by Debbie Roland, Compost Specialist
“I can’t grow anything. I have a brown thumb” my friends tell me. To which I say “I can teach you how.” And, I start explaining. But I can see in their eyes that they are already overwhelmed and have that faraway look that Jackson, my ever-patient husband, gets when I tell him about a new project I dreamed up for us (which means him - to do). So here it is – step by step information on a small scale.
So what if you put it to a simple test? What do you have to lose? Fall is the perfect time. Your soil will have about 5 months to rest and regenerate.
I recommend that you assemble everything required before you begin. You don’t want newspaper blowing around your yard (or your neighbors). That will become clear as you read on.
Find a favorite sunny spot in your barren yard. I started with a bed that was about 3’ wide and 10’ long. Don’t worry about the rest of your beds yet. This is a process and, if you get the “gardening bug”, it will be a process that will last years.
Maybe you have a bed that is already there or maybe you don’t have any beds at all.
If you have a favorite bed that is ready, meaning it already has borders that will hold in compost and mulch, you are a step ahead. Remove any grass or weeds so that you can start with a clean slate. Turn the soil to make it easier to work with. It isn’t necessary to rent a backhoe for this job. Just turn over the top few inches. We want it to easily soak up what we are going to give it.
However, if it is a new spot and it has weeds or grass growing, spray it with vegetation killer. Wait a week, then turn the soil with either a shovel or a tiller. Next you will need a border and how fancy you go or how much you spend is up to you. Life will be easier if you have at least 4” in height to hold in everything you will be adding now and in the future. I used edging bricks that I purchased at a local big box store, but another Master Gardener used caliche rocks and they look beautiful. She is in her 70s, is healthy and thin – another benefit of gardening and hauling rocks.
Now your bed is ready to prep. Using your water hose, gently water the bed. It isn’t necessary to flood it. Now put down a layer of cardboard. Yep, cardboard. Drive down most alleys behind stores and they have it out back in the yellow recycling dumpsters. I’ve never met a store manager yet who cared if I took their discarded cardboard. After you have a layer of cardboard down, water it again. You want the cardboard wet but not flooded.
Next put down several layers of newspaper. I don’t use colored paper because of the dye. After your layers are down, water it again.
Next put down about 4” of compost. You can make your own but that takes months, so go to your favorite big box store and buy it. Get online and do some research about brands. Some is organic, some isn’t – that is a personal preference. It is inexpensive and comes in big bags. You will need several depending on how big your bed is. Dump the compost on top of the newspaper and spread it around. Water again.
If you plan to put in a drip irrigation system (and I highly recommend that you do that) now is the time to do it. It is simple and will save water, money and you hours in the future. You simply connect it to the faucet you already have. Timers are available if you feel like you need one. The local stores who sell drip irrigation are always willing to show you how it all fits together.
Once your drip is in place, add about 4” of mulch. The great part about this is Odessa offers free mulch at the Time Machine. They even put fresh mulch out every day, and all you have to do is back up and load up.
Viola! You’re finished. Once a week during the fall and winter turn your water on. The moisture will attract beneficial bugs and worms that will have a winter feast on your cardboard and newspaper. The worms will leave their “castings” (poop) which is gold for your beds and future plants.
In the spring, simply pull back the mulch, dig a whole the depth of your plant and twice as wide, put the plant in, put your soil back around the plant, and return the mulch to its place around the plant. You will be surprised that the newspaper and cardboard are gone, replaced by a rich, wormy soil.
Once planted, you will water more often. However, because of the drip irrigation and mulch you took the time to put in, you will be surprised how little water your plants will require, even in West Texas.
As time goes on, you will add more mulch as it decomposes and feeds your plants and your worms.
Master Gardeners have lists of plants that are recommended for our area. Just call your AgriLife office (432-686-4700) for a copy .