Preparing Garden Soil
When to Begin
Don’t make the mistake of working your soil too early. If your ground is saturated with melted snow or spring rain, you will be doing your soil more harm than good, and you may be up for a lot more work later!
You’ll want to continue to check the quality of the soil by grabbing a handful and squeezing/rolling it into a ball. The ball should break apart easily when you drop it, or stab it with your finger. If the ball stays a sticky blob, your soil is too wet.
Over-saturated soil will just become compacted again, defeating the purpose of cultivation altogether. It may also form large blobs that later dry out into giant rock-hard atrocities. Plants do need well drained and aerated soil, but these blobs may allow too much air at the roots of your plants and would require you to make a second, more tasking cultivation.
Soil that is too dry won’t even form a ball. It will crumble like sand in your fingers. If you cultivate when soil is this dry, the particles will be too small to allow enough looseness and air pockets for your plants. Again, the soil may become too compacted.
If the soil is too dry, try watering the ground for a day or two and re-checking the quality until it has absorbed enough moisture to hold form, but also crumble.
How to Work Your Soil
If you have a small garden, you should be able to cultivate using hand tools (shovel, till, etc.). If you are working with a larger area, you may want to buy or rent a tiller. It may take several sweeps with a tiller to loosed the soil to the desired depth. Bear in mind, a new garden will be more difficult to prepare than a previously cultivated plot.
When cultivating, you should loosen and break up your soil to a depth of at least 8 to 24 inches to allow the proper drainage for garden plants. The deeper the ground is loosened, the better the drainage, and the easier it will be to properly work-in organic matter.
If digging your soil to this depth is too big of a task, you could consider bordering your garden bed with a raised wall. This way you can loosen the existing soil 4 to 8 inches, and then deepen the bed to the desired 24 inches by piling loosened soil on top.
Feeding the Soil
Adding organic matter to your soil is paramount to gardening success. Commercial fertilizers may help with plant growth, but will not provide the micro organisms and bacteria that make a garden successful. The more organic matter there is in your soil, the more pliable the earth will be.
“According to one estimate, a single teaspoonful of fertile soil contains 4,000,000,000 bacteria, 40 to 100 meters of mold filament, 144,000,000 actinomycetes, and large quantities of algae and other microorganisms. All of these, along with the organic matter that sustains them, transform inert, mineral dirt into healthy, living soil.” – http://www.motherearthnews.com
The tried and true method for adding organic materials to soil, is composting (Learn More About Composting). You should work at least 1 to three inches of compost into the top 4 to 8 inches of your cultivated soil.
You can also add organic material by growing “cover crops.” These crops can be grown, and then simply “turned under” into your soil to add organic matter. You can also “turn under” materials left from your previous year’s crop. Anytime you turn plant material into your plot, you should wait at least a month before planting on it.
Another way to promote organisms in soil is to add manure. Manure will have to be sufficiently aged to prevent “burning” of your plants. If you have fresh manure, you will want to compost it for a few months before adding it to your garden soil.
We find that variety is the best approach. Utilizing some, or all of the above methods will give your soil a good variety of micro organisms and bacteria. Your soil will become richer over the years as you continue to utilize these methods.
Judging Soil Quality
The color and texture of soil are good indicators of your soil quality. You will need to give more attention to your soil if you are starting a garden bed in poor quality soil. Before starting a new plot, it is a good idea to check different areas for soil quality and choose a location that already has the building blocks for soil success.
If you are limited to sandy or clay-like soil, you can still grow a garden, but you may have to put in more effort to see good results.
Start by digging several inches deep and inspecting the soil. What color is it? Dark Redor Dark Brown soil with moderate moisture is what you want to find. Black soil is even better! This is a signal that the soil already contains a large amount of organic material.
If your soil is dry, pale or yellowish, you may have your work cut out for you. Is the soil is spotted or smeared with spots of different colors, it might suggest that your plot is located in a water table. This can create difficulties with drainage.
Also take a handful of soil and try balling it up. Is it clay-like? Sandy? Or right in between? Heavy clay-like soil will need more organic material to help break it up and aerate it. Sandy soil will also need more material and moisture to achieve good results.
You can purchase your own soil test kits online, but for very little (sometimes as low as $5), you can send your soil off to a local cooperative extension office or private labratory for testing. For more information about soil testing, check out http://www.organicgardening.com
Mulching after Planting
The best types of mulch for gardens are the kind that come free!
Dried grass clippings make fine mulch, but you will not want to lay them too deep because they can become matted and prevent moisture from getting to the soil. Adding a thin layer of grass clippings should work just fine. Grass however, can be more difficult to deal with when it comes to weed control.
Straw is probably one of the most popular and effective garden mulches. Straw (NOT HAY) insulates, breaks down slowly, and leaves plenty of room for air and moisture to get through.
Leaves & Pine Needles
Leaves are excellent for weed control, but you should make sure they are coarsely chopped or shredded. The easiest way to do this is to plow through them with a lawn mower! Leaves should be amply dried out, not fresh / green when you use them. This will prevent them from becoming matted together.
Pine needles are an excellent garden mulch as well! They allow plenty of aeration and moisture and they decompose slowly.
Additional Tips and Ideas for Better Gardening
Ladybugs require a source of pollen to thrive. Planting angelica, cilantro, caraway, dill, tansy, wild carrot or yarrow may help attract ladybugs to your garden. You could also plant flowers such as geraniums, dandelions or white cosmos. Ladybugs generally stick out the winters in areas that provide leaves/trees and large rocks to hide under.
Ladybugs can also be purchased and released in your garden to help clean up serious existing pest problems. If you give them the right resources to survive, maybe they will stick around for next year!
You can help the decomposition of organic material by using earthworms. Endogeic worms will break up the soil and add organic virtues of their own! Some people choose to keep them in an enclosed compost, while others add them right to the garden bed.
Plant Flowers to Deter Pests and Attract Bees
Columbine is an awesome flower that deters deer and rabbits, but also attracts bees to a garden. Marigolds deter deer and rabbits as well. They won’t eat them, and the color and smell are not appealing.
Bees and butterflies are attracted to gardens containing a range of flower colors and shapes planted in clumps or patches. They also prefer sunny areas. Dill (also good for ladybugs), Arroyo Lubine, Baby’s Breath and Bachelor’s Buttons are all excellent plants for attracting the “good guys.”