Saturday, August 21, 2010

Clay, Hay and Manure - Preparing the Soil for the Front Garden


My cottage garden entry
for the Better Homes and
Gardens contest
One of my favorite magazines, Better Homes and Gardens' Country Gardening, hit the news stands today and this would be the issue that announced the winner of their annual garden contest.  I ran to the store, bought the magazine and paged through it on the way back to the car.

It had been a year since I entered their contest.  It was a huge leap of faith to think I could enter a national contest but maybe, just maybe, I had a bit of a chance, especially when, in the essay that was required as part of the entry, I told my tale of hardship and heartbreak - well, actually back-break.

This is how the front
of the house
looked after 1 year.
Straw covered the manue. 
The manure settled
and  worked it's way into the
 clay soil below.
Eventually, I tilled it all together. 
Year 2
Getting ready to plant
 and trees.
The Tale Begins
About 5 years ago, we built a new home on our farm. 
It never occurred to me that the builder would strip away every bit of top soil he could get his hands on and leave us - well actually leave me since I do the gardening - with a front yard full of nothing but the hardest, most solid clay ever to be found. Not even rye grass, that most easy to grow builder's grade lawn, would grow.

Thinking this would be too massive a project for me to correct, I called in several area landscapers to give me estimates of what it would cost to make the front yard look respectable.  I wasn't asking for Winterthur or Duke Gardens - just a nice looking yard.

The estimates were out of sight - everywhere from $20,000 to $40,000.  We not talking acres here, only a modest, not even subdivision size, front yard.  (See the pictures above.) Maybe 1000 square feet - max. 

It seemed that most of the cost was in the truck loads of top soil they would have to bring in - probably the very same top soil my builder had removed and sold to them - and the massive amounts of fertilizer. None of the companies would use the massive amounts of manure I had composting all over the place.  They had to use their own "organic" kind.  Yikes!

After all was said and done (and $40,000 later), my front yard would look like everyone else's - 2 small trees, a few bushes and a lawn that would have to be watered and mowed.  What a waste of all that hard earned money.

So, I set about doing the landscaping myself.  It would take time (the landscapers would have everything done and planted in 2 to 3 days) but in the end I would have the satisfaction of doing it myself and saving tons of money.  The only money I spent was on plants - and that came to around $400 total.  Trees (and replacing trees that died) were the biggest expense.  Rose bushes were the second biggest expense.  Most of other plants I used, I raised from seed or cuttings so they were cheap.  There are only 2 ways to garden - expensive (have someone else do it for you) or cheap (do things yourself).  I definitely wanted to be in the cheap category.

I started by covering every square inch of the solid clay with raw manure to a depth of 18 inches. That's a lot of manure but I had nothing but solid clay.

Pots of pansies brightened
up the front door.
Each night, after I mucked the horse stalls, I dumped the manure I had collected on a patch of the proposed garden.  Night after night I mucked and dumped.  Nothing fancy.  Just mucked and dumped.  I covered the manure with straw to make it look presentable while it decomposed.  It took a couple of months to cover the whole garden area and it took a year for the manure to decompose but it eventually did.  While I waited, I planted some containers and put them around the front door.  It wasn't a great garden but it would be one day and I wasn't spending $40,000. 

After a year, I began tilling the manure and clay together.  It was slow going.  I top dressed everything with rotted manure and compost.  The soil wasn't perfect but it was incredibly better.  I added some trees and bushes as a foundation letting the garden flow as it wanted.  I had drawn perfect plans on graph paper but when I actually got into the planting, they plans by then had become only a general guide.

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