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I recently moved into a house with a yard, and am eager to start getting a garden started. The ground here isn't really clay, but it's not really dirt that I would want to use for gardening. It's really heavy and compact, and there are gravel-like rocks everywhere that I'm going to want to pick out.

I was thinking about tilling the ground, then spending a few weekends picking out the rocks, then mixing in some compost and topsoil to turn it into some nice garden soil. I might also add a border around it, possibly raising it a bit. Then in the spring I could maybe add more soil then plant everything as early as possible for early vegetables.

So I looked up advice on tilling gardens, and I read advice saying two different things.

  1. That it's not a good idea to till the garden in the fall, because the snow would compact the soil.

    (I do live in southern Illinois, where we don't really get much for snow, maybe a couple inches through January. So maybe that isn't something I have to worry about?)

  2. That it is a good idea to till the garden in the fall, because it gives the soil time to prepare the nutrients from the added compost.

Is there a significant benefit over doing it one way or the other? Should I do it now so the compost has time to spread nutrients into the soil? Or is it better to leave it as it is until spring, so the soil isn't exposed over the winter?

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You could till now and plant a cover crop to keep the soil loose until the spring. gardening.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/cover-crop –  Philip Aug 14 at 15:00

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You could certainly wait until spring and things would probably be fine.

But personally, I'd get going right now with bed preparation.

Till it, clean out the rocks mostly and the weeds and clumps. The tiller will help break everything into smaller chunks.

To rid yourself of most of those rocks, take a piece of 1/4" or 1/2" hardware cloth, nailed to a frame (or not) and use it to separate the rocks from the soil. I lay the hardware cloth down on a spot in the garden, pick an area of comparable size right next to it and then shovel maybe a couple inches of the topmost soil onto it from that area. I shake the frame to sift the soil through it and then take the stones and dump them in my wheelbarrow. Then I put the frame where I just dug and repeat the process, always moving the frame where I just dug and replacing that soil with the newly sifted soil from the next section. It actually goes by quickly.

If you are in the mood, plant something now and take advantage of the space and the fall weather. My suggestion? Bush beans. They are 50-55 days until harvest generally and so you should be able to get a harvest in before the average first frost date in your area. I believe you are probably zone 7A like we are here in my neck of the woods.

The beans, by the way, will help the soil by adding nitrogen from the air. I think the fancy folks call that "fixing" the nitrogen. Regardless, they work well.

Personally, I'd harvest the beans and mow them up right there and let the plants break down in the soil over the winter.

Next, I'd plant a winter cover crop... you could do any number of cover crops like winter rye. This is a "green manure" and it works pretty well. You just till that stuff into the soil early in the spring before planting. It adds complexity and organic material your soil - like the bean plants would.

This is, of course, just one way to go.

Come springtime, I'd add compost - your own if you have it. Vermicompost (worm castings) are great if you have them.

Then, you've got yourself a nice prepared bed and can get things going in the spring without all the bed prep. Plus, you've got several months of improvement already in place.

Aside: I generally only till the area the first time and then never bother after that. I will fork open the soil a bit but I don't run my tiller through it year after year. I can't see that it really helps things all that much, but that's me.

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If you make the frame "long" (a relative thing - I've got one that's 6 or 7 feet by 2 feet wide) and give it legs so it sits at a steep angle, you can shovel onto the top end of it and the soil will sift through on the way down. You can use the rocks for paths or for drainage below the garden level, depending on how you dig. As for waiting or not, follow the tree advice - "the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago - the next best time is now!" If you sift a lot of soil, keep an eye out for "finds" in with the rocks. You might get a dumptruck full of sand to mix in along with the compost. –  Ecnerwal Aug 20 at 1:39

I don't think you need to wait until spring if you can get the soil fully prepped before this fall. Allowing the soil to sit fallow over the winter isn't necessary, since it sounds like you will be mixing the compost into the soil during your preparation phase. If the compost is "finished" compost, the nutrients in it will be ready more or less immediately to feed your plants. As for tilling, as you have already surmised, if you don't get a lot of snow or heavy rains, it shouldn't affect your soil structure much over the winter - especially since you will be augmenting your native soil pretty heavily with compost and better topsoil.

Fall gardening can actually be pretty wonderful because the temperatures are generally more stable than in the spring. If you are growing greens, because of the extended cooler temperatures in the fall they may be more tender and sweet than spring grown greens often are. Even if you only plant part of your new garden area, I'd encourage you to try some fall planting this year.

If you don't plant your entire new garden area this fall, you can cover the unused soil with a compost-able mulch (straw, shredded fall leaves) in order to add more nutrients to the new bed and keep weeds down over the winter.

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We do get heavy rains pretty often in the spring, would that mean I should wait until after the rains are over? –  Matt S. Aug 14 at 16:59
    
Well, to till, yes, probably. But that depends on the condition of your soil after you amend it. If it's loose and porous, you should be fine if you till between rains after it has had a chance to dry out a bit. You could also just use a winter-killed green manure or other mulch cover and not till at all in the spring. Tilling is not mandatory if you keep the ground well-mulched and don't walk on it. Some folks only till when the ground seems to have become compacted. Some folks don't till at all. –  TeresaMcgH Aug 14 at 21:49
    
FYI - Here is a good link on using mulch to keep soil in good shape without tilling. extension.oregonstate.edu/gardening/mulch-key-no-till-gardens –  TeresaMcgH Aug 14 at 21:52

Sounds like your snow risk is about the same as the UK then - here, we'd prepare uncultivated or neglected ground by rough digging or tilling, incorporating lots of humus rich material (chuck it over the top and spread it out before tilling) and leave it to get frosted by winter - heavy frosts break down soil lumps, particularly lumpy, sticky clay soil, so if you have a reliable level of frost/freezing in the winter, do it in Fall, then you can think about digging it over again to get it even more friable and check its condition before planting in early Spring.

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What I'd do:

I think preparation in the fall is preferable. Even in my area, which can get over 7' of snow over the winter months, I work some of the ground in the fall. It is often compacted in the spring, but the organic material can better decompose underground, even in winter.

I add all the organic matter I can, turn it under (usually with my mold-board plow, but in tight spaces I will use a spade or fork), and seed some winter rye. It will germinate at 33 degrees Fahrenheit. It won't put on much during the winter, but when things warm up, they quickly go over waist high. That's when I mow it off and turn it under (as soon as I can see seed-heads peeking out). Two weeks later it's ready to plant.

So I think there are benefits to working it now, even if you don't green-manure. You may have to work it some next spring.

On the rocks, I usually get what I can with the garden rake, but leave the rest. If you get your soil in good shape, a few tiny stones won't hurt.

Another thing I've done successfully:

Try tilling in the compost, then adding a good 8" straw mulch over the winter. This will keep the soil very soft, and you can reuse the partly rotted straw as a compost additive, or for mulching veggies later in the season. Hay would be even better, if you can get something with few seeds. It will decompose faster, and add more to the soil.

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Firstly I would not pick out the rocks as I don’t think it will be worthwhile if they are gravel sized.

This is what I would do.

  • Kill of as many weeds as you can with glyphosate, NOW.
  • Spread as much compost over the ground as you can get, without doing any digging etc.
  • Be very glad that the worms are now working hard for you.
  • Remove any weeks that come up by hand unless there are enough at a time to use glyphosate.
  • Chosen a small area and dig it over with a fork mixing in the compost. (I have found that a tilling machine does not work well on compacted ground, but is great for breaking up the big lamps of soil you get once you have done a rough digging by hand.)
  • Add more top soil if needed
  • Plant the area up as soon as the conditions allow – sooner you see plants growing the better motivation you will have.
  • Choose you next small area to dig over.
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-1, because of recommending the liberal (and uncalled for) use of glyphosate. This stuff is toxic, and other methods of weed removal should be employed where possible. –  J. Musser Aug 15 at 16:29

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