UC Master Gardeners of Monterey & Santa Cruz Counties
University of California
UC Master Gardeners of Monterey & Santa Cruz Counties

Lazy Gardener Soil Prep

Mushroom compost. Image from: https://www.olx.co.za/ad/mushroom-compost-lawn-dressing-potting-soil-order-we-deliver-whole-cap-ID15MxLA.html.
Perhaps you're busy and want your weekend to relax, or you have a bad back or you just moved and your soil is hard like concrete, or you just don't feel like digging and lifting and turning the dirt in your backyard when spring fever hits and you want to start a spring vegetable garden. Here are a couple of strategies for the lazy, busy or physically limited gardener to help you get started and incorporate some vital organic material. The object of the exercise is to transform whatever kind of soil you have into loose, rich, fluffy soil that's teeming with beneficial, microscopic life. Each one of these strategies incorporates tradeoffs between the inputs of

Time : Money : Effort

Tip! This plant calculator gives you how many plants per square foot for cost estimation purposes!

The Busy Gardener - Outsource It

You work long hours and want to get this 10' x 10' garden bed set up and planted ASAP. You have available cash so you call the nearest home supply store and have them deliver 2 yards of compost. You hire the high school kid next door to move it and dig it in. You fertilize and plant purchased seedlings. By Sunday evening you have a garden installed and go bed dreaming of fresh produce.

Input Description Cost Estimate

2 yards of mushroom compost

4-6" layer over 100 sq ft with some saved for mulching, $26/yd $52
Delivery Truck it to your house and dump it - flat rate for up to 10 yards, varies by distance $65
Labor 6 hours at $15/hr with a tip $100
Annual seedlings

6 cell pack  ~ 1.75

Jumbo 6 pack ~ 3.50

6" spacing over 100 sq ft = ~400 plants

$115 for cell packs

$230 for jumbo packs

  TOTAL ESTIMATE * $332 - $447

* These estimates don't include the cost of fertilizer or tools or building a raised bed if that's desired. Clearly this person is gardening for love, not profit!

The Frugal Gardener - DIY

You have more time than money to spend on the yard. You know the community is full of free organic material and you are the one to recycle it. You plan ahead, collect materials, plant from seed, maintain your own compost pile and have access to a truck or vehicle that can haul messy manure, food scraps, etc.

Coffee grounds. Image from: http://www.thesleuthjournal.com/5-ways-use-spent-coffee-grounds/ .
Sources of low cost or free organic materials:

  • Make your own compost
  • Municipal green waste recycling/compost
  • Horse stables - sometimes they will load it for free or a small fee. Take it from the darkest composted pile.
  • Worm castings - learn about worm composting here
  • Coffee grounds - bring a bucket to Peet's in the morning, pick it up in the afternoon.

Materials for your compost pile

  • Make manure. Get some chickens or rabbits.
  • Compostable produce scraps at grocery stores - bring a bin or a bag and pick up.
  • Spent brewer's grain at microbreweries
  • Organic materials exchange
Input Description Cost Estimate
2 yards composted horse manure or other free sourced amendment 4-6" layer over 100 sq ft with some saved for mulching. Tip the guy driving the front loader. $10
Delivery You get access to a pickup truck, pick it up yourself. Gas money. $5
Labor Your labor. You know how you value your time. $?
Home grown seedlings ~$2.00 per seed pack, let's assume 10 crops in the first planting $20

* These estimates don't include the cost of fertilizer or tools or building a raised bed if that's desired. This is a high profit veggie plot, pays off in organic produce!

The Patient Gardener - The Long View

Buckwheat cover crop. Image source: http://www.caes.uga.edu/newswire/story.html?storyid=5891 .
You know that good soil builds over time and you're in no hurry to get things planted before the soil is good and ready to receive. One fast, effective way to get poor soil dramatically improved is to grow a cover crop and dig it in to decompose. Growing a legume cover crop will also fertilize by fixing nitrogen from the air to the soil. Cover crops break up compacted soil, suppress weeds, create habitat for beneficial insects and provide biomass that becomes humus. You enjoy the cover crop foliage and bloom for 2-3 months, dig it in, and wait for 3 weeks before planting a late summer or fall garden. Cover crops recommended for summer planting in the Monterey Bay Area include buckwheat, mustard, red clover, and crimson clover. Try local feed and garden supply stores or look online to purchase. 

Input Description Cost Estimate

FAST growing, quick flower, soft stems are easy to dig into the soil. Good for filling empty spaces in summer. Blooms provide habitat for beneficial insects – beautiful!

Use 1 pound per 500 sq ft
Crimson clover

Crimson clover has a gorgeous magenta flower and fixes nitrogen.

Use 1-2 pounds per 1000 sq ft
Red clover

Kinda pink really, this legume fixes nitrogen

Use ½ pound per 1000 sq ft

Attracts beneficial insects and has an “inoculating” effect on the soil that reduces nematode populations. Incorporate before going to seed

Use ½ pound per 1000 sq ft
Labor All of these are much easier to dig into the soil than winter cover crops. Dig your own or enlist some help. $?

Read more about cover crops here, here and here.

The Lasagna Gardener - Improve Your Soil and Eat It Too!

You want those summer peppers and tomatoes soon but you DO NOT want to dig and you definitely want the soil improved. Methods that let you have it all involve planting in composting materials. Two great ways to do this are lasagna gardening (AKA sheet composting) and straw bale gardening.

Lasagna gardening

Essentially, you layer compostable materials, cover with soil, and plant. The plants grow while the layers decompose to soften and enrich the soil. This works best in small patches. There are many articles online describing how to do this. A few good ones can be found here and here. For a 5' x 5' lasagna bed:

Input Description Cost Estimate
Cardboard or newspaper First lay paper or cardboard on the soil to smother weeds. Water until soaked. Free
"Green" compostable stuff Grass clippings, fruit & vegetable scraps, manure, coffee grounds, rinsed seaweed, compost Free
"Brown" compostable stuff Dried leaves, straw, peat moss, pine needles, sawdust, wood chips, rice hulls Free to $10 for a bale of straw
Topsoil 4" topsoil for planting - you'll need four 2 cu ft bags at $8-12 per bag, or top with homemade compost 4 bags at $10 each = $40
Labor You'll need to assemble and/or transport all the materials and layer them, watering in between $?

Cost and effort all depend on the size of your bed so here's a coverage calculator.

Lasanga layers illustrated. Image from: https://www.revivedkitchen.com/2013/02/preparing-vegetable-beds-for-spring-lasagna-gardening/ .

Straw bale gardening

This is another approach where the growing medium degrades to become rich soil while hosting a crop at the same time. Read step by step instructions about straw bale gardens here or stay tuned for a straw bale class at the Demo Garden in July.

Straw bale garden "bed." Four bales in a square filled with planting mix. Image by Delise Weir.

What Kind of Gardener are You?

Whether you are busy, frugal, patient or a lasagna gardener, or maybe even a combination of two or more types, there's a veggie gardening strategy out there to suit you. Remember, it's all about the soil and getting and keeping it ready to grow vegetables for you. If you still have questions about how best to prepare your garden soil, take advantage of our FREE class in the Watsonville Demo Garden on Sunday, May 7th at 10am. For more information and to register, visit our website. We hope to see you at our class!

Don't forget to subscribe to our blog so that you receive an email notification when a new post goes up. If you have questions, contact us online, by phone or in person to get answers to your gardening quandaries!  

Posted on Tuesday, April 18, 2017 at 5:16 PM


Great article, Kamille. I was getting ready for the soils class today at the Demo Garden in Watsonville so I reread your article. Surprised to see there were no comments I decided I'd better post one. This is a great article with concise information with great pictures and links to other sources of information. I found it most helpful! Thanks!!!!! Sue

Posted by Sue Procter on May 7, 2017 at 7:34 AM

Thanks, Sue! The article was written by Delise Weir, and I agree, it's packed with information.

Reply by Kamille Hammerstrom on May 7, 2017 at 3:27 PM

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