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The garden area in my yard has soil that even the weeds don't particularly love to grow in during the summer. They will make a half hearted attempt in the winter, but it definitely isn't as lush as the rest of my yard. I think decades of gardening by the little old lady who lived there before me, without taking care of the soil, has depleted it. I have had some success gardening in it, but only with silly amounts of fertilizer. So I want to improve the situation this winter.

I have a horse ranch near me that gives away free manure that has been reasonably composted already. I was thinking of acquiring enough for a few inches of coverage through the whole garden. I was planning to do this basically as soon as I till my summer garden into the soil.

I was then thinking of growing a cover crop like peas and beans to till into the soil in early spring. I live in the CA Bay Area, so growing winter plants shouldn't be overly difficult.

Are there other techniques I should be thinking of? The garden is already even with the rest of the yard, so I don't want to bring in enough dirt/compost to end up with a raised bed.

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Have a look here: What special steps should I take to prepare my garden for fall planting? -- Plus, what do you plan to grow in that part of the garden? –  Mike Perry Sep 7 '11 at 21:32
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up vote 14 down vote accepted

My first step in your situation would be a soil test. The UC Extension service doesn't perform soil testing, but this pdf has a list of labs in northern and central California. The results of this test will tell you in what ways your soil is deficient.

You don't specifically mention what you're growing, but it sounds like vegetables.

One thing that makes it hard for many vegetables to be able to take up nutrients is acidic soil. If your pH is much below 6, a number of vegetables will have a hard time. You can add lime in the amount recommended by the soil test to bring your pH closer to 6.5-7. Soil that is too alkaline will also be a problem, but I'm less familiar with the symptoms there.

Adding composted horse manure is a good idea. The biggest variable with horse manure is the bedding: does the stable use straw, sawdust, or something else? From one perspective, straw is better because it breaks down faster. From another perspective, sawdust (or any wood product in general) once well rotted, holds an outrageous amount of moisture. Then again, having woody remains in the garden if you get a lot of moisture can lead to mushrooms/toadstools. If wood-based bedding is not well rotted, the decomposing woody material will steal nitrogen from your plants so that it can decompose.

Standard advice is to add about 0.5-1" of compost to poor soil, though I've on occasion added much more than this. (I wrote a calculator to figure out the volume you need to add a given depth of manure to your garden; you may find it helpful.) Work it deeply into the soil -- 6-12" depth is a good goal. You don't want to focus nutrients in the top layer, this encourages plants to develop shallow roots. You also want to put moisture-holding humus into the lower layers of soil.

Another problem you might have is soil compaction. In this case, if the space isn't too large, you're in good shape, and you have the time (several hours per 100 square feet), you might consider double digging:

  1. Loosen the area with a garden fork.
  2. Remove weeds.
  3. Spread your compost/manure over the area to be double-dug.
  4. Add lime as recommended by soil test.
  5. Dig a trench as wide as your spade across the width of the bed, to the depth of your spade. Put the soil in a wheelbarrow or buckets -- you'll use it at the end of the process.
  6. Using the garden fork, loosen the soil at the bottom of the trench to the depth of the fork. While you're working, avoid mixing the soil layers -- you don't want to mix subsoil into your topsoil.
  7. Move back, dig another trench adjacent to the first one. Put the soil from the second trench into the first trench. Loosen the soil at the bottom of this new trench with the fork.
  8. Repeat until you come to the end of the bed. Use the soil from the first trench to fill the last trench.
  9. As you're working (and in the future), don't walk on the garden bed. This compacts the soil. Standard advice is to place a board across the bed to stand on while you're double digging, but I don't see the point -- you're already probably dealing with compacted soil, and you're in the process of fixing the problem anyway. Just don't walk on the areas that have been double dug or you'll undo your work!

"How to Grow More Vegetables" by John Jeavons has a whole chapter devoted to soil prep and double digging.

You said you don't want to build it up to a raised bed, but this process loosens the soil and adds so much air that you will (at least temporarily) raise the garden soil somewhat. You don't need to create formal borders or anything, and the soil will settle over time.

A cover crop that you till into the soil next spring is a great idea. Peas and beans aren't bad, but if you want to generate a lot of biomass (and I think you should want to), I'm a fan of "PVO Mix" -- that's Peas, Vetch, and Oats. I think your winters are fairly mild, so this should do well for you. The main challenge is chopping it all up when it's time to till it under (vetch and peas can get pretty tangled up in the tiller tines). The vetch and peas both play host to nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and the oats grow tall to provide support for them as well as producing biomass. Fedco is my favorite source for seed, they have PVO, and I think they're still shipping cover crop seed this time of year. But you can probably find a supplier that's more local to you.

If the idea of having to chop up a lot of tangle-prone biomass is daunting, you could also consider planting winter rye. It doesn't add nitrogen like the vetch or peas, but it does trap the nitrogen you'll be adding in the manure, preventing it from being lost. Rye can take a couple of passes with the tiller to kill completely, but if you hit it before it puts on too much growth, it doesn't get tangled. Beware that rye must be killed at least two weeks before planting seeds in the soil, because it gives off chemicals that prevent seed germination -- transplants aren't affected.

Lastly, are you composting every bit that you can? Everything that leaves your garden takes some nutrients with it. Vegetable waste from your kitchen (rinds, peels, the forgotten lettuce that rotted in the back of the fridge, etc), along with garden debris (vines, leaves, etc) should be composted and returned to your soil so you don't have to purchase so many outside amendments. Don't put autumn leaves in bags on the curb -- this is valuable carbon you can mix with kitchen scraps in the compost pile and return to the soil.

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just voting up this reply seemed insufficient. Thanks so much for the wealth of information. I am totally going to take your advice on the PVO mix, it sounds perfect. Lots of good information in your post, thanks again. –  Ben MacAskill Sep 8 '11 at 2:53
    
UC extension performs soil testing, eg through the DANR lab at UC Davis although not for the public. –  David Jun 6 '12 at 4:26
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Digging in the composted manure is a good start - especially as it is free. The legumes (peas and beans) will help a bit too. I would also start to compost if you are not doing so already, and you can then dig that in in future years.

Compost (especially the make-yourself kind) is mainly organic matter which will break down over time. Therefore it won't raise the level much and it will settle over time as the organic matter breaks down. Also when you dig it, much of the apparent raising of the level will be due to air - it will settle very quickly.

If "weeds don't particularly love to grow" then I wonder if it is a combination of factors? Perhaps nutritional combined with something else like light or drainage? (gets too dry, possibly?)

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it absolutely does get too dry. Plenty of light, but the soil dries out really really fast. Is there a good way to solve that other than improving the soil in general with compost? –  Ben MacAskill Sep 7 '11 at 19:50
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The solution for too much light would be to plant some shade trees. You may need to install some kind of irrigation as well. Humus will help to hold water - especially if your soil is very sandy. –  winwaed Sep 7 '11 at 20:12
    
I'd vote against adding shade to retain moisture. Don't discount the water holding capacity of soil that's been amended with horse manure! –  bstpierre Sep 8 '11 at 1:24
    
It was unclear if dryness was due to lack of shade or not, so I was listing a number of options. The existing soil mix is also an unknown, but it sounds like more humus is required and as you say, this will do a better job of retaining water. –  winwaed Sep 8 '11 at 1:28
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