Preparing your garden the right way in early Spring will help create a healthy and more productive vegetable garden for you and your family to enjoy. Soil may have become compacted, or you may need to replenish your compost. Nutrients have been depleted by last year’s crops, and weeds may have taken a strong footing. If you are gardening in raised beds, boards may need replacing and you want to do this now so as not to disturb your vegetable plants later.
First, the basic cleanup.
Before you do anything else, it’s a good idea to start with a clean area.
- Pull any weeds that have shown up. Loosen the soil around them a bit if necessary to make sure you get all the roots. Weeds such as dandelions have a long tap root, and if broken off in the soil, they will just re-grow.
- Rake out any remaining dead leaves and stumps of last year’s vegetables. Ideally, these would have been removed in fall after the garden was finished, to help prevent over-wintering of any plant pathogens.
Check the fertility of your soil.
Plants consume nutrients as they grow, some use more of one nutrient than another, and some are heavy feeders. You can contact your local Cooperative Extension office and have a soil sample tested. For a fee, they will let you know the pH as well as fertility information about your garden soil. You can also purchase home test kits at any garden center to do it yourself. Some kits only test for pH, some will do nutrients and others do it all. Knowing the pH of your soil will help determine what soil amendments may help.
Loosen and enrich your soil with compost.
Soil can become compacted from walking on it, heavy rains, snow accumulations and even gravity itself. Adding organic matter, such as compost or manure (always well aged, not fresh!) will help loosen the soil to help aerate it and allow for good drainage. Although compost is not exactly a “fertilizer”, it improves soil structure, adds beneficial microbes and improves the mobility of air, water and nutrients in the soil, which makes nutrients more readily available to plants. Just add a few inches of good composted organic matter to your garden beds and use a garden fork to turn and mix it into the top 6 or 8 inches of soil.
Apply fertilizer and other nutrients.
Based on your soil test results, apply what is necessary or recommended. Most vegetables like a pH of 6.8, or in the range of about 5.5 to 7.5. (The lower the number, the more acidic it is. The higher the number, the more alkaline.) If your pH is too low, consider adding Garden Lime, or finely pulverized limestone. If you need to lower the pH, use aluminum sulfate or sulfur. Follow the directions on the bag. I particularly like Espoma brand organic garden products. I find that their Garden-tone 3-4-4 fertilizer provides not only nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, but all the necessary nutrients that my garden needs, plus beneficial microbes. It’s a slow release fertilizer and will not burn the plants. (No, I’m not a paid spokesperson, I just really like their products.)
Preparing your garden for climbing vegetables.
Now is the time to install permanent or semi-permanent things such as fences, arches, trellises and arbors. If you have your garden diagram planned, and you know what structures will be needed where, it’s best to put them in before you start planting. Trying to put in the posts for a section of fence after your peas or cucumbers are growing can damage the root systems. Trying to unwind pole beans from other plants is nearly impossible without damaging them, so you have to set up your fence or lattice before they start growing. Building or installing a trellis may mean that you have to step on the garden area to do it; you don’t want to step on the plants, too. Preparing the climbing structures now will be a lot easier on you and the plants.
Vegetables that you can grow vertically.
Vegetables that will grow up a fence or trellis include: cucumbers, peas, pole beans, squash vines (not bush type), gourds, pumpkin and melons. This is referred to as vertical gardening, and can dramatically increase the amount of plants and produce you can grow. It’s a great way of growing for small gardens and for those who garden in containers. Cucumbers grow straighter, produce is cleaner and there is less damage from fungus, mold, insects and other critters.
Tomatoes are considered a vine also, and can be grown more upright by placing a long (at least 6 feet) sturdy stake or pole next to each plant. As they grow, you loosely tie the stem to the stake using a soft material or garden twine. Old t-shirts cut into narrow strips are ideal, just don’t tie them tightly, and continue to tie up the stem as it grows taller. It also helps to stake eggplant, peppers, tomatillos and any other heavily fruited upright plant. For these plants, just dig the hole when you are ready to plant, place the pole or post on the edge of the hole and then plant your seedlings. Voila! No root damage.
So, make the most of these early warm Spring days and get your garden prepared. Planting season is still a few weeks away and these steps will definitely get your vegetable garden off to a great start!
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