Harrisonburg Gardening 101: Preparing the Plot

Renee -- March 4th, 2011

Let me start out this series by making a disclaimer: I’m no gardening expert! I used to garden with my dad as a kid, and started my own small backyard veggie garden for the first time last year. I found gardening to be relaxing and rewarding and I’m really looking forward to growing my own vegetables again this year.

My aim was to create a productive garden that was both as inexpensive and as chemical-free as possible, and though I had a few mis-steps along the way, I would consider the result to be a success overall.

My Garden in June 2010

What I’d like to do in this local gardening mini-series is to share some of the tips I’ve learned through my own short experience with gardening, as well as by talking to other gardeners or reading advice in books and online. I hope this will help other beginner gardeners start their own plots in the Harrisonburg area this year! I will try to keep the articles somewhat condensed, with links to additional info where necessary. If you have suggestions or your own lessons-learned, please share in the comments!

For this first post in the series, let’s talk about preparing a space for growing vegetables in your own yard.

If you have a tiny yard or live in an apartment, you can try container gardening, either on your porch or on the ground. Some people have great success with container gardening, but my first attempt a couple years back was a failure because I went out of town for more than a week during the hottest part of the summer and all of my plants withered and died while I was gone (despite a homemade drip-watering system that involved soda bottles). So if you decide to try growing veggies in containers, make sure you have a friend that can water the plants or move the pots into the shade in your absence if necessary!

Sweet Pepper Plant by MizGingerSnaps on Flickr

Here are some more links to research container gardening:

You can also apply for a plot in the Harrisonburg City community garden, which is located on Garber’s Church Road. I have heard they may expand the garden to include more plots this year due to high demand, so email Scott Erickson from the City Community Garden website for information on getting on the list to reserve a plot for yourself if you’re interested! One huge benefit of the community garden is that the ground is prepared for you, so much less ‘hard labor’ is required to get started!

I’m lucky enough to have a large backyard with room for a garden, and I decided to start small with an 8 ft by 8 ft garden plot. I decided on this size both because I wanted to start small and because that’s how big of a square I could easily assemble with standard-sized garden lumber for a slightly raised-bed garden so I didn’t have to dig as deep into the ground before planting! Local backyard gardener Thanh Dang had two similarly-sized deeper raised plots, and Dave Miller commented on this past article that he started with an 8’x6′ plot his first year, so it seems this is a manageable size to try your hand at gardening for the first time.

Cold Frame at Harrisonburg home and Raised Beds in Thanh’s Garden. Both Flickr photos by Thanh Dang.

You can start preparing your garden plot as soon as the soil is fully thawed and workable in the spring. I started mine in late March last year, but can start gardening cold-hardy crops a little earlier this year since the plot is already prepared.

It’s a little tricky to pick the best spot for your garden since the sun tracks across the sky differently during different seasons, but try to pick a spot that’s flat or slightly sloped, gets plenty of summer sunlight, but is also as sheltered from wind as possible. It’s OK if part of the garden is in the shade for some of the day – you can plant less heat-tolerant varieties there.

You don’t want a spot that’s always wet if you have a low-lying yard that often floods after rain, but you also don’t want a spot that will require too much watering, so go for an area with good drainage but avoid areas that get really dry where grass has trouble growing in the summer. Also, make sure it is reachable by your garden hose! If you’re going to try a rain barrel system, plant the garden downhill from where you’re placing the barrel so gravity can help get the water to where it’s needed.

The hardest part of the whole gardening experience was pulling up the lawn to create my plot – that grass was tough! I started with a plain old shovel and dug up clumps at a time, shaking the dirt loose from the roots as I went along. It seemed like it was taking forever for me to clear out a small space until my next-door neighbor felt pity on me and offered to let me use his pick axe (also called a mattock), which sped up the process. I would consider a pick axe to be mandatory equipment for removing patches of lawn.

Pick Mattock by Whirling Dervish on Twitter

There’s no need to buy tools you’ll only use once. Ask your neighbors and friends if you can borrow tools, and reward their generosity by gifting them with your excess veggies later in the summer!

A friend offered to help me finish chopping the lawn when my unathletic arms were turning to jelly, and with his help, the whole grass-removal process took a little over 4 hours. Once we had chopped the slightly larger than 8’x8′ area to pieces and removed the clumps of turf, I had a nice clear patch of dirt. The problem now was that it was hard compacted Virginia clay, which is apparently largely hated by most gardeners because it doesn’t drain well, makes it hard for roots to spread, is hard as a rock when dry, and is a pain in the neck to dig into. However, it also means we need less watering and our garden’s soil nutrients don’t wash away as easily as those with loose sandy soil, so there are some benefits.

Sarah Koechlein and Lillian Ledford planting their garden in Harrisonburg soil

We are also lucky to be in the Valley, as most areas have fertile silt loam soil in the top layers, which is why so many early farmers settled here and why our area is still popular for agriculture. If you are worried about the pH or quality of your soil, you can get it tested. Click here for more information from cleanstream.org.

Luckily, because I was going with a slightly raised design, I didn’t have to totally turn the heavy clay soil. I simply chopped the surface with the pick axe to loosen it a bit for drainage since I knew I would be adding more soil on top. If you’re digging down and not building up, you can till the clay and amend it with loose organic matter, sand, peat moss, or coconut fibers.

I assembled my garden lumber border by stacking 3 pices (see detail below), alternately shifting each piece to one side, and interlocking the ends to form a pretty sturdy square. I didn’t add anything to stabilize the border further. Other border options include bricks like David used (below right), or natural rocks like Sarah and Lillian had surrounding their plot (above). Stay away from materials that have dangerous chemical treatments or rotting wood that likely harbors garden pests.

Photo by David Miller on Flickr

If you’re really ambitious, you can create a gravel walkway with raised beds like this:

gravel unloaded
Photo by Flickr user Dolan Halbrook

On day 2, I got a truckload of composted manure and grass clippings and my friend and I shoveled it into the slightly-raised bed. One load cost $18 on sale and was enough to create a layer a few inches deep over the whole garden.

We had a brief discussion in the comments on a past hburgnews post about where to get composted manure and bulk garden soils locally. Here are some suggestions:

  • I got my truckload of grass & manure compost at Outdoor Impressions by the Shenandoah Heritage Market
  • Libby suggested trying a dairy farm on Ottobine Rd near the Ottobine Store
  • Thanh got hers from an individual that sells soil/compost mix off of Boyers Rd
  • I’ve also seen signs for soil and compost for sale near dairy farms in the “countryside” surrounding Harrisonburg, especially northwest of town
  • Several local individuals donate soil to area parks and community gardens and often have leftovers available, so just ask around!

You may want to ask whether other items like grass have been mixed into compost soil and whether those added ingredients had previously been treated with chemicals. Also, it’s important that the manure has completed composting before you add the plants to the garden. If it stinks like fresh manure, chances are it’s not fully composted. It’s not a good idea to add droppings from cats and dogs to your garden because of potential dangers from microbes. Stick with composted vegetarian livestock manure.

The last step was to create a fence to protect the garden from critters. In Harrisonburg, we have to worry about groundhogs, squirrels, deer, cats, dogs, birds, and a few other neighborhood pests. I’ll cover pest control more in a later post, but this short chicken-wire fence held up by plastic posts and sticks was surprisingly enough to keep the animals out.

I didn’t worry about the few bean vines I lost to the deer (they snacked on whatever grew above the fence line), though I was scared that the groundhog would dig under the border and wreak havoc on my little garden. Luckily, there was plenty of natural greenery to eat nearby, and it didn’t try too hard to get in and eat my veggies!

In the next post, I’ll cover what types of vegetables will grow in our area and where to get seeds and plants.

Have you created a space in your yard for a garden? Please share your experiences in the comments!

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27 Responses to “Harrisonburg Gardening 101: Preparing the Plot”

  1. Sarah MacDonald says:

    Great post, Renee!

  2. Joey Groah says:

    Very fun Renee, looking forward to this mini-series. And my guilt for not mulching more…

  3. I’ve heard that human hair clippings (like from a haircut) spread around the perimeter fence are really effective for keeping out deer and certain animals. Not sure if it’s a myth though.

    • Renee says:

      I’ve heard this, too. I want to research lots of options when I do the pest-control post. Thanks for your input!

  4. Theresa says:

    I live in an area of the county that has very rocky soil and lots of wildlife that would love a free snack, so I opt for container gardening. Our deck is a full story off the ground so I don’t have to worry about any wildlife (except birds, chipmunks, and squirrels) messing with the plants growing on it.

    I also have a brown thumb, so I keep things really simple. I plant seedlings sometime in April because I find they’re easier and more likely to survive than growing my own seeds. I’m hoping to get some from the farmer’s market this year! If you think container gardening is just for herbs and cherry tomatoes, you might be surprised. I’ve had success growing bell peppers, full size tomatoes (‘better bush’, the container version of ‘better boys’), and even strawberries to some extent.

    If you want to grow full size tomatoes in containers, buy big containers. REALLY big. Mine are 18″ in diameter and 24″ deep. This gives the plants plenty of room to grow and holds enough soil to prevent you from having to water twice a day in the hottest part of the summer. Of course you’ll still have to ask a neighbor or friend to water them if you’re gone for a week.

    • Renee says:

      I think big, deep pots is key. The pots I used weren’t that large, and they heated up and dried out really fast.

  5. sje says:

    to make our cold frame we used an old window that we bought from the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore. I wanted to move the water from the rain barrel to the garden and found this cool solar powered rain barrel pump http://www.aquabarrel.com/rainperfect

  6. David Miller says:

    Great article! I’ll be uploading pictures of my double dug “raised beds” soon. I’ve gone away from actually “fencing in” the raised beds because I find it actually detracts from the functionality. I know dig down in the paths and place that top soil on the double dug beds, works better with better paths and it increases the soil depth from 36″ to 40″ if you are using an 18″ path.

  7. Renee says:

    Here’s a good video for beginners, it goes through several tips for starting an organic garden plot, including a no-dig lasagne method:

  8. Renee says:

    David Miller sent me these shots of his current setup and I wanted to link to them here – very nice!

    “double dug” beds

    window cold frames

  9. David Miller says:

    gracias pero, these are photos from last year taken by someone who knows how to use their camera

    All of this is before I dove into the grow bio-intensive, deep double dug bed approach.

  10. David Miller says:

    Finally got around to visiting the city leaf pile yesterday. What a gold mine, $4 for a truck load of partially decomposed leaves for my compost pile. fyi

  11. Ross says:

    (*)>… what does this stand for?

  12. Ross says:

    My wife thinks it looks like a penguin and I thought it looked like a cow’s behind. We are just curious.

  13. Ross says:

    …actually, we think it looks like a duck’s head.

  14. David Miller says:

    Found a good summary of how to turn yard into garden without killing yourself for those thinking about taking up the hobby.


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