Ayla

Occasional tilling, such as once a season, is not a mortal sin.

It's the people who buy a tiller and then use it constantly but incorrectly for weed control who should stop doing that. If you're out there every weekend deeply tilling just to get rid of weeds, that's bad.

You normally don't expect to plant things in uncomposted organic matter because it can tie up nitrogen that your plants will need.

Tilling it under will help to speed things up, yes, as it will enlist the services of soil microorganisms throughout the soil column, not just the ones towards the top.

Covering it with a tarp will only help if your weather is warm, as it will help trap the heat and speed up decomposition. But if you're in frozen Canada, it's not going to do much.

You determine how decomposed it is by looking at it. Compost is finished when it no longer resembles what it started out with, so as long as you can poke your hand down into the soil and still identify leaves, coffee grounds, and grass clippings, it's not decomposed yet.

Part of successful sheet mulching technique involves knowing your climate and how long it will take to rot things down over the winter, and then gauging the amount of material you can till in and expect to be done by spring.

Adding nitrogen, in the form of manure (ideally fresh but composted will do), blood meal, or MiracleGro will help to speed things up, too.

You can till your leaves in if you so desire, it will help build the soil. But if you've already tilled then you have some nice loose soil under there, and if you leave the leaves and grass on top it will help with weed control and still add nutrients as they decompose.

Just pull that layer back, plant and push your mulch back around the plants. If you're direct seedlings you'll want to leave some space for the seeds to come up so they don't have to struggle through that layer.

Ayla

I have been planning on a big garden, one that covers about an acre, a good portion is to be perennial fruiting trees just not sure what the portion to fruit to veggies I want to have.

It doesn't take long to kill the grass and weeds by covering it with a tarp, so I'd suggest you might consider that despite the large size. You could do it in patches. I don't recall how long it takes but I have done this with several new gardens.

And I already sell 98% of what I grow and my family is still drowning in vegetables. Really consider your local market. If you're half acre is productive its way more then you can consume and give away.

I farm about a quarter acre for my local farmers market. I do a majority of the work myself with occasional help from my husband. It's a lot of garden by myself.

So how to get started with your own big project?

The labor involved in digging the planting holes is no joke either.

Buying transplants is good, but be aware that it has the potential to get very expensive for a large garden.

Have you canned before?

Will you be water-bath canning or pressure-canning? Anything that is not acidic will need to be pressure-canned. Do you have mason jars? They can get expensive when buying large quantities too. It also takes a lot of time to process in general (picking, washing, peeling, chopping, straining, cooking, packing, processing, cooling, labeling). I've been canning my harvests for decades.

Understand that it is a lot of work and usually time-sensitive because your ripe produce should be processed right away. Also, only use tested recipes, otherwise you are risking your health.

Are you breaking new ground or has this area been farmed before? I broke ground on a new 30x30 plot last year and it took two days with a heavy-duty rented tiller to be workable. Your experience will depend type of soil you have (clay vs loam, rocky, etc). Do you have an idea of what kind of soil is there?

I am not trying to be discouraging, I just want you to be prepared as best you can if you want to take on such a large project. Planning ahead will save you a lot of frustration later. Also, it wouldn't hurt to work in stages. Set up your orchard this year, maybe do a small garden. Next year expand the garden. The next year start your flowers.

And so on.

Doing it all at once is a lot. Best of luck!

Ayla

It seems counterintuitive, but tilling increases weeds. Weed and grass seeds can last a long time in soil, and germinate later on when conditions are better. Some kinds of seeds can sit for up to 10 years and still germinate.

The best solution is the most expensive, build raised beds.

A good option is to kill the surface plants, then spread 6-8 inches of mulch.

Ways to kill surface plants:

  • water an area then place a clear plastic sheet on the ground on a warm sunny day. It cooks the grass.
  • place a black tarp on a warm sunny day
  • Use a flame torch and burn it

The last solution is the worst, till again. If you do till one more time make sure to spread a heavy mulch after your finished our else you'll get right back into the weed-till-soil destruction-more weeds cycle.

Reality is, you're going to have a lot of grass and weeds popping up for the first few years while you reduce the number of seeds in the soil.

So you need to plow it properly, it should flip almost completely upside down. And then you're going to need to disc the crap out of it to break up all that sod to kill the grass. At that point you can probably plant into it, but it's going to be weedy as heck for the first year (and probably a few years after that).

This is why people tend to just spray with chemical. It's much easier and faster.

Regarding chemicals there is a chance for residuals.

If there's any amount of the chemical in the plant, it kills the plant.

Most commonly used is glyphosate (aka roundup). It will linger in the soil in detectable levels for 40 days or so after spraying (I can't remember the exact time), but this is actually a pretty short lifespan. I'm not an advocate for this method, but it does have a use.

If you want to plant it quickly, plow, disc, disc, and just hope the weeds stay manageable. You will need to weed and cultivate this to keep weeds down. If you can wait a year, I'd suggest spraying it as soon as it's grown up but before anything goes to seed, then plow it, disc it, and repeat the spray after it starts to grow again from seeds dormant in the soil. Then plow that fall, disc again in spring and you should have fairly weed/grass free ground.

Personally, though, I just suffer through the weeds because I really dislike spraying unless I absolutely have no choice.

Ayla

Rototilling is damaging the structure of your soil.

I originally laid out my garden following the ideas in Mel Bartholomew's book "Gardening by the Square Foot", so I can basically reach everything without stepping foot inside. If I ever do need to I try my best to make sure to step in-between my plantings, and to step back in the same spot.

Of course, this doesn't count my previous years of rototilling, where I was obviously standing inside of it to use the tiller.

Look up "no till gardening." Basically, you're shredding your soil's structure by rototilling it. You're also churning up the organic matter and pretty much all of the soil organisms get incredibly active all at once then die off.

Low organic matter = hard soil

Poor soil structure = hard soil

I have incredibly friable soil in full sun in a much lower latitude than yours.

The most important thing is to add organic matter. Using a cover crop will definitely help but it's too late in the season for that.

Add a variety of composts on top of your soil, then top with a few inches of mulch. Do not till this spring. Do not step on your soil or disturb it, especially when wet. It might take more than one season to get your soil structure corrected. You'll need a ton of compost this year.

Double digging is still a fast way of starting a bed if you don't want a raised bed, or if don't have clay. If you double dig clay, you might be creating a clay pan at the bottom that leads to drainage problems.

The problem that OP is having is that he's doing it every year, so all that soil disturbance is gobbling up all the soil organisms. But if you're double digging only the first time and you continue to add organic matter to the top (and mulch), then it shouldn't lead to compaction. It may be an unnecessary step, though.

If it were high in organic matter, it wouldn't be rock hard. You'd be amazed at what soil organisms do when the soil is disturbed. They literally gobble up every bit of organic matter in a huge flurry of activity, then they die off.

Compost should be added every year. Peat moss is very low in nutrients, and vermiculite and perlite have no organic matter.

You can try a combination of composts available in your area. Try leaf mold, mushroom compost, worm castings, composted manure, etc. Mulch is very, very important.

Ignore any advice about adding sand. Sand does not soften rock hard soil; it turns it into concrete instead.

Also it is best to pick the beans and peas before they fully mature. By doing so it makes the plant produce more. Pick them in the morning while the are still full of water... same with any plant really. Well good luck, let me know how this years yield does!

For additional explanation visit ucanr.edu.

Ayla

I can't be bothered with horse manure - it seems like too much work. I'm fertilising my garden with fish/blood/bone in the short term and peas, comfrey, yarrow and various other plants in the longer term. I'm also using a lot of raked-up fallen leaves from anywhere I can get them, as a mulch and to make 'quick' compost. I might rake my neighbours' lawns in the autumn as a 'favour' to them.

I like to use a hybrid approach.

I amend the soil with less processed fertilizers; bone meal around the roots, soak things with blood meal, a bit of lime here and there; but will use chemical fertilizers as needed. It's not a sin to use modern things occasionally... e.g. when heavy with fruit my peppers sometimes need an extra dose of immediately available phosphorous to avoid developing end rot ... no reason to lose the fruit because I screwed up the nutrient mix a little a few weeks before.

Using chemical fertilizers exclusively is at the very least more work than using natural soil amendments -- it's quick and effective, but it's also quick and effective so you have to apply it a lot more often, for the soil microbes gradually breaking down organic matter into nutrients for us.

A chemical analysis of your earth, as used by farmers, will tell you all you need to know.

Apparently most gardens have way too much in fertilizers except for N (nitrogen), which is washed out over time. Other nutrients are recycled in sufficient amounts via compost, which you should immediately start if you don't have one.

Check the nutritional needs of everything you want to grow, and group them by nutritional requirements. Some want a lot of fertilizer (peppers, squash, tomatoes depending), some a little (carrots, herbs), and others none (beans and peas). Create beds with crops with similar nutritional needs, and rotate them.

Did I mention to check soil pH?

A good mixed compost (with compost from multiple sources including composted manure, mushrooms, leaves, and plant materials) will give you all the nutrients you need, keep that material out of the waste stream, and not put stuff you may not like into your food, and therefore your body.

Any independent garden center will have both knowledgeable staff and good compost.