Category Archives: Soil

Just Tilling in the Rain


Ah, sunny Florida!

Ah, sunny Florida!

I’m trying something a little different this year; actually tilling the garden. With a power tiller!

The weather report claimed that light thunder showers would begin about ten this morning and last all day. It’s Sunday and my neighbors prefer quiet before 9 AM; I headed over to Home Depot about 8:30. HD’s smallest rental tiller is a Mantis XD – thirty-seven dollars for four hours.

After waiting in line – and waiting in line – at 9:30 I was finally ready to load the tiller in my car. Just as the heavens opened. This was not a light shower! But I couldn’t wait to see if the weather improved – I only had four hours.

Halfway done (on the right)

Halfway done (on the right)

The Mantis owner’s manual euphemistically refers to it as a “traditional tiller.” That means it is operated by brute force. The manual also waxes enthusiastic about how efficient their tiller is at chopping up grass and weeds. The reality was somewhat different.

I carefully followed the instructions – walking backwards through the garden as the little Honda motor tried its best to wrench my arms from their sockets. Fortunately I got a break about every 5 to 10 feet. That’s how often I had to stop, turn the tiller on its side, and unclog the tines. I estimate that the motor was actually running about fifteen minutes out of two hours.

Tines? What tines?

Tines? What tines?

But the job was eventually done and it was much quicker and more thorough than using a shovel. The rain, by the way, never let up once while I was working. But it stopped, for good, at 11:30. The rest of the day has been clear and sunny. Why do I even look at weather forecasts?

Suncoast Sodbusting

Laying outProverbs 20:4

The sluggard will not plow by reason of the cold; therefore shall he beg in harvest, and have nothing.

I was planning on starting work in the garden at first light this morning. But it was too cold (about 64° F)!

In ancient Israel early autumn was the time to till the ground and sow the seed for the grain crop (barley and/or wheat). This was also the time of the early rain—perfect for getting the crops off to a good start. It’s understandable that people with a high time preference would prefer not to work out in the fields during a time of cool weather and cold rain. Giving into this impulse, however, would mean no crops to harvest in the spring.

Fortunately, I don’t have whole fields to plant so I can afford to wait and do my planting in the afternoon. By then the temperatures will be up in the 70s – a great advantage to living in South Florida!

I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss how I break established sod for garden plots.

Growing up in Connecticut my preferred technique was to turn the soil with a power tiller. This shredded the grass and weeds and buried most of them. This plant material would then die and rot away to add its fertility to the soil. Florida vegetation is not quite so polite. Any bits that get buried tend to sprout roots and start growing again.

I’ve tried several different techniques over the past decade and I’ve finally settled on one that works well. It isn’t the fastest in the short run but, in the long run, seriously reduces weeding time.

One of the great advantages, from my point of view, is that this technique requires nothing but a shovel. I’m not sure how one could duplicate this technique with power tools (someone probably has and I just haven’t heard about it).

Cutting Strips1In my yard most plants send out runners or underground rhizomes in order to spread quickly. If I dig up a garden bed in the middle of the lawn and then ignore it, it will be lawn again next year. Plants spread very quickly! Because of this web of runners and roots and rhizomes it is very difficult to get all the vegetation (weeds) out of a new garden bed.

My technique overcomes this difficulty by cutting through the web, allowing the grass and weeds to be removed in sections along with their associated “web”.

Since I don’t need a power tiller I “splurged” on my shovel, spending nearly thirty dollars. I could have gotten a cheap shovel for about ten bucks but, in a year or two, the blade would bend or the handle snap. I expect mine to last for a decade or two. Another important feature is the very wide flange on the shoulder. This makes it easy and comfortable to jump on it with both feet when cutting through tree roots hiding under the grass (double-click the third photo to see this detail).

Cutting Strips2I start by laying out the shape of the bed using stakes, string, and/or old garden hose. Then I go around and edge the entire plot to the full depth of the shovel’s blade. Each vertical cut must overlap the preceding one to cut through all the roots and runners.

This edging process might be a bit easier if I used a spade rather than a shovel. Spades have flat blades, not curved, and cut a straighter line. I probably wouldn’t have to overlap the cuts as much, but I’m happy with what I’ve got.

CultivatorAfter edging, I cut the sod into strips about 6 to 9 inches wide. Each cut goes from one edge of the plot to the other. Sometimes I cut (and remove) one strip at a time. On other days I cut a number of strips ahead.

While cutting these strips I drive the shovel vertically to the full depth of the blade and then press forward on the handle to slightly loosen the soil. This loosening will make the next step easier. Remember, each cut should overlap the last one.

Don’t forget to keep your shovel sharp to make your work go faster! In my soil I never need to use a grinder—just a file (no rocks).

Shake it upNow for the fun (dirty) part! It doesn’t matter if the ground is wet or dry—I know I’ll get either muddy or dusty.

Starting from one edge of the garden plot I peel back one strip at a time. Depending upon how tight the sod is I sometimes use my long handled cultivator for this part of the job. In areas where the weeds and grass are pretty sparse it is simplest to just use my hands. Then, squatting down to ground level, I pull off chunks of sod from the strip and shake the soil loose. I continue until I reach the other end of the strip. The vegetation I throw to one side – it will go in the compost pile.

It’s important to peel back only one strip at a time. If I get in a hurry and try to do two at once I’m sure to bury vegetable matter that will regrow as soon as my back is turned.

EggplantsLook at the picture of the section where I planted eggplants. I prepared that bit of garden eight weeks ago and have not weeded it since. In my northern gardening days most weeds came from airborne seeds. On the Suncoast the toughest weeds grow from roots that were left behind or creep in from the edges. The “edge” weeds are easy to take care of. Every once in a while I simply re-edge the garden with my shovel as described above and then peel the strips of vegetation loose (also as described above).

I developed this technique through long experimentation. Try it yourself—I think you’ll find it most satisfactory.

God bless,



Southern Exposure Comes Through

Open BoxI mentioned in an earlier post that my order of sweet potato slips never arrived. I had gotten the impression, from the seed company confirmation email, that they had been shipped. Apparently, this was incorrect. On Tuesday another email arrived:

Subject: Sweet Potato Order Update Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Your sweet potatoes have shipped today 6/4. They should arrive in 2-3 days.
Sweet potatoes should be planted quickly. If you’re not prepared to plant, place slips loosely in a flat of soil. They can be revived upon arrival by dipping in water or placing bottom half of slip in a cup of water.
You should expect the plants to look wilted after their long journey!

BowlsThey arrived on Thursday evening – and I was not ready. I opened the shipping box and placed the root ends in a couple of bowls full of moist vermiculite. I figured that would hold them till Saturday. As you can see they weren’t kidding about the wilting.

One reason (excuse) for my lack of preparation was named Andrea. This tropical storm sideswiped our area from late Wednesday to late Thursday – bringing heavy rains and strong winds. Between the two days I got over 4 inches of rain.

Saturday morning I was up bright and early to clean up from the storm. It was well past noon before I had all of the yard debris – mostly oak branches – raked up and shredded. While I was at it I mowed the lawn. The rain did wonders for my grass.

Okra CardboardAndrea’s winds had shifted the cardboard mulch on the okra bed, covering some of the plants. I stripped it off and noticed that more seeds had germinated underneath. Apparently the rain had washed them to new locations far from the holes that I had punched. The germination rate was better than I had first thought.

After a break for lunch I went grocery shopping. As a side note, Cornell University has just done a study proving that you should never go shopping when you’re hungry. I stumbled across this article on the Telegraph website. Don’t these people have anything better to do? My mom taught me this fifty years ago!

BuffyI began preparing the new garden bed about 3 PM, spacing the Beauregard slips 12 inches apart and the purple slips 24 inches apart.

VermiculiteI modified my planting technique this time (gardening is an art, not a science). In a 5 gallon bucket I mixed a couple of gallons of vermiculite with about a gallon of worm castings (measured by eye). I then dumped about a quart of the mix in each spot where I was going to plant. Using my hands I stirred this into the dirt along with a couple of cups of chlorine-free water, making a nice mud hole for each of my plants. Since we had just gotten 4 inches of rain the soil still had a vague hint of moisture. Talk about extremely well-drained! By the way, I purchase my vermiculite locally in 4 cubic foot (about 30 gallon) bags. An 8-quart (2 gallon) bag sells for about five dollars. The 30 gallon bag is about thirty-five dollars. It’s very convenient to have large quantities on hand whenever needed.

PlantedTwo of the slips didn’t look very good—one of each variety. Maybe they’ll survive.

I finished up about five o’clock. It began raining—a nice, steady downpour—about 5:30.

Having completed the planting, I decided to read the instructions that came with the shipment (it’s a guy thing). It was generic info that recommended a spacing of 9 to 18 inches. Close enough. It also recommended that I “transplant in the evening and water immediately.” Under the brutal Florida sunshine this is excellent advice.

As you can see from the date of this post I was too tired and sore to do any writing on Saturday evening. I retired early. The rain was still falling.

Is today a good day to plant sweet potatoes?

I ordered some sweet potato slips from an online company. Unfortunately they never arrived. I’d rather not mention the company name until I get the problem resolved. Or not.

LayoutGardenBedAs an alternative, I went to Lowe’s and picked up a nine pack of Beauregard sweet potato plants. I’ve never grown sweet potatoes – I’ve rarely even eaten them – but they’re a traditional summertime southern crop. What the heck.

As you can see from the photo my backyard is not heavily overgrown with grass. After laying out a 4’x16′ bed I lightly cultivated and pulled most of the weeds. I’ll depend on a cardboard mulch to take care of the rest.

WateringCultivating talcum powder sand isn’t exactly hard work—but watering it is! For a fun experiment (if you don’t live around here) get some talcum powder and put it in a dish. Sprinkle a little water on top. Does it soak in? I didn’t think so.

Here’s how I did it. I dug a trench with a cultivator, filled it with water, and cultivated again. Repeat, over and over. The water just puddles on top of the soil unless you stir it in. Once the soil and water were mixed I added a cardboard and log mulch to keep the water from evaporating too fast.

What spacing to use? The little plastic thing that came with the plants suggests 12”. An online source suggests 9”, with 32” between rows. Since my bed is four feet wide (until the grass moves back in) I punched the holes 9” apart. I dug each planting hole with a stream of water Plantedfrom the hose, and stuffed the plant in the resulting puddle. I don’t need a trowel.

I also threw a handful of worm castings in each hole to get the plants off to a quick start (I’ll talk about my red worms some other time).  I checked online to see how much fertilizer sweet potatoes need – and it doesn’t seem like they need much. I’m going to try growing them with nothing added except the worm castings. We’ll see how they do.


One thing that I forgot to mention – something you always need to do when planting. Pray. It really does help.


Here’s a close-up of a sweet potato plant.

God bless


Compost Basics

Getting Started

Dirt1The first weekend after moving into my new house I started a compost pile. Yes, this came before doing anything else in the yard. Why is compost so important? Well, the “soil” in most of Pinellas County has to be seen to be believed. It is a very fine sand with little organic content—I often refer to it as “talcum powder.” It has minimal natural fertility and drains so quickly that it retains neither moisture nor added fertilizers. The only practical way to improve it is to mix in lots of organic matter. Because of our heat and humidity the organic matter decays very rapidly and must be constantly replenished.

Adding compost to my coastal Florida “soil” improves its structure, fertility, and water retention but it won’t give me the beautiful soil seen in magazines. The only place around here you can find that kind of soil is in container gardens filled with imported soil.

What is compost? 

Compost is simply organic matter, stuff that was once alive, that has partially decayed. Rather than write a detailed description, I direct you to a decent, short article on Wikipedia:


What I’m going to describe below is the way I do things. I am an engineer who designs machinery for a living—not a doctor or pathologist or nutritionist. While I’ve been doing this for years with absolutely no ill effects, everything I write is merely my opinion. You must do your own research and decide if my methods are for you. I take no responsibility for what you do. And I don’t expect you to take any responsibility for me!

My first compost pile (at my new house)

Once my bin was complete I began raking leaves. I have two large oak trees – planted in 1972 – in my front (south) yard. The people from whom I bought my house spent all their time remodeling the inside. They hadn’t done anything with the yard. Needless to say, there were plenty of leaves to rake up.

I raked the leaves onto an old plastic tarp that I had found; this became my poor man’s sledge to drag them into the back yard. I piled them up next to my bin. As the pile got too big I used my bagging lawnmower to shred the leaves and dump them into the bin. I also mowed the back yard, bagging the grass clippings and dumping them in with the shredded leaves. This added some nitrogen to the mix. As I filled the bin I added buckets of water – many buckets – to moisten everything down. By the time I was finished that first weekend my 4 foot tall bin had leaves piled six feet high.

Over the next two weeks I continued raking and mowing, shredding and piling. I estimate that I managed to fit at least 75 cubic feet of shredded leaves into 2 fifty-cubic-foot bin (it quickly heated up and began settling). After I had overfilled it for the third time, I started a new bin.

Unfortunately, the compost was drying out much too fast. I decided to wrap the whole bin in plastic. I had to do that on the outside since it was already full. When I built the new bin I put the plastic on the inside. I’ll show you what I did in my next column.

There are many online resources explaining the different ways to do composting. People seem to like to stress about getting the carbon – nitrogen ratio just right, adding accelerators and starters, turning the compost, or even buying incredibly expensive manufactured bins and compost tumblers. I do none of these things – too expensive and too much like work.

My method is simple – and probably dates back to the early days of agriculture. I simply keep piling stuff up until I decide it’s time to stop. I add water as needed to keep the pile moist. And I wait. In Florida, with its heat and humidity, I generally start using the compost 3 to 6 months after I stop filling the bin. That’s all there is to it.

How it works

Short answer: God designed things to work that way! I’ve been told – actually I’ve read – that scientists have determined that microscopic organisms – bacteria and fungi – eat my yard waste and turn it into compost. These writers claim a that there are many many different types of these little critters at work. Some of them do their best work at cool temperatures. Others can’t even start growing and reproducing until the temperature rises above 140°F! And yet, these bacteria are found almost everywhere. Pretty amazing. All of the bacteria and fungi that are needed to do the composting process are already present. You don’t have to add any starter culture. They just get to work.

Can I save money by making my own compost?

Let me put this is delicately as I can. Many people buy a manufactured composting bin, purchase starter cultures, or spend money on compost accelerators. These folks will have the satisfaction of making their own compost but will spend far more money than the same amount of compost would have cost at a discount garden center.

If you expect to earn minimum wage for your labor, no.

If, like me, you build your own, cheap, composting bins and work in your garden instead of spending money on a gym membership then the answer is a resounding yes.

In future posts I’ll have a lot more to share, but now I must do some painting before the day gets too hot.

Happy gardening,