Laying the Groundwork for Your Garden

Now that the spring garden catalogs have arrived, you may have been seduced by a new variety of truss tomato, pink pumpkin, or Romanesco cauliflower. But wait. Where are you going to plant these tantalizing varieties? With a little planning and preparation, your resulting garden will be more prosperous and rewarding.

The most productive gardens start with great soil. Before turning over the first row, ask yourself a few questions. How much space and light do you have? How much equipment is needed, and how much time can you dedicate to your garden? How much prior experience do you have?

If you have a very small yard or sunny spot on a patio or balcony, a few pots containing organic potting mix may be all the garden you need. If you have a larger yard and you are an experienced gardener, consider a larger garden. About 100 square feet of garden will provide enough summer produce for one person. If you opt for a garden bed, the location should receive at least four hours of sunlight, preferably more, especially if you hope to grow tomatoes, peppers, or squash. A vegetable garden close to your kitchen can be an ideal location.

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After choosing the location, have the soil tested. The go-to place for soil testing is The University of Massachusetts. The UMass Soil Testing home page will give you all the information you need to prepare the soil sample. The total cost of the test, including mailing envelope and postage, is less than $20. You will receive essential information on soil nutrient levels, pH, and lead levels. Remember to specify the garden recommendations code on the form: for example, “home vegetable garden” or “home strawberries.” A list of codes is attached to the form.

Soil amendment recommendations, such as organic fertilizer or compost, should be worked into your soil. The depth of cultivation depends a lot on your soil. Plows turn over large furrows, cutting through roots, killing weeds, turning under weed seeds, and exposing the soil to the air. Rototillers churn the surface of the soil, making it easier to plant seed and young plants.

You can build a no-till garden by layering mulch, compost, and soil on top of the existing soil. The new soil adds cost, but does not require tilling equipment. If your soil has high lead levels, bringing in soil may be your best option. The Internet offers advice, but the information can be conflicting and confusing. A great resource for help is The Ohio State University Extension. Master gardeners are available at the horticultural hotline at 216.429.8200 on Thursdays from 10am–1pm, April through October.

Regardless of your soil test results, all gardens benefit from the addition of organic matter. Good local sources of organic matter include leaf humus, kitchen compost, or cow, horse, or chicken manure. Organic matter improves the structure of soil, increasing water retention and aeration. It adds nutrients for plants and improves the ecosystem of microbes that help plants absorb nutrients. Apply it to the surface of the soil each season and cultivate it in, or apply a lot and rototill it in. You will not regret the initial effort. The return will be higher yields and easier maintenance.

Simplifying maintenance is essential. Managing an urban farm for nine years, I have learned a lot about efficient gardening. Mounded rows with paths mulched with straw or wood chips will keep your vegetable garden organized, easy to harvest, and reduce the area that requires weeding by hand. Prepare the rows with light cultivation using a hard rake or a digging fork. The only plants requiring hand weeding are seedlings of carrots, leafy greens, beets, and onions.

Once the plants are established, you can slice off weeds at the roots with the sharp steel of a 5-inch stirrup hoe or more precisely with a 3¾-inch collinear hoe. No stooping or gathering of weeds is required. Small weeds will quickly dry in place and return their nutrients back to the soil. Hoeing the garden regularly prevents weeds from setting seed.

The first year, a vegetable garden may require more effort, as many seeds are waiting for the disturbance of a shovel. But by devoting a little attention to soil, and purchasing a few essential tools, your garden will yield many seasons of healthy, abundant harvests.