Two Thumbs Up for the TEST BED!

Friday, May 22, 2009

This is a gardening experiment that -- quite frankly -- could have gone either way -- up or down.

I've tried growing vegetables in our Natomas Clay Muck before without much success. Artichokes did OK -- but just *OK.* The most outstanding results, of course, came in raised beds.

There's nothing wrong with this of course, because there are a lot of advantages to using raised beds. You can control what kind of soil goes inside, control drainage, they warm up faster -- the list of advantages goes on and on.

But, at the same time, raised beds take time to build. They can be expensive. They require room. You need walkways to reach all sides of a raised bed, which can be a waste of space. And, if you're limited on space....

You see, every inch in a normal North Natomas backyard counts. Some are no bigger than your average broom closet. I'm fortunate to have a large backyard, but I don't want an inch of it to go to waste.

And that's why I decided to put my handy-dandy Mantis Rototiller through a workout earlier this spring in an attempt to somehow, someway, improve the hard clay soil in our backyard. Growers in South Natomas, who moved in years before North Natomas was built, have done it.

And, if they've done it, so can I.

So far, it's working. With the exception of one tomato starter plant, everything planted in our "test bed" as I call it has either sprouted or is growing fairly well. As you can tell from the photo above -- the corn seems to like it. The squash seeds that the wife planted a couple of weeks ago have all sprouted. And, for the most part, the tomato starter plants are doing well.

They are not growing nearly as fast, mind you, as the tomato plants we have in raised beds. They're not nearly as lush. They're not nearly as productive -- yet. They still might be. One of the advantages of a raised bed is warmth -- it "warms up" faster than your average pile of dirt.

My hope is that by the time summer really hits -- and the temps warm up at night -- the test bed will get just as warm as the raised beds. My hope is that we can keep the slugs and other critters who can't reach the raised beds -- out of the test bed. My hope is the roots of these tender tomato plants don't curl up in horror when they reach 10-12 inches down and discover real Natomas clay soil.

That is my hope.

Cutting through the soil in the test bed was probably the hardest workout I have faced. The Mantis Rototiller has a lot of good things going for it, but it is not a heavy machine. When the tines of this tiller hit hard clay -- the tiller starts bouncing. It's hard to control. It takes a lot of muscle and a lot of pulling from behind to keep the tiller where it's supposed to be, and ensure that you're cutting as deep as possible.

I managed to do that over the space of an hour or two -- and then amended this concrete-like soild with as much compost as I could haul into the backyard. It swallowed every bit of it. Hopefully, the compost will stop the clay from turning into cement again.

That is my hope. Everything is working -- or seems to be working -- so far.

Then again -- it's only May. The garden season is just beginning.

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