Introduction: Dirt Garden

About: Engineer making renewable energy products for African entrepreneurs.

Dirt, in that it's not hydroponic. This time, we're using (making) soil and planting in a more tradition sense.

Also, how to recycle all of those rocks you dig up! This whole project cost less than $50 which includes plants, compost, trellis stakes, soil and edge banding.

Step 1: Hardware and Software

Very simple tools - nothing fancy.

1. Spade - to cut through grass layer and dig
2. Rake - leveling and grass removal
3. Trowel - small holes for planting

The Software

1. Compost
2. Top Soil
3. Fertilizer
4. Plants - see next section

Step 2: Choosing Your Plot and Plants

Match your plants to the area you're growing based on sunlight. OR pick an area that matches the type of plants you will be growing. Do your best not to mix and match full sun and shade plants in the same patch.

Choose wisely and your plants will grow. Choose poorly and they will live a slow painful death.

I'm growing in full sun. Full south Florida sun.

I have a variety of tomatoes and a compliment of other full sun plants.

Step 3: Remove Grass

Take your spade and press it into your grass. St. Augustine grass (like mine) grows down several inches - so I'm pushing down several inches too. Tilt the spade and push parallel to the top of the grass and lift up a section of grass. You can also cut a border with your spade and transplant elsewhere.


Step 4: Dig a Hole

Of course, your soil will vary. I live on sandy rock filled "dirt" that drains VERY VERY well and compacts tight when wet. It doesn't have that nice organic earthy smell to it either.

I am digging down about 18 inches or so and removing large rocks. My 8 year old sister is helping separate the large and medium sized rocks for something special later.

Whew, now we've got ourselves a hole. Oh, and be careful if you have any pool or irrigation lines around.

Step 5: Soil Conditioning

I have removed approximately 15 cubic feet of soil. I am replacing it with 11 cubic feet of compost and topsoil and mixing in about 2 cubic feet of my sandy soil.

As for what compost to use? I always go for the cheapest available ;) I've never had problems either. So go for what's on sale and easiest for you to get at. Remember that the "standard" bag is about 1 cubic foot and weights around 40-50 pounds each.

I try to avoid bags with foam bits in them ;)

Here's a hint for opening those bags.... Take your spade and jab a long hole on one end. Then dump the contents ;) Quick and painless.

Step 6: Soil Conditioning II

Add a general purpose fertilizer. Whatever brand you want really. I'm avoiding the slow release type because I'm growing annuals (tomatoes and other annual plants). They want food and they want it now. Because several months from now - they will go to seed and die.

I'm not worried about those gaps. When I start to see weeds, I'll be removing them and then adding a layer of mulch. Mulch in the form of more compost.

Step 7: Slight Design Change

Okay, so I decided I needed a better grass barrier. St. Augustine grass is likely a weed to most of you. It grows aggressively in strong ground traveling vines. I will be adding edge banding and then removing the grass 6 inches away from the banding and digging down 4-6 inches.

This trough will be filled with cedar mulch.

Step 8: Edge Banding

This stuff is tricky. You think you've got it, but it pops up or curls on you.

First, Dig a "V" trough where it will be placed (about 4 inches deep)
Second, unwind and stretch it out.
Next, place the banding into the trough and cut to the proper length
Fourth, bury.

If you stretched it out enough and buried it deep enough - it won't pop out or bend out of shape.

Step 9: Excavate and Mulch

Remove the grass around the edge band - same technique as before. Remove 4-6 Inches of rocky sandy soil and replace with a mulch. That little strip used a full bag (which should cover 3 cubic feet).

Step 10: Planting!

Now it's time to plant.

For my flowers, I dig a hole just about the same depth as my plant's root ball. I gently break up the ball a little bit to get those roots roots out pointing in a better direction (it's cramped in those pots) and then place in the hole.

Spacing - of course it depends on the plant itself, but these will be a little closer for a very lush cover. I'm using the distance between my fingers and wrist as a meter stick for spacing.

I intentionally left a space in the back for my tomato plants. I also pushed in some stakes for them to climb later.

I bury my tomatoes deep. Tomatoes have this really neat trick. When exposed to moist dark soil, they will sprout roots from their stalk. So I bury 50-80 percent of the plant and remove any shoots/leaves below the ground line. Just pinch them off.

Step 11: First Watering

Be gentle. The soil is light and fluffy as we didn't walk on it or pack it down. It will wash away easily.

Gently water your plants and step back. Clean up the empty pots for later and observe :)

Step 12: Rocks and Neatness

I remove my large rocks - and leave behind my small ones. Plants and trees have been living with rocks for longer than any of us have been here. So let them be.

Picked off a dead flower? Leave it on the soil. It will eventually rot away and make good food for later.

I laugh when I see a bag of rocks at the home improvement stores. Here is where I buy rocks for my garden and over there is where I intentionally remove the rocks I find in my garden.

Rocks you find serve better as a border. For me it provides a place for lizards and other critters to hide and provides yet another nice looking grass barrier. Plus a rogue weed eater won't be able to get near my plants.

So wash them of and re-use them rather then throwing them out somewhere.

Step 13: Maintenance

When you first start your garden - it's going to need frequent waterings to get rooted. Don't let your plants wilt away. A nice gently watering in the evening should do the trick.

An inch of water will travel about 10 inches in moist soil. Keep that in mind ;) Dry soil doesn't transmit water too well - but you're not going to let your soil dry out right?

Once your plants grow up and provide coverage, they will shield the soil from the sun and less waterings are necessary.

Pull them as you see them ;) Especially in the beginning as the sun is providing ample opportunity to grow. When your plants start to take off - add a layer of compost mulch. I'm not using a wood or rock mulch because this doesn't allow you to add more compost very easily :P But the drawback is weeds.

About once a month -- add a bit of fertilizer. Just FYI, if you're fertilizer has more nitrogen than anything else your tomato plants will be very green and bushy, but it won't produce many flowers.

I'm eating this stuff, so I'm not going to throw on pesticides and stuff. Should you come under attack, search the web for organic solutions. Aphids can be blasted away with water, caterpillars can be picked off (but you may like butterflies and are willing to risk some holy leaves), etc.

Simply put.... healthy plants are pretty effective at fending off pathogens and other nasties. So, if you matched your plants to your light conditions, keep up with watering etc. You shouldn't have much trouble. But again, if you should be plagued - search the web for a solution. But sometimes, it requires removing the injured plant to avoid contaminating your other plants.

When you notice your flowers are starting to die. Pick them off. This will keep your annuals flowering longer and looking nicer. Just drop the flower at the base of the plant ;)

Step 14: Huge Mound of Dirt Sand

You may have noticed that rather large mound of dirt I had next to my garden. That was moved elsewhere to raise the grass elevation a little. But, there was quite a bit of "unshovelable" stuff left over.

To get rid of this (or at least hide it), we're going to help erosion along with hose water. But first, we need to make sure the drainage is good.

I'm using a fork and punching a whole lot of holes in the ground. Just jab in, remove, repeat. This makes sure your grass will drain well and prevent rot/death.

Then blast away with your hose. It might take a few applications over a few days. But it will eventually move itself under the grass.

To take care of all the little stones and rocks. I use a wire rake and pushed them all towards my mini rock wall/rock border. Then I hosed them off.