How Neighbors Turned an Old Road into a Garden

By Dana Coffield

For now going on two decades, I’ve been working to improve the soil quality in my yard, moving from planting bed to planting bed—turning, amending, mulching and starting all over again.

This is such a long-term project mostly because I garden on Colorado’s Front Range, where clay is the main soil component. Clay has a bad rep because it tends to seize up like adobe brick in the heat of summer. But really, it’s a friend to the high-desert gardener, hanging tight to nutrients and keeping what moisture remains in the dirt close to thirsty roots.

Making clay work in the perennial border and the vegetable beds requires amending with organic material—and lots of it. I’ve been relatively haphazard in the flower beds. Then there’s the old patch of dirt road that my neighbor Beth and I have been reclaiming for a shared vegetable garden; turning what used to be a street into life-giving garden soil has been a process.

The first fall, we tilled in rotted hay bales we’d used to grow tomatoes the summer before and then covered it all with heavy layers of leaves and the output of Beth’s pet rabbits and my backyard chicken flock. It barely made a dent in the clay. And so we tried again: more straw and manure, layered with rotted newspapers to trap the winter moisture. Things improved enough in the third year that we expanded the operation, dosing otherwise dead soil with our random potion of finished and just-started compost.

We really began to understand our progress in the fourth fall, when we traded a kindly neighbor eggs and honey for a truckload of compost built from organic coffee grounds collected from nearby shops. With a deep layer of black gold raked across fallow planting beds, we started digging. For the first time since we undertook the grand experiment, our garden forks easily went in the depth of their 12-inch tines and turned up fragrant dark soil. We were on the verge of giddy. What had been a pale-beige ribbon of hard-packed clay dressed with gravel was starting to look like beautiful garden loam. This was a place where potatoes and carrots and beets actually could grow.

Some planting missteps and a too-cool summer ruined what should have been our proving season—but I’ll never give up when it comes to gardening. Another neighbor offered a few wheelbarrows of worm castings from his backyard wriggler operation, and I couldn’t say no. He pointed out the tiny golden egg cases as he helped spread the crumbly, dark castings. These, he promised, would hatch into worms that would begin the underground composting cycle again.

When I went to assess the soil this past spring, I didn’t need to dig; I just watched one of my hens swipe the deep, dark soil with her claws to reveal knots of delicious, wriggling worms, clucking her affirmation that the time and effort of friends and neighbors to create this garden has been well spent.

Dana Coffield is a newspaper editor who gardens in Lafayette, Colorado.

Learn more about soil in our eBook Soil and Your Health.

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