A few years ago a friend of Lou’s and mine planted a vegetable garden for the first time. George and his wife Sally lived in an old house high on a hill with an ocean view. Their land sloped south and was windy, buffeted all day long by a salt breeze straight from the sea. Before George planted vegetables, all he had was a lawn, practically nothing else. There might have been a few scruffy roses on the north side of the house facing the road, a bit of hedge, and a few camellias, but nothing worth bragging about. The back yard was solid lawn. George had never been into gardening and neither was Sally. George was a lawyer like Lou. At the time I had the impression that all lawyers were nongardeners because Lou had never gardened and neither had any of his friends. (Lou and I even had an unwritten premarital agreement that he didn’t have to garden, which was fine by me; I’d gardened since the age of three and loved it.)
“I don’t know what possessed me,” said George, “but one morning in March I woke up early, and I lay there wide awake listening to the birds singing, and I had this gut feeling inside me that I wanted to get up right then, go outside, dig up the ground, and plant vegetables. I guess I’d thought of it before but never seriously. Now all of a sudden I couldn’t wait to start. I rolled out of bed, made a cup of coffee, and pulled on some old clothes. Sally mumbled, ‘What on earth are you doing? Don’t you know it’s Saturday?’ ‘You’ll see,’ I said. I had a head of steam, and I didn’t want her talking me out of it.”
George rummaged in the garage for a tape measure, string, some pieces of wood to use as stakes, and a shovel. I like to call this kind of shovel a spade, but the typical American digging tool, by whatever name you call it, has a slightly scooped shape, a curved blade, and a long handle. Most people call it a shovel because it works as well for scooping sand, gravel, manure, or topsoil as it does for digging and spading the ground. In England, where I originally came from, spades have a shorter handle that’s split on the upper end and finished with a hand hold at right angles to the handle. Most English spades are flat-bladed with a straight, sharp bottom edge and straight sides. (English shovels are used only for scooping and throwing and are also short-handled and flat-bladed; they’re wider and lighter than spades, with sides an inch or two high, like a coal shovel, for example.) After many years of using both English and American spades, I’ll have to admit the American spade works better for digging most American ground.
George dumped his spade and other equipment into a wheelbarrow and trundled it down to the bottom of the lawn. There was a wire fence all the way ’round the back yard, hardly an aesthetic touch, but it didn’t cast a shadow and it kept the kids and dogs in — and eventually the grandchildren. George wasted no time measuring out a section of lawn and surrounding it with stakes and string. It was a plot about 20 feet long and 10 feet wide, as I recall, not too big to handle. Instead of backing his vegetable garden right up against the fence as I might have done, George made a wise choice and left a swathe of grass at the back just wide enough for the mower to pass through twice. This served as a convenient grassy path. It might have been good to leave a grassy path down the middle too, but George didn’t think of that.
As soon as he’d measured the space and checked to make sure the corners were square, he began to remove the grass. This is where a sharp, flat-bladed English spade might have come in handy. Luckily for George, the sprinklers had soaked the lawn the night before, so removing the grass wasn’t the horrendous job it might otherwise have been. For a man who said he’d never gardened before, there were a few other lucky strokes too. Vegetables need full sun, which means morning to night, if possible, but six hours of sunshine at the very least. George’s site had the best possible situation; no shadow fell on it from dawn to dusk. Additionally, the sloping ground might have been a disadvantage but, in this case it wasn’t.
As George cut out the sod a section at a time, piled it into the wheelbarrow, and hauled it to the lowest corner of the yard as the start of a compost pile, he couldn’t help noticing that the soil was sticky red clay. “Miserable soil?” you might wonder. Not necessarily. The disadvantage with clay is that it doesn’t drain well; it takes a long time to get it wet, and once it gets wet it stays wet a long time before drying out again. Then, when finally it does dry, it bakes as hard as a terra-cotta pot and gets cracks on the top. Sounds ghastly, doesn’t it? But the great advantage with clay soil is that it’s very nutritious, and it doesn’t dry out too quickly as sand or decomposed granite tends to do. Fix the drainage and add masses of organic soil amendment and you have it made. A slope can really help, since water tends to drain down the slope instead of standing in one spot. The disadvantage is that your irrigation water may roll off instead of sinking in, but you can fix that by amending the soil to make it more porous and by arranging rows and furrows at right angles to the slope so they hold your irrigation water, like contour plowing.
By breakfast, George had already removed most of the sod. He finished by midmorning and began working the soil. He dug it up to the depth of his spade, loosened it, and turned it over. “That was the toughest part,” he said. “I sure felt it that night. Had to take a pickax to some parts, the ground was that hard. Rocky too. I didn’t take out all the rocks. Just the big ones.” Good thing too. A story told 2000 years ago by the ancient Roman Pliny the Younger follows a farmer who removed all the rocks from the corner of a field, and after that nothing would grow there. Fact is, rocks often help ground to drain, and sometimes they add valuable mineral content to the soil. A good rule to follow is “Never monkey with the structure of your soil.” This means don’t take out all the rocks and don’t add clay to sand or sand to clay. Work with the type of soil you’ve got. Believe me and the California Agricultural Extension. Don’t believe those advice books or TV demonstrations where they dump wheelbarrows full of sand onto clay soil with the aim of working it into the ground to “lighten” it. Make that mistake and you’ll end up with concrete instead of garden soil.