The weather outside might still be frightful, but if you’re planning to grow a garden this spring, now is the best time to choose a site and prepare your soil. Determine a garden spot that’s sunny most of the day, (keep in mind that bare winter trees will block sun in summer) and where it will be convenient to pop out and harvest something fresh for a meal. Access to tool storage, water, a compost pile and possibly electricity (for power tools) is also helpful.
Consider designating three or four distinct garden plots, which will allow you to rotate crops—a traditional method of plot management in which vegetables with like needs are grouped together. The three main groups are brassicas (cabbages, cauliflowers and Brussels sprouts), root crops (carrots, parsnips, beets and potatoes) and legumes (peas and beans). Make a fourth group with whatever miscellaneous tender vegetables you decide to grow, such as zucchini, sweet corn, celery and tomatoes. Divide your garden plot into three or four areas, and rotate each crop group to a new plot every three or four years to avoid the buildup of pests and diseases that can occur when the same crops grow in the same spot year after year. Planning for crop rotation also allows you to prepare and feed soil in the ideal way for each crop.
Soil is a plant’s essential source of moisture, air and nutrients. Good soil is a living, thriving community. Many small beneficial creatures such as earthworms, wood lice, centipedes, microscopic bacteria and fungi contribute to a healthy ecosystem by converting dead material into organic matter. Topsoil is the rich, well-cultivated uppermost layer in which most plant roots grow. It’s generally around 12 inches deep, although depth varies depending on whether soil has been well-cultivated or neglected. One of the best ways to improve soil is to cultivate deeply, which opens up soil for air and water to penetrate plant roots.
Prepare your soil for growing vegetables by turning soil over in advance, ideally during winter, digging 6 to 12 inches deep. Add organic matter in the form of compost, leaves, rotted manure or seaweed. If you don’t have your own compost, you can often find it for free or for sale in your community; search online for “compost” and your community name.
As the soil starts to dry in spring, finish the seedbed by breaking down the surface into a fine crumble, using a fork and rake. If the soil is not sticky, you can walk on it at this stage, which breaks the clods and gently firms the surface. Apply a balanced organic fertilizer, then do a final raking. Remove excess stones, remaining clods and any weeds. Ideally, you should prepare your seedbed well in advance of the first sowing, allowing time for a first crop of weeds to germinate. Hoe off the weed seedlings immediately before sowing your garden seeds, which will give your crops a headstart.
What’s Your Soil Type?
Depending on your soil type and pH, it may also be helpful to amend your soil before the gardening season begins. First, determine what kind of soil you’re working with. The mineral components of soil are clay, silt and sand. A good soil is one that contains a mixture of all three; gardeners call these soils loamy.
• Clay soils are heavy and difficult to cultivate. They can be wet, poorly drained and slow to warm in spring. They do retain moisture through summer. Clay soils can be improved with cultivation, added organic matter and possibly sharp sand.
• Sandy soils drain well, are easy to cultivate and tend to warm up quickly in spring, making them good for growing vegetables, in particular root vegetables such as carrots. Sandy soils do not retain water or fertilizer well, so they tend to need more irrigation and regular feeding.
• Silty soils are not common but are also good for growing vegetables. They generally behave like sandy soils but are richer and less prone to drying.
Determine what type of soil you have by rubbing a small sample between your wet fingers. Sandy soil feels gritty and does not stick together.
Clay soil feels sticky and rolls into a ball. Silty soils feel silky and smooth. If you have loamy soil, you may be able to feel all of the constituents in the mixture in varying proportions.
Soil pH is also an important factor—soils above 7 on the pH scale are alkaline and soils below 7 are acidic. The ideal pH for most vegetables is 6.5, just slightly acidic. Soil testing kits are readily available from garden centers. They’ll advise you on natural materials you can work into your soil to raise or lower the acidity, achieving a pH range that will allow your plants to take up the nutrients they need.
To make soil more acidic, many test kits recommend adding lime; to make it more alkaline, add wood ashes. Autumn is the ideal time to apply lime to the soil, but you can apply it in winter if the soil isn’t frozen. Beware that it is difficult to reverse the effects of liming, so use small quantities and monitor the effects before adding more. Never apply lime at the same time as manure, as the two react and produce ammonia, which will scorch roots. Also keep in mind that soil’s pH is not constant; you might want to test every few years. Tests will also reveal any toxins in your soil. If you find you have toxic soil, don’t worry. You can either add several feet of uncontaminated soil and compost, or grow food in containers or raised beds.
A Few More Garden Tips
Winter is the best time to start a few other helpful garden habits. To save money later, think now about ways to conserve water once the garden is growing. Peruse garden centers and catalogs for large water catchment tanks (check out Rainwater HOG modular tanks) or drip irrigation kits. Adding mulch to garden beds also helps conserve moisture—you can begin accumulating natural mulch materials such as leaves and twigs at any time.
Starting a compost heap will also save you money over buying organic fertilizer, and it provides a no landfill way of disposing of garden, yard and kitchen waste. To start a compost heap, you just need a way to contain it—for example, a circle made with chicken wire. (Find instructions to make a compost bin from old shipping pallets.) You can compost much of your kitchen and garden waste, including eggshells, vegetable peelings, rotten fruit, grass clippings, leaves, old potting soil, tea and coffee grounds, newspaper, plain cardboard and yard waste. Do not compost pet feces, meat or fatty foods. If the compost heap is dry, water it occasionally. Compost usually takes three to six months to mature. It’s ready when it resembles crumbly dark brown dirt and smells earthy but not unpleasant. If possible, have two heaps—one rotting down while the other is building up.
It’s a good idea to plan your food storage in advance, too. Set aside space in the basement or garage if you plan to store long-keeping crops such as carrots, onions and potatoes through the cold months. You might also want to make room in your pantry or consider investing in a chest freezer if you want to can, ferment, dry or freeze garden produce.
Adapted with permission from Grow Your Own by Ian Cooke
For the nine essential garden tools that will best help you in your garden, check out "9 Essential Garden Tools for Your Shed."