Preparing the Soil, Preparing the Soul, Mar 06


Wendell Berry called the farm the basic unit of agriculture.If that is true, then it must be equally true that the soil is the basic unitof the farm. There is a reverence that must be held for the soil. The soilfeeds us, it supports us, it is our source and our destination—thus itdeserves to be cared for.

Small-scale gardeners like us do not have the same obligations asfarmers. Our livelihoods do not depend on our care of the soil, andour children will not go hungry if we lose our whole crop. But ourattention to the soil should be nonetheless as respectful. Not to doso would doom all our efforts to failure.

So now is the time to get out the shovels and broadforks, the pH testingkits and the dog-eared Eliot Coleman books and get to work. The soilhas just endured another Iowa winter and, like the rest of us, it coulduse some warm and loving hands to bring it back to life. In a way,that’s just what you should do—massage the soil. Introducenutrients, plenty of organic matter, and oxygen, and get it in deep.Your long-term goal should be a full two-foot depth of well-aeratedtopsoil.

If it is a space that has never been gardened before, you’llwant to dig a couple of 12" deep holes and just look at the soil.If it’s rife with rocks & pebbles, you’ll want to removethose either by hand or with a sifting screen. This can be a big jobin some cases, so be patient and consider working on small sections,perhaps 10 to 15 square feet at a time. Once that’s done, youcan start introducing all the good stuff.

The “good stuff,” in this case, is a load of manure. Andcompost, sand, wood ash, peat, vermiculite, lime—whatever yourparticular soil needs. Remember that you want a nice pH balance, betweensix and seven, and that each year crop rotation is important for yoursoil’s nitrogen balance. Where you planted tomatoes last year,it’s a good idea to plant beans this year, because beans willreintroduce the nitrogen that all those tomatoes leeched out.

If you want to start from scratch, there is a great recipe for makingperfect garden soil in Square Foot Gardening, by Mel Bartholomew (RodalePress, 1981). It explains just how much of each ingredient you’llneed to cover a four-foot square garden one-foot deep in fantastic,rich, fertile soil. He even converts measurements to pails and coffeecans.

While on the subject, I should also reiterate the importance of theaforementioned shaman of the garden, Eliot Coleman. His book TheNew Organic Gardener (ChelseaGreen, 1995) is indispensable, and he hasseveral other great titles to his credit as well.

Sound like a lot of work? It is. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.Nothing worth doing is easy, and that’s what causes that soul-stirringgrin when the tomato juice is dripping down your chest in next August’sgarden heat.


Chef Kurt Michael Friese is co-owner of the Iowa City restaurantDevotay. Email him at