Two years ago we turned out back yardlet into gardens. With a lot of sweat and back spasms, we transformed broken concrete, weeds, and rusty nails into a little haven for plants and people.
For the garden beds, it was digging up hardpan (mixed with rocks and the aforementioned rusty hardware), sieving it through the 1/2″ hardware cloth of our chicken run door, and mixing in compost. Transformed, indeed, this bed brought us a rich year of tomatoes followed by a less-rich year of corn and squash.
I could have kept planting this bed as-is, with only the addition of compost each year, but this spring I couldn’t put my shovel through it.
What did it need? Could it really need more compost? I had added so much in Year 1 and Year 2, the soil was still black. When I started working it with my hands, I found the clay content was very high and there were still a lot of rocks, despite the 1/2″ sieving from Year 1. Although clay helps soil retain moisture and nutrients, too much of it can be a problem. Rocks, too, weigh down the soil and challenge root growth.
At first I was breaking the soil clumps apart with my hands, tossing aside rocks of all sizes. But this would take me weeks. Eventually we began a two-step sieving; 1/2″ sieve to remove remaining large rocks and break down the clay clumps, followed by a smaller-gauge sieve to get the remaining rocks.
At first we were using the fireplace screen. Creative? Yes, but tedious – the opening was 3/8″. Eventually, I buzzed over the hardware store, bought some 1/4″ hardware cloth, built a frame from leftover 2×3 wood, stapled the cloth to the frame, and voila – the perfect soil sifter.
We sifted down 18″, worked in several bags of fine sand, and several wheelbarrows of compost (also sifted; to remove the copious sticks and wood bits). The result: beautiful, beautiful soil in which bean seeds were delighted to germinate.