It was an exciting day around this time last year when we kicked off the soil preparation on our first Sydney urban farm! When we first stepped foot on the greens at the rundown Camperdown Bowling Club we weren’t sure what the state of the soil was going to be like.
After speaking to local bowling club greens keepers, we learnt that one of the major hurdles would be breaking up the typically heavily compacted soil. Bowling greens are carefully manicured and often rolled to maintain a flat, even surface - however Camperdown Bowling Club had been closed down for close to two years. Since then a lot of the grass had died back and lots of tap-rooted weeds had overtaken the space.
This was great news for us for two reasons; firstly the tap roots had begun the process of breaking into the compacted soil (thank you weeds!). And secondly it told us that any glyphosate (weed herbicide) used while the lawn was active was likely to have well and truly degraded.
We did a series of soil tests using this soil health card which is a great resource for anyone looking at establishing a backyard market garden. It helps you to document the soil pH, top soil depth, rate of water infiltration and more, helping to make informed decisions before putting a lot of effort into establishing a market garden. We were really pleased with the results and discovered our soil had a very consistent pH of 6 right across the board. While being a little on the sandy side, our soil has great drainage too. However it has needed a little love to boost the microbiology level.
Our next task was to turn the soil with a bit of hired muscle. Luckily we have a Coates Hire close by… and I mean really close by. We literally walked our hired walk-behind rotary hoe to the farm site, crossing Parramatta Road - a little tricky as it weighs a tonne!
Our handy walk-behind tractor turns the soil to a depth of around 30-40cm, leaving the weeds to decompose. It took us two afternoons to complete the whole space and it felt great to see the start of the space's transformation.
With the soil tilled, the weeds and grass were turned in too, and we needed to ensure that they didn't survive. Conventional methods would involve spraying a fast-acting, weed-killing pesticide... not such a great practice for organic market gardening. So instead we chose solarisation - a method of suppression using rolls of black builders plastic. This blocks out the sunlight, harnesses its heat and increases the temperature of the soil, causing any remaining weeds to die and decompose.
The only tricky part with this method is keeping the sheets of plastic from flying away on windy days. This method acts fast in hotter months but can take a while longer in the cooler autumn months. After two and a half months the weeds and their seeds died off, so we rolled the plastic back up for later re-use. With our soil aerated and almost completely weed free, we moved on to our next step – sowing green manure!
Words: Michael Zagoridis // Photos: Emma Bowen