Intensive vegetable gardening requires intensive soil preparation

Backyard Q&A

February 16, 2003|By Dennis Bishop | Dennis Bishop,Special to the Sun

My wife and I would like to do a small, intensive vegetable garden in the rear of our rowhouse. Must we double-dig the soil to garden intensively?

Yes, I think it is critical to double-dig the soil in an intensive garden. To produce abundant fruits and vegetables, plants need ample soil for their roots to grow in. However, because plants are spaced very closely in an intensive garden, there is a minimum of soil available between each plant. This is made up for by double-digging.

The soil in a traditional garden is only prepared 6-12 inches deep; however, double-digging prepares the soil 18 inches deep or more. This encourages the roots to grow down instead of out from the plant. The plant can then extract nutrients from deep within the soil, rather than competing with neighboring plants for nutrients. Double-digging is a lot of work, but it only needs to be done once and pays off for many years in the future.

If you want to reduce the workload, you could prepare the soil in your yard 10-12 inches deep and then build a raised bed on top of the prepared area. If the raised bed is 8 inches high, your soil will be deep enough to garden intensively.

Can you explain what damping-off disease is and what causes it? I am starting seeds indoors.

Damping off refers to any disease that kills seedlings as they emerge from the soil. Most of these are fungal diseases that live in the soil. The fungus may attack the roots or the tiny stems of the plant at the soil line. Pythium and Rhizoctonia are two very common fungi that cause damping off. Plants attacked by these diseases may collapse shortly after they emerge, or they may be killed during germination and never emerge from the soil.

To prevent the problem, be sure to sterilize your pots and trays before you use them for replanting, and use only fresh, clean potting soil. You may find that some of your seeds have been stained a bright pink color. This indicates that they have been treated with a fungicide to prevent diseases like damping off.


1. This is an excellent time to begin late-winter pruning. If you are planning to cut your shrubs back hard, it should be done before new growth begins in spring.

2. It is not too soon to begin preparing the spring garden. Winter weeds can be pulled now to prevent them from spreading seed in the spring.

Dennis Bishop is an urban horticulture educator for the Baltimore office of the Maryland Cooperative Extension Services. If you have a gardening or pest problem, you can call the Home and Garden Information Center hot line (Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.) at 800-342-2507. You can also e-mail questions, order publications and diagnose plant problems by visiting the Web site www.hgic.

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