Where to start?

(Patti) Wichita, KS(Zone 6b)

This year was the first year I have had an interest in gardening. When the bug bit, it bit hard. Now I have a big mess, and I need direction and guidance please.

I will be doing winter sowing later this year. In preparation, I thought I had better look at the available areas to plant in next spring.

Last Wednesday, a giant elm was removed from the far side of my driveway, making a a previously shady area into one that will have broiling Kansas sun, at least seven hours a day. I hire a garden helper and yesterday he planted a Smokebush in the now sunny area. I got it on deep discount and, if I wanted to save it, I had to get it in the ground. It looks rough. When planting, I saw for the first time, how horrible my soil is. He dug down about 24 inches, of which the top 15 or 16 was made up of loose packed "something"' and then he hit solid clay. He thoroughly mixed the "something" soil, the clay and some compost and used that to plant the smoke tree in.

I must get this area into shape by spring. I plan on putting perennials and some annuals in this area. Where do I start in amending the soil? At its very widest, the bed is 6 1/2 feet. It is probably 30 feet long, but narrows (6 1/2 feet, then five and three-quarter feet, then 4 1/2 feet wide, as it goes to the east). I currently have six more bags of compost in the garage which I plan on digging in. I don't think this will be enough. The ground is sloped away from the house, so I will have to have some type of retaining border, probably landscaping timbers.

I recently started a compost pile, but the only thing in it are a few kitchen scraps and lawn clippings. I will be adding cardboard and shredded paper later today, after I shred the paper. The location of the compost pile stinks. At this time, I do not have access to water. Hauling water regularly isn't really an option, due to my health.

I have purchased a soil test kit, which reads soil pH, nitrogen, phosphorus and pot ash. I haven't used it yet, but plan on doing that within the next few days. I also have a number of people who will be saving leaves for me this fall. At this time, I don't have any.

The thing that breaks my heart is the fact that I have yet to see a single worm anywhere in my yard. I have lived here for 15+ years and have never used chemicals. The neighbors on either side use a Chemlawn type of company, and I don't know if that would impact me or not.

In addition to the purchased compost, does anyone have any suggestions on what else I can do? I am intrigued by the idea of having worms, but do not believe I generate enough scraps to feed them. Thank you so very much,

Thumbnail by Tuckersmom Thumbnail by Tuckersmom
Hobart, IN

Make sure you're watering your smoke bush every day for the first week. Every other day the second week and then a deep soak once a day until frost or the ground freezes. You could mulch around it with some shredded newspaper and some (hate to say it) wood mulch (to hold the newspaper down) to keep the roots a little cooler and wetter while it gets established.Once you get some compost, I would top-dress it with about 1 inch. Don't prune it unless you're cutting off any small dead branches.
I can see why you don't have worms - there's nothing there for them. Start layering whatever organic matter you can in that area. Water loss from the soil through evaporation is going to be a big factor in that area. You can gradually improve the loose stuff and don't fret about the clay underneath right now. Clay does hold a lot of nutrients and once you get some worms, they'll help. Spot composting will also help - digging a hole and burying kitchen scraps (no meat or fat).

(Patti) Wichita, KS(Zone 6b)

Cindy, thank you for your post. I will start adding compost when my garden helper comes Tuesday morning. I assume I just have him dig the compot in to the depth of what, 6 inches? We will start around the tree and work out from there. This was a brutal time to plant it as the temperature was 97° today and I have absolutely no way to shade that poor thing. No, it has been stressed and up enough. I will not prune it for a while.

Truthfully, it didn't look that bad until we started digging up the plants that were in the bed and stirring the ground up. Plus, Wednesday I had big equipment in the bed. Two Stabilizer feet for the big bucket that at goes up to the top of the trees were there. That's why the plants are moved out in the first place. That's probably a very good thing because now I basically have an empty bed to work with. Thank you again.

Hobart, IN

I think I would keep the compost in the top 6" and then on top of the soil as well. You'd be giving the soil some moisture-holding content and a gentle feed when it rains. Have you thought about doing some composting in place? It would save you some work and the distance between your compost pile and a water source is wouldn't be an issue.
Is there anyway you can rig up something to shade your tree for a week or so? An umbrella or a sheet? Here, the weather is supposed to break this week bringing rain and cooler temps.

(Patti) Wichita, KS(Zone 6b)

Today 99°, tomorrow 90°, Wednesday 84° and the temperature stabilizes in the 80s. . We have a 50% chance for rain tomorrow and the next day. Relief is in sight. I have racked my brain, trying to figure out a way to protect the Smokebush from the sun. I am coming up with nada. If I place a ladder out there and drape it with a tarp or dropcloth, the entire set up will prolly disappear. I live in a good area of town, but I live on a heavily trafficked street, both vehicular and foot.

Certainly I can start spot composting! That would resolve the water issue.

With this weather forecast, I doubt that my garden helper will come tomorrow. Let me ask this: Can I bag the grass and just dump it on the dirt? My issue with that is the potential for weed seed. I do not normally bag the grass in the front yard, but guess I would have about 4-5 bags - enough to cover the entire area by maybe an inch. I could spread it out and mix them with the compost, and then, because,the top layer of dirt is very soft and easily dug, the clippings could be dug in at the same time as the compost. Does that sound like a viable way of starting this process? Then, as the budget allows, I could top everything with more compost - while continuing to spot compost with kitchen scraps.

Thank you so very much,

Hobart, IN

Can you set up two bamboo poles or tall stakes in front of the shrub and then staple or tie some burlap or old sheet to them? Old lawn chair in front and drape with sheet? A tall stack of pots? Anything that can form a frame to drape fabric (not plastic) over?
I wouldn't dig in too much of the "rough" stuff like leaves or grass clippings but lay them on top in layers instead. If you're using a weedkiller on your lawn, that might be a way for the stuff to dissipate from the clippings. If you treat your lawn with weedkiller, I wouldn't add the clippings and plant at the same time.

Algonquin, IL(Zone 5a)

Patti, I feel your pain.
When most subdivisions are built (no matter how old), the contractors pile some topsoil on top of whatever is there.

Sometimes they dump leftover construction material before putting down the topsoil as my husband found out when he built me a long, narrow raised bed about 8 years ago along our neighbor's fence. He dug down to get rid of junk soil and put timbers along the fence so water wouldn't seep into their yard. He found gigantic chunks of concrete left over from construction of the basement as well as other junk.

Cindy has some great ideas on dealing with your Smoke Bush as well as your garden. Here's some more on your garden.

Because you don't plan on planting until spring, your bed is ideal for a Lasagna Garden technique. This is a technique where you pile various organic material up, a layer at a time, usually starting with cardboard (like Lasagna). You pile it quite high as it will break down over time. You can actually cut holes and plant right away, but leaving it sit over winter is better. By spring you should have both nice soil and worms. You could also import a few worms before you start (even getting a few from a friend or neighbor - they reproduce quickly)

I found an old thread with lots of links to give you more info. There are more recent threads, but they're a pain to locate with the new forum layout. You can also Google "Lasagna Gardening" or "Lasagna Garden" and you'll come up with zillions of articles. YouTube also has lots of videos. In fact you could spend a week just reading articles about Lasagna Gardening.

Here is one DG thread to get you started:
At the moment, I can't locate the others I was searching for. If I find some more I'll post them.


The picture is a screen shot from one of my Garden Gate Magazine eNotes. It shows a simple way to water new trees and shrubs, especially if you don't have water right nearby. Unfortunately, our screenshots don't seem as clear since Windows automatically upgraded us from Windows 8 to 8.1, but you can get the idea.

This message was edited Sep 7, 2015 10:41 AM

Thumbnail by nutsaboutnature
Algonquin, IL(Zone 5a)

Here are a few more links on Lasagna Gardening that might be helpful:





But there is sooooo much more info out there.

This message was edited Sep 7, 2015 12:54 PM

Hobart, IN

Thanks, nuts, for explaining this far better than I. :)

(Patti) Wichita, KS(Zone 6b)

You all have given me so much information to work with… Thank you!

The idea of lasagna gardening makes perfect sense. I'm going to have to get some type of retaining wall in place before I start the actual layering, but I was planning on doing that anyway. The dirt has a slope from the house to the drive and, at present, when it rains or I water, I have a muddy driveway.

I do not use chemicals on my lawn. I have a mulching blade on my mower, but I have another mower with the bag.

Even though the Smoketree bush is in horrible shape, it is trying to get the smokey plumes on the very top. I am 5'2", and it's a couple inches taller than me. Honestly, I don't have anything that will work. The plans are for my mom to move in with me sometime this fall, winter or next spring, and I have worked to rid my house of stuff I don't use. Decluttering is not for the faint of heart. I just knew I was going to need that big bed sheet and I was right.

I can go up to Goodwill tomorrow and see if they have a sheet I can nail to the house and drape over the tree. Halloween is coming soon, isn't it?

I glanced over all of the links before replying. What a wealth of information! While I am out tomorrow, I plan on stopping by a local coffee shop Re: saving grind for me. They did let me have some once, which I mixed into the compost pile. It was just starting out and was probably pretty much wasted, as I had no idea what I was doing. I want to see if I can do a coffee ground collection on a regular or semi regular basis.

Thank you so much for sharing your information with me. I love the people here on Dave's garden. It would appear that generosity and enthusiasm are a huge part of the spirit of this organization.

Thank you again. I will not be a stranger here. LOL I want to learn.

Hobart, IN

Re: coffee grounds - if you have a Starbuck's nearby, they routinely bag all of their grounds. Some even put the bags in a special bin in front of the store for any gardener to pick up. Incorporate as much as you can in your lasagna layering along with crushed egg shells. Some folks report that worms love coffee grounds. I also dilute leftover black coffee to feed to a few shrubs next to the house. I even have a bottomless plastic kitchen trash can with holes drilled in the sides and set into the ground out of the way where I collect my own coffee grounds. They have a chance to dry out a bit before I sprinkle them around the garden.

(Patti) Wichita, KS(Zone 6b)

Cindy, how do you prep your eggshells? Do you just wash them out, as some people do, or do you bake them? I don't know how serious Salmonella is in the compost pile. I was using soap and water, but the egg shells kept falling apart. That was difficult. There has to be a better way.

Thank you for the heads up on Starbucks. We have a brand-new neighborhood coffee shop down the street from me and another neighborhood coffee shop within eight blocks the other direction. Starbucks is a mile north of me. Surely I can get coffee grounds! Maybe from all three vendors? LOL

I have read all of the articles posted and have started with YouTube. Mercy!

Hobart, IN

Eggshells - as soon as I use them, I rinse them out with plain water and throw them into my open plastic collection bag (hangs on a nail right outside the kitchen door into the garage). When I've accumulated some and have the time (they're usually dry by this time), I use an old rolling pin to crush them or, if I'm short of time, I just stomp on them (either way, inside of the plastic bag). They do take quite a while to break down in the garden but I'm not always looking for quick fixes. I also save eggshells over the winter and use about a dozen of them (crushed) for each of my few tomato plants in the spring. I haven't experienced any problems to date.
You can never have too many coffee grounds when you're getting a new garden bed into shape as long as you don't lay them down in a thick layer (mold issues) but broadcast them or mix them in with other stuff in your layering.

(Patti) Wichita, KS(Zone 6b)

Cindy, thank you for your quick response. I just got back from delivering a tidy cat bucket to the new coffee shop down the street. I will be picking a full bucket up every morning. These guys are busy! I'm really hesitant about asking any vendor for the refuse if I'm not a paying customer. They know me by name at the shop I just went to.

I had to wonder if using soap and water to wash the eggshells wasn't overkill. I like your way of doing things much better and will incorporate that into my routine. Unless I'm making potato salad or deviled eggs for a family get together, I don't generate that many eggs as a rule.

Now I'm going to call my nearest feed store and see if they have a dry bundle or two of straw. We are finally getting rain.

Thank you again,

Hobart, IN

It took me a while to wrap my ahead around doing things in a simpler way. Veggie scraps (except tomatoes and potatoes) into the garden beds directly, shredded fall leaves instead of wood mulch, coffee grounds and eggshells into the garden instead of the garbage can, chop and drop techniques in garden beds instead of hauling it away to the compost pile, etc. Always something new to learn.

(Patti) Wichita, KS(Zone 6b)

I know I am certainly guilty of trying to make things more complicated than they need to be.

"Chop and drop" – I like that. LOL

(Patti) Wichita, KS(Zone 6b)

Yippee, one of my local feed stores has straw and it won't break the bank. Do I need to get anything else while I'm there?

Lime maybe? Or should all of that wait until the bed is ready and I can do a soil sample.
I think maybe I'm putting the cart before the horse. Thanks!

Hobart, IN

Re: soil sample - anyway you can get a sample now to send to a soil lab? I'm thinking that you can add any recommended amendments now and let them "work" over the winter. Adding organic matter doesn't necessarily change the mineral content of your soil. If you can afford it, you might want to go beyond the NPK analysis. Magnesium, sulfur, calcium, etc can have a big impact on what you grow.

(Patti) Wichita, KS(Zone 6b)

I will call my extension office and see how to go about doing that. It does make sense to add that stuff while I'm building the bed. Good thought! I knew there was a reason I posted here. I would've made a royal mess of this. Thanks!

Algonquin, IL(Zone 5a)

Patti ~ I can see it now...by next spring you'll be raving about how many worms you have! Exciting, isn't it?

When I first Joined DG I got so engrossed in the, now defunct, Soil and Composting forum that I would read through threads until I was cross-eyed.

I'd probably hold off on the lime if I were you, until you know a little more about what your soil is like. For instance, in my area soil tends more towards alkaline so I would never add lime. Cindy's idea about testing early is a good idea. Soil can also vary in different parts of your yard, but it sounds like right now your main focus is the one bed.

During nesting season not too many of my eggshells make it to my garden. I save them for the birds since the calcium helps to strengthen their own eggshells. The shells I give to the birds either get baked or boiled to make sure they're safe.

To add a little more insight into how much worms really love coffee grounds, some people swear it acts as a worm aphrodisiac!

Oh, I almost forgot - just in case your looking for a few thousand more articles/videos on Lasagna Gardening, another term for it is "No Till Gardening". :o)

(Patti) Wichita, KS(Zone 6b)

Oh my, no till gardening. Yes, my eyes are going to be crossed. But that's OK!

I just talked to the county extension office, affiliated with K State. I'm lucky to live here. The cost of the soil sample is $18, and she told me exactly how to take it and where to submit it. She said it takes approximately three weeks to get back, once it is submitted. That's not bad at all. That still gives me time before we get heavy frost. I will go ahead and pick up the straw within the next week or ago. My garage is already so full of compost and mulch, and I don't want to set up a rodent motel with cooler weather coming. I am already putting grass clippings into the compost. That's OK, it will all get dumped into the lasagna layers anyway. I don't remember when the leaves really start falling enough to get into " seriously raking mode". It can't be too far in the future.

Yes, I am really getting excited.

Of course, everything I am learning will be put to work elsewhere in my yard. I have already decided to cut back on the winter sowing I was going to do. I am a senior citizen, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't take the time to get healthy soil before I plant in it.

I can't believe the way you guys have jumped in to help me. Thank you so much.

Hobart, IN

You are more than welcome. I love talking about this stuff. I learn new stuff all the time.
I think the straw will help keep your bed from washing away into the driveway. You might want to put that on first. It'll rot down over the winter, especially with all of the other goodies on top. You can leave the fall leaves on top for the winter (which I do because I can be incredibly lazy). When it comes to lime (if you need it), there are a couple of different types that might require more research when the time comes. Some types of lime can tie up other minerals in your soil - I think it was magnesium but not sure.

(Patti) Wichita, KS(Zone 6b)

Uncle Jim's has Super Reds European night crawlers (250 of them) for $25.00 normally. It will be much easier for me to collect black-and-white newspapers than for me to deal with cardboard. I already have several stacks of newspaper because I was using it to cover grass and then covering that with mulch. So, would it make sense for me to get these worms and add them to the bed as I'm adding the layers? I could start with a smattering of compost and then add the newspapers and then the straw, etc. I have talked with several people locally and no one is seeing worms. I think it's been too hot, even for people with healthy soil. I would appreciate your input.

Cindy, why don't you like mulch? Or did I misunderstand? I've been buying the Cedar so it won't attract bugs. Being a newbie,, that's all I knew to do.

Hobart, IN

I'm not familiar with the type of nightcrawlers you mentioned - only my red wigglers. I think once you start creating a cooler, damper environment that the worms will start showing up.
I'm not a wood mulch fan because a) 40 bags only gets me started on beds that need mulch; b) it's expensive; c) heavy lugging those bags around; d) don't know where it came from - could be yucky pallets or diseased wood for all I know; and e) it's hard to find it without some sort of dye on it. I bought 4 bags last year just to dress up the "public" front bed and had strange mushrooms growing everywhere. My shredded leaves are cheap, lightweight, I know where they come from and I try to grow as organically as possible. I've seen tree services grind up poison ivy vines along with cut-down trees - eeewww.

(Patti) Wichita, KS(Zone 6b)

Eeeeewwwwwww is right!

OK, I do understand now. I don't have leaves here,'s so I'm dependent on other people. Mulch is something I know is available. I haven't had any trouble finding cypress without dye, but that's this year and who knows what next year will be like. Thank you for your explanation.

Frankly, I would prefer not to have to buy worms, unless I want to do worm farm. I just don't think I'm ready for that now. Once mom moves in, I will be doing a lot more cooking. In addition, my brother will come home every weekend and stay with us so that's even more table scraps. I guess I'll hold off. In the spring, are they pretty close to the surface, I guess what I'm asking is could I dig down a little bit into the lasagnaed in bed to determine that they were there or not.

Hobart, IN

You shouldn't have to buy worms for your garden. Once you get your lasagna project going, you could relocate any worms you see elsewhere on your property to a new home. If you have any bait and tackle shops nearby, you could maybe buy a cup of worms if you want a jump-start. You could check on the population in the spring once the soil warms up a bit.

(Patti) Wichita, KS(Zone 6b)

Time for an update? It's been a hectic month, starting with a friend staying with me for a week because her sister was in the hospital and possibly dying. That of course took my attention off of all things gardening. Even after she went home, I was still in that loop until her sister did actually pass away a week later. Last Wednesday, I heard on the news that a 66-year-old woman had been killed in her home. The next day, they released her name. She and I no longer ran around together but I have known her since 1966. She actually introduced me to my first husband.

So what has saved my sanity? Collecting coffee grounds, boiling and crushing egg shells, picking out and picking up the edging for the lasagna bed, buying peat moss and compressed straw, and collecting newspapers and cardboard. I have been saving all of the grass clippings and the leaves will probably start falling off the trees in about a week or two.

The oaks are really putting on acorns. Does that mean we're going to have a bad winter? Do oaks get acorns? remember, I'm new at all this!

My sweet little smoke tree has survived. Although 90% of the leaves are crispy critters, the other 10% are a beautiful soft burgundy and healthy! I think it's happier than it's been all summer, when it was crammed in that pot. The daily watering has made all the difference in the world. I was unable to figure out a way to shade it, but I am not sure that mattered. It certainly looks better than it did. Thank you telling me how much water that little guy really needed. I am grateful.

So Tuesday I start on the lasagna bed. We will finish putting the edging in place and lay the cardboard. Then we will start piling stuff on. I won't complete it until, of course, I have Cheryl inches of leaves. The only thing I don't understand is whether or not to top it with black plastic. I would prefer not to, but it depends on what you read. I would think the rain and snow this winter would help things decompose. So what is the purpose of the black plastic?

It is beautiful here today. We have a high in the 70 although it will be back up in the upper 80s next week. You can feel Fall in the air though. I hope you all are having a great weekend. TTYL

Thumbnail by Tuckersmom
Hobart, IN

Hopefully garden-related projects will be a spirit restorative after your anxious time.
I don't know why you'd put black plastic over your lasagna bed unless, perhaps, you'd be planting in it right away and need weed suppression. Not something that makes sense since you want air and moisture from rain/snow to help all of the ingredients break down. I would also water each layer with a hose to make sure there's moisture throughout the layers. The shredded leaves should also be watered to help hold them in place. You can continue to add to your lasagna bed over the winter by burying veggie scraps and egg shells under the layers.

(Patti) Wichita, KS(Zone 6b)

Cindy, we are in complete agreement on this! I can see black plastic for solarization, but why would you want to keep the water and snow off of something you're wanting to decompose? That didn't make any sense to me, which is why I posted. Thank you for the heads up on watering between each layer. I probably would not have thought to do that. Once again, thank you for your response.

Hobart, IN

Re: black plastic - a lot of folks like the idea of being able to plant in a lasagna bed right away. Depending on what organic matter they use in their layers, there may be weed seeds or seeds can get blown in over the summer. The black plastic would help with that. And it could provide a heating effect that would speed decomposition. As for watering, I know you folks got a lot of rain a while back but late summer can be dry sometimes and some of your ingredients might be on the dry side. And the moisture (not soggy, mucky moisture) can help lure the worms back to your garden. Coffee grounds and bananas are a favorite food of worms and can be put under your cardboard or within the layers.

(Patti) Wichita, KS(Zone 6b)

Hmmm, I'm going to be building the lasagna bed around the smoke tree. I will be sure and keep the ingredients away from the trunk. As of right now nothing more will be planted in there until spring. I think I'll leave the plastic off. Thank you!

Colima, Mexico(Zone 11)


Hobart, IN

Thanks, vitrsna, for the bump!

Colima, Mexico(Zone 11)

It's a good thread with lots of good suggestions so i thought it should stick around :-D

Hobart, IN

I forgot to answer Patti's question about the acorns. I 3 different types of oaks here. Last year was a bumper crop for some of them. The year before I hardly had any and was really scratching my head about that. This year seems to be average. Is crop size an indicator? Don't know for sure. Maybe a response to the previous bad winter? Don't know.

(Patti) Wichita, KS(Zone 6b)

We did not have a bad winter last winter. Thank you for your answer, Cindy. The squirrels certainly are busy here. I guess I'll know by spring how bad our winter is going to be. LOL

Vitrsna, are you going to be doing this? I still need to get the last of my grass clippings and my leaves down and I think I'm going to put another layer of compost between the two. I will top everything with the straw and then I'm done.

Algonquin, IL(Zone 5a)

Last Sunday's Chicago Tribune had an article where garden "pros" (people that have written books, have TV shows, etc.) commented on some of their pet peeves that many home gardeners do.

One that I found interesting was the over use of wood mulch. They were saying the best mulches for most plants are shredded leaves, compost and other materials that come directly from the plants just like they would in nature.

I enjoyed it because we rarely use wood mulch, just a little around a few trees. And we rarely rake any leaves, but they all get used. My husband mulches most of them right into the lawn. If there are excess leaves, he runs the mulching mower over them then we collect the piles into paper leaf bags. We can then sprinkle some on the flower beds, add some to the compost bin or mix into the soil.

I watch our neighbors on both sides of us. One spends hours raking his leaves then hauls them into the back of his yard and dumps them around a stand of trees. I guess that's okay, but those trees would drop leaves anyway. They really don't need more. The other one uses one of those noisy blowers and collects them for the trash people to haul away. What a waste.

Hobart, IN

Wow - and I stopped getting the Sunday Tribune. 'Bout time someone voiced a concern about wood mulch. (Sorry - should have announced a snarky alert.)

Colima, Mexico(Zone 11)

I'm sorry Patti, am i going to be doing what? Do you mean bumping the thread? I don't think i'll need to because people are participating so no need for a bump. I bumped it this one time so it would jump over the steaming hot trolling thread which hopefully will sink in to oblivion. I liked this thread and it looked like It had potential for more good conversation. Did the bump cause a problem for you? I should have asked you first, i just didn't think about it at the time.

(Patti) Wichita, KS(Zone 6b)

Heavens no, bumping did not cause a problem! I was wondering if you were going to use the lasagna method of gardening. I apologize for not making myself clear. 😊

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