Whether your garden consists of a few terracotta pots or an entire acre or more you can get your soil in prime condition for spring planting by performing routine tasks such as weed removal, composting, and planting a cover crop to improve soil fertility and reduce unwanted plants.
Agricultural weblog Old World Garden Farms points out that you should clear out weeds in your garden now so they don't overwinter in your soil and go to seed. Add any removed weeds to the center of your compost pile and the heat generated by the compost will kill the seeds before they can germinate. With the weeds gone add some organic matter to your soil—if you have a large garden, consider planting a winter cover crop such as ryegrass to add nutrients and organic matter to the soil. There's a reason many cover crops are often referred to as "green manure".
4 Easy Steps To Prepare The Garden
Wintertime. There I said it. I always hate thinking about that time of year – especially right now when the fall weather has turned beautiful here in Ohio. So…instead of thinking about the cold winter months ahead, I choose to stay positive and think instead of next spring and summer’s garden. Actually, much like a great lawn – what you do now and in the coming months can make a huge difference in the success of next year’s garden. Here are four things you can do NOW to really jump-start your 2016 garden.
This is great time to dig in compost made through the summer months into your soil
1. DON’T COMPOST YOUR TOMATO AND PEPPER PLANTS
Although contrary to what we normally do – which is compost everything we can – we don’t compost our pepper and tomato plants from the garden. We actually throw them on our burn pile and burn them with fallen sticks, etc. Why? Just too much chance for any plant disease to get passed through to the soil for next year. In addition – the odd green or damaged fruit still on the plants, along with their thousand of seeds, are something we prefer to keep away from our compost pile.
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To have a healthy garden next year – take care of your soil now
2. CLEAN OUT THE WEEDS FROM THIS YEAR’S GARDEN
Don’t let those weeds overwinter in your garden. Clean them out now and prevent weeds from going to seed, digging deeper roots – and doubling your weeding efforts next year.
Annual Rye makes a great cover crop to feed and protect your soil
3. ADD ORGANIC MATTER NOW
Chopped leaves and compost are the stars here. Dig in generous amounts of compost to your raised beds or garden. And start collecting those falling leaves now! If you don’t have access to your own – make a trip around local neighborhoods and collect the bags or piles of leaves that accumulate at the curb. We use our push mower to shred the leaves. Then, we dig in generous amounts to our raised beds to decompose. Even better, use the leaves as a mulch on your beds over the winter – helping to keep valuable soil from eroding. Just dig into the bed’s soil in the spring. For an even better mulch – try #4.
4. PLANT A COVER CROPJust like the “big farmers” do – our gardens and raised beds benefit greatly from a cover crop. We have already begun to plant our cover crops in the rows we have cleaned out. We use annual rye – a great choice to help add lots of organic matter and nutrients to your soil – and also protect it over the winter months from leaching all of the nutrients out of your bare soil.
Make sure you clean your raised beds and garden rows of all weeds – don’t let them overwinter and go to seed.
A good cover crop will dig deeply into your soil with their roots. This adds valuable organic material to your soil, along with adding plant loving nitrogen to the soil as the plants break down. Then you can turn under your cover crop in the spring before planting. We get a lot of questions on the cover crops – especially – “Won’t they become weeds?” As long as you use an annual rye – and make sure to not let the grass go to seed, and turn over in the early spring – you should have no worries.
All four of these steps are great ways to ensure a healthy, productive garden next year, and without having to use harsh chemicals and fertilizers.
Good Soil = Healthy Plants
When is Soil Ready for Planting?
When is your garden soil ready for planting? Here are some tips from The Old Farmer's Almanac.
Grab a handful of your garden soil. If you can form it into a ball, the soil is too wet for planting. (Chances are the seeds will rot.) If it crumbles through your fingers, it's ready for planting.
Here's another soil test. Make a ball of soil and drop it. If the ball crumbles, your garden is ready for seeds. If it holds its shape or breaks into two clumps, it's still too wet for planting.
You can also step into the garden and then step back and look at the footprint you've left in the soil. If it's shiny, then there's too much water near the soil's surface to dig and plant. If it's dull, then excess water has drained away and it's time to plant.
Old farmers had an even easier guideline: When the weeds start to grow in your garden, it's time to plant your hardy vegetables.
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See our Best Dates for Planting Seeds chart and check the approximate safe planting days for your area.
As soon as the soil is ready for planting, stir it well and let it sit for several days. Then top-dress it with compost or well-rotted manure and get to work.
Planting Tools and Techniques
As you get ready for your planting season, make sure you have these basic garden tools on hand!
- Garden gloves
- Spading fork
- Hand cultivator or trowel
- Garden hose
- Wheelbarrow or garden cart
- As soon as your soil can be worked, stir it well and let it sit for several days.
- Then top-dress the soil with a 1-inch-thick layer of compost over the entire garden area.
- Using a spading fork, loosen the soil in the bed. Mix in compost.
- Smooth out the soil with a rake, getting rid of stones and debris.
- A good-size vegetable garden for a beginner is 10x16 feet.
- Check your seed packets for the best time to plant. Some vegetables are best planted in cool weather, and others in warm weather.
- Make rows for vegetable seeds with a hoe.
- Transplant seedlings using a hand cultivator or trowel.
Here's advice on how deep to plant your seeds:
- The depth of your fingernail on your index finger for lettuce, Spanish onions, and radishes.
- The depth of your first knuckle for cabbage, carrots, beets, cucumbers, and squash.
- The depth of your second knuckle for bush or pole beans and corn.
- For tomatoes, plant deeper, as they root along the stem.
After you sow, lightly press the soil around the seedlings. Water well!
Reclaiming Your Garden Soil
Reclaim a small field, farmland, or large garden soil that is either over-spent or neglected. Then restore the soil to make it productive again! See our tips.
Clearing Your Land
- The first job is to cut brush and small trees back to the fence line. Even if you can't do anything else right away, do this before these trees get the soil acclimated for the pine cycle that will follow. Each bush and tree is part of the cycle and prepares the soil for the next stage. Catching it before the soil has changed significantly is half the battle.
- Using a heavy-duty pair of lopping shears, cut small growth straight across and as close to the ground as possible. A sharply cut sapling stub will go straight through a tractor tire or the sole of a shoe. Larger sapling and tree stumps will have to be pulled out.
- Walk the area and mark the location of any rocks. The larger rocks were probably plowed around once upon a time, and you may choose to take the route, but it's best to remove as many rocks as possible.
- To see how big a rock is, hit it with a crowbar. If it makes a high-pitched *DING* that normally indicates a larger rock that needs to be dug or pulled out; if it makes a duller sound it should be a rock that you would be able to handle with a normal shovel or even your bare hands.
- Manure crops are crops you can plant where you want your garden to be and, even if you don't use them for food or forage, they stimulate the soil to make it better suited for crop growing.
- Rye is the best known green manure crop. Others that enrich the soil include cowpeas, mustard, oats, alfalfa, clover, winter peas, and timothy.
- The legumes return nitrogen to the soil along with organic material, and are a good choice for long-term soil development. Winter rye is good to plant in the fall and plow two to three weeks before spring planting. White clover is good for bees if you let it flower before plowing under. Alfalfa is expensive to plant, but its deep roots do wonders for your soil. Treefoil is a good choice for wet areas.
- Cowpeas, mung beans and mustard are good for spring planting. They germinate in cold soil and are planted as soon as the ground thaws. In four to six weeks they can be plowed under, and these are good for preparing vegetable garden if you couldn't get to your land in the fall.
- Allow two or three weeks between plowing under and planting. A rear-tined roto-tiller will chop up the vegetation well as it incorporates it into the soil. The principle of a green manure crop is that as it decays after being plowed under, it returns to the soil all the nutrients it used while growing. It also adds vital organic matter, so all types of soil, from sand to clay, respond positively to this treatment.
- The return of organic material to the soil, sadly, isn't a one-time project. It must be continuous in the form of planting or fertilizing with compost, leaves or animal manure, if the decay process is to continue.
- Once you've fertilized your field or garden (each year's mulch plowed under helps, so do shredded leaves) you can further improve it by rotation planting. This means dividing your land or garden into several areas and planting different things, changing them each year. Alfalfa, corn, and wheat are good choices to rotate. Even if you don't use the crops for food, your soil will be improving instead of deteriorating.
That's about all you can do your first year. Repeated each year, however, this process will turn even solid clay or sand into a fine garden in about five to six years. If that seems like forever, don't worry about it! That doesn't mean you have to wait that long to harvest vegetables. Most gardens grow under less than optimum conditions, and the harvest still turns out great! Your garden will be easier to care for and more productive each year.
Starting Seeds Indoors
Before You Start Seeds
- Team up with a neighbor for starting seeds, since a packet often yields much more than you will need.
- Don’t start your seeds too early, especially tomatoes! Most annual flowers and vegetables should be sown indoors about 6 weeks before the last frost in your area.
- See our annual Best Planting Dates for Seeds chart so you get the timing right!
- You may have to soak, scratch, or chill seeds before planting, as directed on packet.
- Use clean containers. Most seed catalogs offer seedling flats, peat pots, and other growing containers, but egg carton compartments make good containers, too. Be sure to poke holes in the sides near the bottom of the containers you use.
- Label your containers now! There’s nothing more frustrating than forgetting what you planted.
How to Start Seeds
- Fill clean containers with seedling mix. Use soilless peat moss and mix in equal parts vermiculite and perlite to hold enough water and allow oxygen to flow. Don’t use potting soil.
- Pour soilless mix into a large bucket and moisten with warm water. Fill your containers to just below the rim.
- Plant your seeds according to your seed packet. Most seeds can simply be gently pressed into the mixture; you can use the eraser end of a pencil to push in seeds. When planting seeds, plant the largest seeds in the package to get the best germination rate.
- Cover containers with plastic. Prick holes with a toothpick for ventilation. Water as directed.
- Water newly started seedlings carefully. A pitcher may let the water out too forcefully. A mist sprayer is gentle but can take a long time. Try using a meat-basting syringe, which will dispense the water effectively without causing too much soil disruption.
- Find a place in the kitchen where there is natural bottom heat—on top of the refrigerator or near the oven. (Move the tray if the oven is on, as it may become too hot.)
- Seeds sprout best at temperatures of 65 to 75°F (18 to 24°C).
- When seedlings appear, remove the plastic and move containers into bright light.
- When the seedlings get their second pair of leaves, prepare individual pots filled with a potting mix with plenty of compost. Move the seedlings carefully to the new pots and water well. Keep pots out of direct sun for a few days.
Once your seeds have sprouted, see how to transplant your seedlings!
How to Start Seeds Indoors
To start seeds, you will need:
- Paper toweling that won’t shred easily
- Gallon- or quart-size resealable plastic bag/s
- Lightproof 8.5x11-inch or larger brown envelope or similar
- Indelible marker
- Labels for each bag
Sprinkle a paper towel with water until it’s completely damp. Lay it out on a counter.
Spread several rows of seeds about halfway up the towel. The larger the seeds, the more space they need: Space tiny seeds like basil or parsley about ¾ of an inch apart and big seeds like zinnias or squash 1-½ inches or so. If you lay out more than one type of seed per towel, put those of similar size and germination times together (e.g., several varieties of tomatoes or peppers).
Fold the unseeded portion of the towel half back on the seeds. (Alternatively, cut each wet towel in half. Scatter one type of seed on one half; cover with remaining half.)
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Write the seed type/s in order on the towel with the marker. Do the same to the bag label/s. Write the date on which you put the seeds into the bag. Later, check this date against the seed packets’ predicted germination time. The paper towel method is usually quicker.
Moisten the plastic bag’s insides—but leave no standing water in it. Smooth the folded, seeded towel and slide it into the bag, keeping it flat. Close the bag, gently pressing out the air inside. Put it into your lightproof envelope. Store in a place that is 70° to 80°F. (Store seeds that need to be cool, like annual larkspur, at lower temperatures.)
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Every couple of days, check the seed towel to make sure that it is not too dry; sprinkle water off your fingertips, if necessary.
In the days leading up to the seed packet’s predicted germination date, hold the plastic bag up to light to see if the seeds have sprouted. When they have sprouted, transplant them to flats or individual pots filled with potting soil.
Plant Your Seeds
The white sprout coming out of the seed is the root. The leaves emerge from the seed head.
Use a sharp pencil or small knife to gently pick up the seeds, which are usually sticky and adhere to the point.
To plant long roots, poke a hole in the soil with a stick or knitting needle and drop in the seed so that the head is even with the surface; for small seeds, make a small hole.
If the seed has sent roots through the paper towel, plant the piece of toweling with the root.
Cover the seeds lightly with soil and water gently.
In a day or two, the leaves will be up, stretching toward the Sun.
Save all of your bags to reuse next year, and get ready to enjoy your veggies and flowers this season.