Growing healthy soil for our new garden over the winter and spring for a functioning summer garden took trust in what I knew, faith in the process and a lot of interesting help from earthworms, compost , fungi, woodchips and some hungry birds.

I admit in moments of irrational desperation I considered chemically killing the sod on the 40 x 50 foot proposed garden. But I wanted all that healthy grass to die and rot naturally into the proposed garden. I considered tilling although I knew better and banished the thought.

We did what we knew would work — in the early fall killing the grass by covering it with layers of soaking wet corrugated cardboard, layers of wet newspaper, old hay and tons of city yard waste compost, ten tons of it.

When spring arrived a few spring bulbs gave me hope and then the robins arrived. Robins are widely adored despite their rather unfortunate but correct Latin name. It was the noted scientist, Carl Linnaeus who, in 1776, first described (and named) the species, Turdus migratorius, the two words meaning ‘migrating thrush or songbird’ unless they are spoken as the punch line of a gardener/birdwatcher joke.

We are fortunate to have as garden advocates a mother robin and her three youngsters that used our garden as a schoolyard for worm catching techniques. The fact that all of them almost broke speed records in finding and consuming worms told me that the compost and the soil was healthy and that worms were thriving.

The indicator that the wood chip paths (and that small amount of woody material that got mixed into the compost) were also engaged in the process of life/health/decomposition in the soil was the occasional presence of dainty and attractive mushrooms, fungi that have the ability to break down the cellulose in the chips. Some I would leave to fruit and release spores and some I would pull simply to admire their beauty. They do no real harm in the garden (or lawn) and are easy to remove by simply brushing them aside.

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What we have not yet seen, although they may appear at any time are some of the slime molds, actually members of the Kingdom Protista rather than the Kingdom Fungi. One struggles to describe them as beautiful because they are named, quite accurately, as “dog vomit” or “regurgitated cat breakfast,” or possibly less disgusting “yellow blob.” Slime molds are much more concerned with feeding on bacteria, other fungi, or dead organic matter in the soil. They are easy to remove, do much good as decomposers and are good objects for photos with the caption, “What’s this?”

Although our garden soil is “young” it will continue to age and mature and become more homogenous as all soils do. We will compost most of the garden waste and feed that back to the soil. In the fall the beds will be covered in 2-3” of compost that the soil will consume over the winter.

As comfortable and familiar as I am with that process, I remain profoundly grateful for a new garden with healthy, productive soil and a little help from my friends — the birds, the fungi, the compost, the worms and all.

Cathie Draine is a South Dakota Cooperative Extension Master Gardener and a member of the Garden Writers Association. She lives and gardens in Whispering Pines. Contact her at

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