ shows that they make the head of the fork from one piece of metal, rather than with any welding, which is much weaker. It’s worth the money.
And by the way, if you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can go directly to their warehouse to buy your garden tools, without any shipping costs! That’s how I bought mine. Just give them a call for directions, hours, and stocking information; see their website for the number.
Boeren Fork by deWit Tools
This could be strongest fork out there. Yes it’s heavy, but watch the video! I think this sucker is tough!
I haven’t (yet) bought one of these, but I think about it sometimes. I think in particular if you have a lot of land to prepare, and it’s never been dug, then this’d be an alternative to a tractor.
The one potential downside to this fork is that it’s heavier than a normal fork, but for the times when it’s called for, I think I can put up with the extra weight. I’d still want to have a normal fork for general use.
Digging and soil moistness
One “game changer” tip I got about double digging is to use water to moisten the soil. This made “difficult soil” into something much more feasible and safe to work. My routine now on tough soil is:
This routine has got me through some pretty heavy soil, and definitely was much easier on my body–and on the soil as well. Another version of this is to fork just before a rain, and then come back after and fork and shovel. Note that you don’t want to work soaking wet soil that has no structure, just moist soil.
And by the way, if you are ever tempted to use a pickaxe, PLEASE try watering and forking first. I think you’ll be glad you did, your body will be glad, and the soil will be glad. Let’s leave the pickaxe as a last resort, shall we?
The Zen of Double Digging
This year I did a lot more double digging than in previous years, to the point where I started to get philosophical about it. I have a ways to go, but what I saw this year was that it’s about translating your body weight, as directly as possible, into the fork and then into the soil.
I know, this sounds obvious, right? But it’s very easy to try using hand and arm power to move the soil, and this is a fast track to soreness and even injury. What I kept thinking of was using my hands to move and position the fork, but after that my hands were simply the interface between my body weight and the fork.
As I mentioned, I wish I had some way to get both hands onto my Clarington Forge Garden Fork, “Pogo Stick” style, like with the Boeren fork, because I think it’d put less straight on my wrists and hands. I’ll have another go next season at the PVC handle extension, and if I have any luck, I’ll post my design.
Final word is yes, a good fork is worth the money. But rest assured, I won’t say that about every tool. For instance a fancy spading shovel? I’m not yet sold on that because I don’t put nearly as much strain on it, nor do I use it much. In any case, I’ll continue to be very frank going forward about which tools I use all of the time, and are worth the money, and which aren’t.
There are a few things that the Square Foot Garden system does really well:
I think this clarity and simplicity helps tremendously to break down barriers that “nervous” first time growers face. A friend was telling me that for her, she needs that kind of step by step instructions, otherwise it all seems too daunting. I get it.
HOWEVER (you knew it was coming, right?) Mel Bartholomew, founder of Square Foot Gardening, makes some claims about his system that seem outlandish to me. I keep thinking of the Napoleon Dynamite “Vote for me and all your wildest dreams will come true.” There’s one claim in particular that worries me:
Straight from their FAQ page, #7 is a pretty fantastical claim that says that once you prepare your compost/peat moss/vermiculite mix, you’re done forever! You never have to fertilize or add more compost! Rejoice! Sounds really good, doesn’t it? Sounds too good to be true to me.
▶ 7. WHAT IS MEL’S MIX?
Mel's Mix is the most important, productive, essential, necessary, critical, major subject and is the backbone of the Square Foot Gardening method! You'll never have to go through all the hard work, expense, and time-consuming, back-breaking labor of improving your garden soil every spring like we used to. Your Mel's Mix never has to be replaced and you don't have to do a thing except plant your seeds. The Simple Formula is this: 1/3 Blended Compost 1/3 Peat Moss 1/3 Coarse Vermiculte Mix equal parts of each, measured by volume, not by weight.
Think about it: so as you’re growing tomatoes and removing them from your garden, and not putting any of the waste products back. Plus you are taking nutrients out of the soil—a lot of nutrients. Eventually there won’t be enough left to grow robust tomatoes. Doesn’t it make sense that eventually the soil will run out of nutrients? Or is Mel’s “magical mix” a soil that never stops giving?
OK, if it’s true that such a mix never has to be changed, then please show me the yields in pounds, year over year, of 5 years of planting a heavy feeder crop–let’s say potatoes–in the same square without ever adding any compost or fertilizer.
Basically, you’re building a big, shallow container and putting soil into it. As the professor for my soil class put it, “container plants are slowly dying, and our job is to make that process look as attractive as possible.” It’s common knowledge—and sensible—that you can’t expect a plant to be product in the same container, in the same soil, indefinitely. But Mel claims to have gone beyond this limitation.
This is just one of the claims–there are many others that are along the lines of “we’ve taken out everything you’d rather not have to do when growing–no fertilizer, no digging, etc.” I think it’s unrealistic and leads to disappointment. I was at a workshop for another system where more than one person said “I’m here because I tried Square Foot Gardening and it didn’t work.” So maybe that was their path, and it got them to a system that worked for them. But in my bones I don’t like systems that I think are based in non-truths.
It just seems to me that Square Foot Gardening:
Dear Square Foot Gardens: I have strong reason to doubt that your claims regarding yields vs. your inputs are true, especially over time? Please show us bed data, over several years, that includes everything that went in and came out, so we can judge for ourselves.
I thought it might be of interest for others doing intensive growing methods to see how I laid out my growing space for 2013. Although the typical Grow Biointensive layout will be 4 foot wide, 25 feet long beds, with 2 feet wide paths, because of my limited space (14×26) I decided to really “pack it in” and go more intensive.
Here’s my design. The tiny squares that say FM, TM, or 花 are where I’m putting flowers that attract beneficial insects.
Here are a few of the design considerations I looked at going in:
Here’s what I’ve learned so far about this layout: