Question: I plan to remove a patch of lawn near my patio and plant herbs there in the spring. Should I dig it up now or wait until I'm ready to plant?
Answer: By all means, get started now. Several things need attention before new soil can be trusted to grow herbs, and all of them require time. A head start also will eliminate surprise setbacks, such as discovering thick tree roots or a big boulder where you envision your herb garden. Plus there's the fact that working conditions in the fall are often quite wonderful.
The first step will be getting rid of the grass. Instead of turning it under to decompose, consider digging it out in sheets and moving it to another part of your yard. If you turn it under now, much of it will survive winter and start growing in the spring. It's better to move unwanted turf to a place where it can do some good.
Once you've moved the grass, visit a garden center to get supplies. Buy several bags of organic matter, which might be labeled as humus, compost or soil conditioner. These materials are quite inexpensive and usually are packaged in 40-pound bags. Buy enough so that if you were to lay the bags over the space, side by side, they would completely cover it twice (for a 2- by 4-foot bed, you would need four 40-pound bags). Also buy a small pH test kit, which should cost no more than a few dollars.
In your next digging session, check the pH of your soil to see if it is acidic, alkaline or neutral. Follow the directions on the test kit package. If the pH is quite alkaline, the organic soil amendments will help lower it into the neutral range, and you can add a small amount of soil sulfur, which is available at garden centers. If it is very acidic, you will need to mix in some lime (I suggest using pelleted lime) to make it nearly neutral. Most herbs grow best in soil that has a pH in the slightly acidic to near-neutral range.
Now you are ready to dig in. For best results, I suggest a procedure called "double digging," which improves the soil deep down, where air and organic matter are most needed. Here's how it's done: Using a sharp spade, dig out the top 6 to 8 inches of soil and place it in a wheelbarrow or garden cart, or pile it beside the new bed. Now dig and turn the next 8 to 10 inches of soil, breaking the clumps apart as you work. Next, lay half of your bags of soil amendments in the bed and use your spade to cut a large "X" into the plastic on the flat side of each one. Grab the bags by two corners and flip them over; they should empty out easily.
Ready to dig again? Sprinkle on soil sulfur or lime (if needed), and dig, turn and pulverize the soil until the organic matter is thoroughly mixed in. Then gradually replace the topsoil you set aside and turn the bed again so the amended subsoil and topsoil are mixed together. Lay the remaining bags of soil amendments on the bed, cut them open, dump them out and lightly work them in.
At this point, your bed will mound up higher than the surrounding soil, because you have added both soil amendments and air. It's a good idea to cover the bed with a winter mulch, such as leaves that have been shredded by a lawn mower, or a 2-inch blanket of hay or straw. Nothing more needs to be done until spring.
A week or so before you are ready to plant seeds or plug in plants, rake off the mulch, allow the soil to dry for a few days and work in a light application of an all-purpose organic or time-release fertilizer (follow the application rates given on the package). In addition to mixing in the fertilizer, this digging will fluff up the soil and replenish its air supply. It also will give you the chance to enjoy the spongy texture of your reconditioned soil, which will have matured over the winter into a rich, mellow mix. Provided with this luxurious home, your herbs will thrive with little additional care beyond routine weeding and watering.
Barbara Pleasant lives in the mountains of western North Carolina, where she enjoys gardening, garden writing and cooking.