As the snow begins to melt and the temperature begins to rise, ready yourself for the spring gardening season by preparing your garden beds. Since good soil is the single basic requirement for a successful spring garden, it is important that you test your soil and cultivate your beds. Not only will these tasks enhance the quality of your soil, but they will also encourage your garden to develop strong, productive plants with stable root systems that will uphold all season long. With just a few hours of your time, some muscle power and a lot of organic matter, you can improve your spring harvest before you've even planted a single seed.
The pH Soil Test
In order to provide your plants with ideal soil that is fertile, well-drained and loamy in texture, you should conduct a pH soil test so your garden beds can meet the nutritional needs of your impending plants. Since the soil in your garden becomes saturated and compressed over the course of a winter, you should test your soil's pH only when your garden soil is soft and dry. To determine if your soil is ready to test, simply grab a handful of soil from a 3 inch depth and squeeze it. If the soil falls apart when you open your hand, you can test the soil; and, if the clump of soil stays together, you'll have to wait a few more weeks before testing it.
By conducting a pH soil test, you can determine the relative acidity of your soil and discover which essential nutrients your soil lacks. To perform this test, all you need to do is dig a small hole 6 inches deep with a stainless steel trowel. Then, carefully scrape small strips of soil from the side of the hole and bag it. Use a home pH test kit or send your sample to your local extension service to find out your soil's pH level. Annual flowers, ornamental shrubs and vegetables grow best in slightly acidic soil with a pH levels between 6.2 and 7.2. If your soil's pH level doesn't meet these requirements, raise your soil's pH with pulverized lime or lower your soil's pH with organic compost.
Preparing the Soil
Since your plants will only be as healthy as your garden soil, you must prepare your garden by removing any existing vegetation and by aerating the soil. However, garden beds of different ages require different means of attention; new garden beds get by with a little "lasagna gardening" whereas mature garden beds require a lot of double digging. To increase the fertility of your spring garden, follow the method that best corresponds to your type of garden beds below.
Covering & Smothering New Garden Beds
If you're creating a new spring garden, you should prepare your beds using the lasagna gardening method. Without the use of a shovel, trowel or cultivator, this nontraditional method allows you to smother weeds and diminish soil erosion with only layers of newspaper, organic matter and wood mulch. To create a new garden bed, you must first mark your bed boundaries with fiber edging. When you've finished outlining the size and shape of your garden beds, line the inside of each bed with 6 layers of damp newspaper. Then, cover the newspaper with a 6 inch layer of wood mulch, a 2 inch layer of sphagnum peat moss and a 5 inch layer of organic compost. Due to the weight of these stacked layers, the damp newspaper will smother any existing vegetation and constrict any germinating weeds in your garden bed. After 4-8 weeks, the layers will disintegrate, leaving you with rich, aerated soil that is ready for planting.
Double Digging Existing Beds
If you're replanting existing beds, you should revive your soil by double digging it. Although double digging requires some manual labor, it will relax and rejuvenate your soil, transforming your garden beds into prosperous places for deep-rooting plants. To double dig a bed, you should dig a trench that is 8 inches deep and the length of your bed. Remove all the topsoil and place it in a nearby wheelbarrow. Then, loosen 8 inches of subsoil with a cultivator, breaking up any visible soil clods along the way. Begin working backwards by digging a second, similar-sized trench directly behind the first one. However, instead of discarding the topsoil, restore valuable nutrients and soil microbes to your first trench by backfilling it with soil from the second trench. As soon as you top off the first trench with soil, loosen the subsoil of the second trench. Continue to dig, backfill and aerate trenches until you've reached the end of your bed.
When the final trench is dug and its subsoil is broken up, cover the trench with the topsoil inside the wheelbarrow. Once you've double dug all of your beds, cover each one in a thin layer of fertilizer and a thick coat of compost to prevent grass and weeds from growing back. After 2-3 weeks, your garden beds will be able to develop and sustain successful deep-rooting herbs and vegetables.
For more tips and information on proper garden bed preparation, see Five Rules of Thumb For Preparing Your Garden Bed and other helpful articles in the Gardening section of our Garden Center!