Before sowing or planting a vegetable garden, you first need to prepare the
site. When starting from scratch, this involves creating new beds or
preparing new containers. Existing plots may just need a good clear up:
weeding, feeding, and preparing the soil in time for spring.
Starting from Scratch
To create a new fruit and vegetable plot, choose a sunny, sheltered spot away from frost pockets, ideally where the soil is fertile and well-drained.
Mark out the shape of the beds, making them no wider than 4 feet (1.2 m) so you can reach plants in the middle, and leaving room between them for a wheelbarrow. If building raised beds, break up the soil surface before building the sides, then fill with improved topsoil. Conventional beds also need turning over and preparing before being planted.
Preparing the Soil
Digging the soil is essential to keep it healthy. It’s best done in the fall or winter to give it time to settle before planting in the spring, but don’t dig the soil when it is wet or frozen. Working in rows, dig to a spade’s depth, lifting and flipping the soil back on itself; at the same time, dig in well-rotted organic matter. On new beds, weed the area first, remove any large stones and debris, and fork it over to break up large clods.
Here are three steps to prepare soil for planting:
- Dig the soil to at least one spade's depth. Work across the bed and from one end to the other to avoid standing where you have already dug.
- Improve the soil with well-rotted organic matter, such as manure or garden compost. On heavy clay soils, dig in composted bark.
- Apply granular fertilizer before planting, or use organic chicken manure. Water well if it doesn’t rain within a day or so.
Getting a Head Start
In colder areas, the soil (especially clay soils) can be slow to warm up in the spring, which delays seed germination, slows plant growth, and can reduce harvests. To make up time or even get ahead, use covers in late winter and early spring to warm the soil and to dry the surface a little, making it easier to work.
First dig the soil, and rake the surface fine and flat. Cover the entire bed with plastic sheeting to keep out the rain and trap heat; secure the edges by digging them into the soil. Black plastic is best for new beds; it will help kill off weeds, although clear plastic traps more heat. You can also use garden fabric, but because it is permeable, it is less effective than plastic.
Remove the covers after a few weeks, just prior to sowing or planting, or make cuts and plant through, leaving the cover in place to suppress summer weeds.
Raised Beds, Pots and Growing Bags
In the fall, remove any weeds and plant debris, fork over the soil surface of existing raised beds, and incorporate well-rotted manure or compost (unless you intend to grow rutabagas or parsnips in the spring). Cover the bed with plastic sheeting during winter to keep down weeds and to warm the soil before planting.
In the spring, remove the covers and any lurking weeds, and lightly fork over the soil. Apply a balanced granular fertilizer before planting to give new crops a boost. Newly built raised beds are ready to plant as soon they are filled with soil.
If you are growing crops in existing containers, use fresh compost, which also helps discourage pests and diseases from building up. When planting new containers, plant smaller ones under cover, harden off, and move them outside later. Place large containers in sunny, sheltered spots, ensure they have plenty of drainage holes, and fill with compost. To prepare growing bags, make holes in the base, fluff up the compost, then put them in their final position, and cut planting holes in the top. Water well and allow to drain before planting.