If you have compacted, rocky soil like mine then you aren’t growing jack until you address the issue. Those who have never experienced this stuff or have circumnavigated it through raised beds often have some misconception about which corners can and cannot be cut and what can be grown in such stubborn soil. There is surely more than one way to skin this cat (and PETA wont like any of them) but this is my blog and my article so you’re about to learn my way of coaxing some greens from this uncooperative growing substrate. Spoiler alert: it is A LOT of work upfront but I feel that its the least effort in the long term.
You are not going to duck out of this one using any cool tricks your permie friends told you about. Compacted soil and rocks is a dastardly combo. If you think you are going to coax fibrous roots to grow through compacted media or that you are going to Fukuoka your way through rock with daikon radishes, you are in for the kind of disappointment that poor children experience on Christmas morning. Of course, you can circumnavigate this all through raised beds but transporting top soil to your site is guaranteed to be more energy intensive than just breaking up and amending what you already have. I personally have a half mile hike to get to my site and even if i wanted to replace “manpower” with “horsepower”, trying to drive a Dodge full of compost and topsoil up the side of a mountain via treacherous footpaths is guaranteed to piss off my insurance agent. But look on the bright side: instead of running on a treadmill, breathing in the smell of sweaty ball sack while meatheads silently judge you from the corner, you get to have some great exercise in the great outdoors, fresh air and more vitamin D than those player haters even know what to do about!
For this undertaking of brawn and endurance, you will need: a pick axe, adze or other heavy digging tool, a spade, a hoe, a hand cultivator, gloves, a rake, string, stakes and a strong fortitude. I rock a pick axe because it makes me look like the tall, scorned 8th dwarf that didn’t make it into the movie for fear I would’ve put the moves on Snow White before Prince Charming had the chance. I don’t bother to sharpen my spade since i have no sod to cut through and those rocks would dull it faster than a PF could scream “think of the mycorhizal network!”. Get a suitable hoe for breaking dirt clods and give it a girls name. I call mine Jimbo (girls in this country choose strange English names). A hand cultivator is like a small rake. You will use it to hunt for rocks. Stakes can be made from saplings, but I use tent stakes. The: string, gloves and rake are all self explainitory.
First, wield thy pick axe, strike an epic pose and proceed to break up the top layer. You can leverage out the biggest, most shallow rocks and chop up woody roots during this step. I sometimes have to make two passes because my ground is harder than Calculus 301. Trade the pick for the hand cultivator, get on you knees like you’re begging forgiveness for your hedonistic ways (no? Just me?) and go hunting for rocks. Now that the top few inches are loose and the biggest rocks evicted, you should be able to sink your spade in. Flip the soil to expose more rocks, un sheath that cultivator and remove the newly exhumed rocks with extreme prejudice. Now its time for the hoe. Resist the urge to make hoe puns (that’s my job) and try to dig up some more rocks, breaking up dirt clods in the process. This is also the point where you should sprinkle on the compost, granual fertilizer and amendments. (to learn more about my beef with granular fertilizer, read “Sustainable Fertilizer”). Hope you bought a cultivator with a comfortable grip because your going to put it right back to work now. Send a mental middle finger to my blog and ask “who’s “rocky” now, bitch?” before removing my namesakes. With your string and stakes, mark out the dimensions of your new veggie bed then shape the edges by removing the loosened soil from the soon to be footpaths to the top of the bed. Cultivator time. You know the drill. Rocks out. With your rake, rake that bad boy flat and smooth, removing any rocks that make themselves known and you are ready for the last step. “polish” the surface with your hand, brushing any remaining clods and rocks into the footpath. Now give yourself a pat on the back and crack a cold one. You’ve earned it.
Don’t get it twisted: I said that this is “the least effort in the long term” but this is ging to require copious amounts of elbow grease. While my site is especially rocky and compacted, I am 26 years old, in the physical prime of my life and athletic to the point of superfluousness; even I can only manage 40-50Sq feet in a single 2-hour long session. In fact, I strongly suspect that this is the reason my site hadn’t already been claimed by someone else before i stumbled across it; the ROI isn’t favorable for the retirees that do the bulk of the gardening in this country. The good news is that even if you’re soil was as uncooperative as mine, the hardest part is done. After this treatment, nothing short of the military running tank drills over the garden beds will compact them back to their original state and even then, the rocks are gone anyways. Baring Big Brother turning your garden into his playground, It will require maybe 15 minutes of spading to re prepare that same 50sq feet next year and by not stepping on the beds, even that might not be necessary. It’s this part that makes al that upfront work “the least effort in the long term”.
While i’m sure an army of PF’s is on the way to tell me how this “isn’t permaculture”, this is what it takes to grow at my site. Rocks prevent me from fukounaka’ing it with radishes, compact soil prevents me from ignoring it and planting crops with fibrous root systems that would otherwise grow around the stones, and while there is plenty of biomass available to make lasagna beds, that is a recipe for snails and mold in my neck of the woods. However, even audacious as I am, i’m not going to insist that my way is the only way. Maybe you can get away with a less labor intensive approach. But if you happen to have compacted, rocky soil and decide that tillage is the way to go, I hope that this guide has a few gems that might help you out.