How do I prepare my garden for planting?

How do I prepare my garden for planting?

If you’re like me, when the first warm days of spring arrive, you can’t wait to get out into the garden and start planting. It means winter is finally over and the gardening season has begun. You’ve been looking at seed catalogs for months and have plenty of ideas you’re just waiting to try. However, before you plant anything you need to get the soil ready.

Don’t be intimidated
This can be quite a bit of physical work, but luckily it is pretty straightforward and doesn’t take a lot of explanation. It helps to do it methodically though, so I’ll go through the steps here. And, while it may feel overwhelming to considering tackling a large garden space, keep in mind you don’t need to do the bed preparation for your entire garden at one time. You can easily do each bed as you need the space for planting, and leave the rest for another time. Start small to keep it manageable.

When to start
Just because it is a beautiful day doesn’t mean you can just go out into the garden and get to work on the beds. I know it’s tempting, especially after a long, wet winter, but digging very wet soil can damage its structure and cause long-term harm (not to mention being harder to dig).

To determine whether your soil has the right moisture content, you can do a rough check by lightly squeezing a handful of soil into a ball and dropping it from approximately waist height. If it doesn’t break up when it hits the ground it is probably too wet to dig (you have to take into account that a sandy soil breaks up more easily than a clay one).

Another indicator of excessive wetness is when you walk on the soil and leave shiny footprints where water was squeezed from the soil. If your garden tends to stay wet every spring, it helps to use raised beds, as they drain and warm up faster than flat areas.

One very wet spring I was so desperate to get outside and get planting I covered some of my raised beds with plastic sheet to prevent them absorbing any more rain. This actually worked quite well, though such extremes aren’t usually necessary.

Clearing the space
If the soil is dry enough to work, you can start bed preparation by removing all of the surface vegetation. If there are only a few weeds or dead crops, it only takes a few minutes to loosen them with a fork and pull them out. If you have been growing a cover crop over the winter, removing it is a much bigger job. The quickest and easiest way to do this is to skim off the above ground parts with a sharp flat spade and compost them (cut right down at soil level, to sever the top growth but leave the roots in the soil). You could also dig the cover crop into the soil, but it will need a couple of weeks to break down before you can plant into it. This means you will have to prepare beds a couple of weeks before you intend to plant.

Amending the Soil
Now that you have your garden bed cleared, it’s the perfect time to add any soil amendments you need. Typically, I add a couple of inches of compost and some standard fertilizer mix. If you know your soil’s pH balance if off, this is also a good time to add some ground limestone for acidic soil, or some pine sawdust for alkaline soils.

These are simply scattered on to the soil surface and then incorporated into the soil. If the soil is already in good shape, you can simply dig them into the top few inches of soil with a fork. If it isn’t so good then single digging works better. If the soil is very poor or compacted you may have to resort to double digging (usually you only need to do this once though).

Once you have your amendments thoroughly incorporated, all that remains is to break up any large soil clods with a fork and then shape the bed with a rake. It is then ready for sowing or planting and your garden season has officially begun.

Making your own fertilizer mix

Making your own fertilizer mix

Making your own fertilizer mix has several advantages over buying a pre-packaged mix. That’s why it’s a basic component of Smart Gardener’s approach to organic gardening. Here’s a couple reasons why we like it so much.

1) Simplicity. It makes the whole question of “Which fertilizer do I use?” much simpler. It reduces the amount of boxes, bags and bottles of lots of different fertilizers you have to buy and store.

2) Less costly. It can save you quite a bit of money (as much as 50%), which you can then use for other gardening purposes.

3) Easy. It doesn’t take much time or effort to mix the various materials together, though it can be a bit dusty and the bulk bags are fairly heavy (they usually weigh 50 lb).

4) More flexibility. You can alter the recipe to better suit individual crops and can avoid materials you don’t like (for ecological, ethical or other reasons).

5) Buying bulk and sharing. If you buy the ingredients in the large bags. it’s great for community or school gardens, as well as sharing with neighbors or friends.

Where to buy

Generally the cheapest place to buy your materials is from a farm supply or feed store (a rule of thumb says that it’s cheaper to use materials sold as animal feed rather than fertilizer). If you don’t have a local feed store or farm supply,  then your next option is a garden center. These are set up for home gardeners so everything is in one place and it’s easy to compare materials and prices.

Choosing the ingredients

A complete fertilizer mix will include a source of each of the primary nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, as well as the secondary nutrients (calcium, magnesium and sulfur) and trace elements. The materials you choose depends not only on their nutrient content, but whether your priority is cost, organic purity (the cheaper amendments are mostly waste products from commercial agriculture and may contain pesticide residues or GMO’s) or ethical concerns (we won’t use products from industrial livestock raising).

How much to buy

Some ingredients are used in much greater quantities than others, so if you simply buy one sack of each material you will run out of one ingredient before any of the others. The next time you go to buy ingredients, you will only need to buy those that are in short supply.


For convenience you can mix all of the ingredients at once and store it in a cool dry place (though it’s probably best not to store the mix for too long). You can also store them separately and mix as needed. We use the white 5 gallon plastic pails with lids.

The recipe uses proportional quantities so you can use any container (whether a gallon pail or a teaspoon) to make as much as you need. I usually put all of the separate ingredients into a wheelbarrow and mix them thoroughly with a shovel (wear a dust mask as some of the finer ingredients are pretty dusty). It’s not a bad idea to do this over a clean hard surface, so you can recover anything you spill. For smaller quantities, a gardening bucket or pail works well.


I store the prepared mix in a plastic bin, though you could also use the paper sack the amendments came in. Some of these amendments are edible, so if you have rodent problems you will have to store them in a secure metal or plastic container, otherwise they may get eaten (and you may have a rodent explosion). They also need to be kept dry of course, otherwise they will rot.

Standard Mix

This is a mix of various amendments intended to supply all of the nutrients plants may require. It is usually incorporated into the soil prior to planting. The mix consists of:

4 parts cottonseed meal (this is high in nitrogen and relatively inexpensive)

2 parts colloidal phosphate or bone meal (for phosphorus)

2 parts wood ash or 3 parts greensand or granite dust (for potassium)

1 part dolomitic limestone (to balance pH and add calcium and magnesium)

1 part kelp meal (for trace elements)

Mix these together thoroughly. You can do this all at once, or you can store them separately and mix as needed.

Optional extra:

2 parts of sifted worm castings (This adds microorganisms and micronutrients). I prefer to store this separately and add shortly before using.

Custom mixes

You don’t have to use the recipe above, you can customize it to better suit the crop you are growing. Conventional wisdom recommends giving additional nitrogen to leaf crops, potassium to root crops and phosphorus to seed or fruit crops, so you could add extra of these as required.


Prepare Clay Soil for Spring Planting

Prepare Clay Soil for Spring Planting

Clay soils can be heavy and difficult, but if you persevere they can be very fertile and productive. Ideally your soil will contain at least 20% clay, but no more than 35% (or you can have problems). While clay soils hold on to nutrients well, you may have to adjust the pH of the soil to make the nutrients available.

The downside of clay soil is that roots have a hard time penetrating it because the pores are so small and the particles so densely packed. Additionally, clay soils hold a lot of water (up to eight times as much as a sandy one) and are slow to dry out. This is an advantage in times of drought, but in wet climates it means they get waterlogged easily. Wet clay soils tend to be cold and slow to warm up in spring. It’s no wonder that many plants don’t over-winter well in clay soils.

Use the tips below to turn your clay soil into an environment your plants and other beneficial organisms will love.

Tips for working with clay

•    Limit cultivation to times when soil is not too dry or wet. If you work with dry clay soil it will be so hard it is almost impossible to dig and may crack into large chunks that crumble to dust. When this dust gets wet it sets rock hard, almost like plaster. Cultivation of wet clay is even worse. Wet a clay soil compacts very easily when you put any pressure on it, creating a sticky mass that is also hard to penetrate.
•    Roughly dig the soil in autumn, when it’s relatively dry, and leave it over the winter for frost to break down the large clumps.
•    Add well-decomposed organic matter to help particles cluster together and form larger aggregates. This will improve drainage and aeration.
•    Use green manures to improve structure.
•    Double dig to incorporate organic matter and calcium.
•    Use raised beds to improve aeration and prevent future compaction. Build them high to help them drain and warm up.
•    Slope the sight slightly so the soil can drain more quickly.
•    Never allow the soil to get so dry that is cracks. These cracks increase evaporation and make the soil hard to re-wet because water simply drains away down the cracks. If it does dry out, cultivate the soil surface.
•    You can improve clay soil’s structure by adding a  mix of 80% gypsum and 20% dolomitic lime. Use an ounce of this mix per square foot of soil in spring and again in fall. This may be repeated for a second year, while also adding as much organic matter as possible.
•    Adding calcium may be useful to improve soil structure temporarily, until you can get sufficient organic matter and soil life into the soil. But this only works if the soil is low in calcium.