If you’re preparing your garden beds for the first time and you’re starting with poor soil, focus on building a high level of organic matter as quickly as possible. Once you achieve this you can then concentrate on replacing the nutrients taken up by your crops…
Growing vegetables, especially year-round, depletes soil nutrients and organic matter, so you’ll have to replace what’s lost with appropriate amendments, organic fertilizers, and compost.
Although soil amendments and organic fertilizers will address certain soil deficiencies and provide plants with readily available micro- and macronutrients your top priority should always be stimulating biological activity in the soil.
You do this by adding organic matter, which is both fuel and a habitat for all soil organisms. When mineralized by organisms in the soil, organic matter makes nutrients readily available to plants. Any which are not mineralized build up in the soil and contribute to its structure.
Good compost can supply both the organic matter for soil building and the fertilizer for the crops. It is also packed with soil organisms that activate biological activity in the soil. So when in doubt just use good compost and you’re good to go!
Note: To accurately evaluate your soil’s nutrient content, you need to test your soil yourself or have it tested. By performing a soil test you can see if there are any mineral imbalances, determine the natural fertility of your soil, and reveal what fertilizer supplements you may need.
What you’ll need?
- Broadfork (optional but desirable)
- Digging fork
- Landscape rake
- Soil amendments/organic fertilizers (optional depending on the nature of deficiencies of your soil)
4. Shallow soil cultivator (optional)
5. Compost (mandatory)
How to prepare garden beds for spring planting
Estimated time: 30 min/bed (~10 ft (3 m) long x 30-inch-wide (0.7m)
STEP 1: Remove the previous crop residue
- Start by pulling out and clearing all the previous crop from the bed.
- Pull from the base of the plant and shake the soil off so that you’re not moving soil around. It’s best to keep as much soil intact as you can.
STEP 2: Aerate the soil
- Now use a broadfork or digging fork to loosen the subsoil on your beds. This will aerate the soil…
- Take your broadfork/digging fork and apply pressure with one foot to press the tines into the soil, then pull back on the handles to lift and loosen the lower soil slightly.
- Raise the tines out of the soil, move 6 in (15 cm) further back, and repeat the sequence until you make a full pass down the bed.
STEP 3: Shape the bed
- If your beds are in the open ground, before adding fertilizers and amendments you’ll need to shape them.
- For this use a landscape rake, and rake the soil up from the sides.
STEP 4: Add appropriate soil amendments /organic ferilizers
Now add soil amendments/fertilizer onto a bed’s surface. Which ones you’ll use depends on the nature of the deficiencies of your soil.
Note: when in doubt use poultry manure as this will supply the necessary nitrogen for the early stages of the plant growth when they need it the most for fast development. Later on, the compost will take over the job of releasing the rest of the required nutrients for optimum growth.
Here are some soil amendments/organic fertilizers you can use:
- Bonemeal or Phosphate Rock — Slow-release sources of phosphorus, useful for fruiting veggies like tomatoes.
- Alfalfa Meal — A quick-acting source of nitrogen and some potassium. Also very high in trace minerals.
- Kelp — Supplies a range of trace nutrients, as well as a dose of plant hormones.
- Blood meal — A good source of nitrogen.
- Wood Ash — High in potassium and has an alkaline effect on the soil. Lasts 6 months.
- Aged Manure — nutrients are rapidly available to plants; the amount of nutrients will vary widely, depending on the type of animal, the bedding material used for the animal, and how long the manure has been aged.
STEP 5: Mix the amendments/organic fertilizers into the soil
Depending on the size of your beds and equipment available you can mix the amendments/organic fertilizers into the soil by using: 1) hand tools, 2) a tilther and 3) a power harrow.
In all three cases, you work only the top 2 in (5 cm) of the soil. This way you do not disturb soil structure, and you avoid disturbing dormant weeds and bringing them to the surface to germinate.
Hand tools method
- Simply use a rake or a digging fork to mix in your amendments/organic fertilizers into the top 2 in (5 cm) of the soil. Pay attention to spreading the amendments/organic fertilizers evenly.
The tilther method
- For this technique, you’ll need an electric drill-powered mini tiller. This specialized tiller is 18 in (45 cm) wide and it fluffs up the top layer of soil.
- Depending on the soil conditions you might need to take a couple of passes over the bed, incorporating the amendments/organic fertilizers.
Power Harrow method
- For this, you’ll need a walk-behind tractor and a power harrow implement.
- The power harrow implement is similar to a tiller but it doesn’t invert the soil. Instead, it just scuffs up the soil near the surface.
- This method is suitable for bigger commercial market gardens.
STEP 6: Apply compost
- Finally, spread a layer of well-finished compost on the soil. Use roughly a 5-gal bucket (20 l) to every 10 ft (3 m) of 30-inch-wide (0.7m) bed.
- Rake the bed smooth, mix in shallowly, level up as necessary, now your beds are ready to plant again!
- The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, 2nd Edition
- The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener How to Grow Your Own Food 365 Days a Year, No Matter Where You Live
- The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-scale Organic Farming
- The Urban Farmer: Growing Food for Profit on Leased and Borrowed Land by Curtis Allen Stone
- The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year Round Vegetable Production Using Deep-Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses
- How to Grow More Vegetables