The foundation of any flourishing vegetable garden is good soil. There is no going around the issue of optimal soil quality when it comes to preparing a garden for planting vegetables.
But even if you have adequate space to start a garden, naturally rich soil, and time on your hands, you’d still have to prep the garden before planting commences. For some and depending on crop type, this could take several months.
For beginners, it is advisable to start with a small garden. This makes it easy to get the hang of all the work needed to execute a gardening project from scratch to harvesting. You don’t want to quit mid-way after planting a large plot only get frustrated by the time and energy required.
As well as the size, start out with a small number of crops preferably the things you love eating. The small size and thought of harvesting your favorite vegetable should be enough motivation to keep at it.
That said, the steps taken to prepare a garden for planting are basically the same no matter the size. These steps are what this tutorial is all about.
How To Prepare Your Garden For Planting Vegetables
After deciding you want to plant your favorite crops, the real planting job might still be several weeks ahead. This is because you’d need to get the basics right first. The preliminary steps would include all or some of the following:
Choosing where to plant – choose a part of the land that gets the most sunshine daily. Vegetables do best when they get at least 8 hours of direct sunlight daily.
Drainage – Avoid areas where water accumulates and submerges the soil. Vegetables don’t thrive in such areas. If you must, find a way to drain excess water from the land especially after a rainstorm. The best practice is to locate your garden in a high-lying area relative to the surroundings so water can drain off naturally.
Accessibility – choose a location that is easy to access at any time
Water – Your garden needs water. It makes perfect sense to have it near a constant water source.
Preparing the soil
Crops can grow in any soil. For garden though, the best results are gotten from rich, loamy soil teeming with all kinds of beneficial organisms like earthworms and soil microbes.
The first issue to resolve is to determine the kind of soil you are dealing with. Aside from loamy soil which is practically ready for planting, the two most common soil types are:
Sandy soil – These types feel gritty when a few particles are rubbed between the fingers. It allows more than adequate air to get to the roots of the plants which is a good thing. But, the texture allows water to drain rather quickly through it easily losing moisture and vital nutrients.
If the dominant soil type in your garden is sandy, make it better by adding compost regularly. You could augment the compost with shredded leaves and peat moss. Doing this regularly should improve the soil and make it suitable for planting after some time.
Clay soil – Clay soil is relatively heavy compared to other soil types. They are easily recognized by the slippery and sticky texture when wet. This type of soil has no problem with water or moisture retention. The issue in most cases is its penchant for holding too much water with little room for drainage. Air, too, can’t easily get to the roots.
Upgrading it to a better soil involves breaking it up and like in the case of sandy soil, adding compost, peat moss, and shredded leaves to it.
How to improve garden soil and make it ready for planting
In reality, most garden soils are a combination of sand, clay, and fine silt. Improving them, in general, takes the form of adding compost, shredded leaves or mulch over a period of time. One could also add chemical fertilizers to replenish some nutrients. In most cases, though, organic compost and manure would be enough.
To upgrade the soil:
- Spread the compost and other soil improvement items at your disposal over it. Using a spade or tiller, work the ingredients into the soil.
- Ensure you don’t step on the freshly tiled soil to avoid compacting it. This would harden the soil making it more difficult to plant.
- Next, simply rake the surface very well and pour water on the soil.
- Leave the soil so the improvement work can take effect. This can last from several days to weeks depending on the quality of the soil.
How to know when the soil is ready for planting
You get many folks asking how to determine the type of soil they have and when the soil is ready for planting after the treatment. The simple steps below outline how:
- Water the soil very well and leave it for a day
- Using a spade, dig up a small quantity, fetch a handful and squeeze it tight
- If water oozes out of the soil, the drainage is not optimal. You have to add more compost or organic matter to get it to the desired quality.
- If the soil falls apart easily or can’t be squeezed into lumps, you have a sandy soil situation to deal with. Again, add compost to deal with the problem as explained above.
- If the soil turns to lose crumbs after squeezing it without water streaming out, you now have the ideal soil for your vegetable garden.
Sometimes, no. matter your best efforts, upgrading the soil would not be possible. Raise beds are the next best option for a vegetable garden.
With raised beds in your garden, you can even skip soil testing and simply install the soil in your garden. The initial cost of getting raised beds ready might be a stumbling block.
Once you’ve built the beds the way you want them, fill them up with the right soil type. The soil is sold in commercial farms and stores. The initial expense in materials when using raised beds is offset by what is saved in terms of labor.
Testing soil pH
To cover all bases, knowing your soil’s pH is another test that can be carried out. Check around your locality for private or public labs that carry out these tests for more information on how to go about it.
The required soil pH for optimal plant growth is between 6.5 and 6.8. Unsuitable soils tend to have a lower pH making them too acidic for plants.
Wood ash and lime are two of the best and easiest ways to raise soil pH. Simply adding enough quantity to the soil would do the trick. As well as raising the pH, they also add magnesium and calcium to the soil: two important nutrients needed for healthy vegetables.
Because lime is slower than wood ash in effecting the required pH changes, it should be applied in the fall before planting while ash should be applied spring. For already tilled ground, it is advisable to mix the lime or wood ash up to 6 inches into the top layer of the soil. But if you haven’t tilled yet and the garden still has grass, simply spread them on the grass.
If you are going through this route, it is best to start six months before you begin planting.
Getting Your Garden Ready for Planting
Before blooming with healthy vegetables, gardens are usually lawns or a patch of land in the yard covered by all kinds of weeds including perennial weeds.
The challenge for home gardeners is to eliminate the weeds the best way possible and get the ground ready for planting. Tiling and mulching are two of the common ways to get past this phase.
Tilling – The soil can be tilled by hand or using various kinds of equipment. For a small garden, a spade or shovel is all that is required. The ‘double-digging’ method of tilling is the most effective for killing weeds manually.
Basically, double digging involves removing about 1 foot of the topsoil creating a 1-foot deep trench. The removed earth is kept aside on a nearby tarp. Then the soil below is loosened with a spading fork before moving to the next section of soil and repeating the same process.
However, the new 1 foot of topsoil removed is deposited in the previously created trench. Then loosen the subsoil in the new trench before moving to the next patch of earth. This is repeated until the whole bed is completed. The final trench is covered by the first topsoil saved on the tarp.
All this might sound like hard work, but it is very effective in killing perennial weeds.
Mulching – Mulching involves using organic or inorganic matter to cover the ground before planting. This cover starves the weeds of light effectively killing them. Some materials used for mulching include heavy black plastic material, wood chips, leaves, and newspapers.
Because most perennial weeds have an extensive root system, the mulch should be very thick while completely covering the weeds. It also needs to be spread over the soil several weeks or months before planting.
You have to make sure the weeds have been killed completely before removing the mulch. But, once the weeds are dead, removing the mulch is not really necessary. You can go ahead and start planting your vegetables.
No matter your weed strategy, perennial weeds should be dealt with at the beginning of spring before they start growing. You could also deal with them just after you have mowed your lawn very short.
In reality, it takes time to completely kill grass and weeds. So it is best to initiate this process the summer before you start planting the garden. Another advantage of waiting a year before planting is that insect pests that need weeds and grasses to survive would also be eliminated when the soil is deprived of weeds or grasses for several months.
That said, you could still do everything the same year. But then, you should be ready to have your hands full tackling the new weeds after planting your vegetables. You’d also hope the loss incurred as a result of the activities of insect pests won’t be too much.
At this point though, your garden is now ready to accept fresh seeds or transplanted vegetables. All things being equal, and if your care for the garden very well by regularly weeding, watering, and employing the best pest prevention methods, the vegetable garden would turn out as well as can be expected.
A successful vegetable garden is as good as the soil supporting it. This makes it imperative to dedicate resources in time and effort in preparing the soil before planting.
After taking the decision to start the garden, it is best to allow several weeks or months (and even up to a year if possible) for prepping the soil. The process includes choosing the best location for the garden, upgrading the soil using organic compost, killing weeds, tilling, and mulching among others.