Mary Kocol for Tower Hill Botanic Garden at TowerHillBG.org
Great vegetable gardens begin long before planting time. It’s the pre-season work that lays the foundation for a productive growing season and baskets of harvest. Learn what to do to prepare your vegetable garden and soil for the growing season. Make these steps part of your annual gardening process to grow your best garden ever — every single time.
Make a list of what you want to grow this year, and commit a garden design to paper. Arrange crops in rows, blocks or even circles. The design is limited only by your imagination. Consider dividing your garden into sections, with one area for salad greens, one for tomatoes, peppers, onions and basil, and another for beans or potatoes. Treat your vegetable patch as a canvas, and release your inner artist as you arrange plantings.
Once you determine the plants you want to grow, take inventory of your seeds. Get any you’re missing, either by purchasing them or participating in a seed swap.
Take a walk through your garden, old design or new, and see what state your paths are in. Replace coverings as needed to keep feet dry and mud-free. Renew the edge on beds, at least along paths or any side facing lawn. These are tasks you can do even before soil is workable. It gives you an excuse to escape indoors, be in the garden and savor spring sunshine.
Staff for Tower Hill Botanic Garden at TowerHillBG.org
Draft a master vegetable garden shopping list, including categories for seeds, plants, fertilizer, stakes, compost, mulch and whatever else you might need. Take care to craft a very specific plant shopping list. It’s a key to making garden center trips efficient and cost-effective. It’s super easy to buy too many tomato or pepper plants, thinking you can just squeeze them in somewhere. Plants jammed too close yield less and often succumb to pests or disease.
No vegetable garden can ever have too much organic matter. Keep adding compost, leaves, shredded hardwood bark or other soil conditioner to nourish and build soil. Latest research shows that, like in the forest, you can simply layer organic matter onto soil to reap its benefits. You don’t have to work it into soil, but you should add a mulch layer, especially in vegetable gardens.
Soil is ready to be dug and planted when it’s not too wet or too dry. It needs a just-right consistency that’s similar in texture to moist cake. It should compress when you squeeze a handful, but should also easily crumble after the squeeze. Avoid digging in soil that’s too wet. You can actually damage soil structure, which creates an unfriendly root zone. The soil shown below shows that ideal consistency for planting.
Hard, compacted soil offers a challenging environment for roots. Loosen soil in planting beds and raised beds to aerate soil and create the perfect growing situation for plants. A broadfork offers a hand-powered alternative to a rototiller. To operate it, plunge the 12-inch-long tines into the soil and rock the handles back and forth. Why choose a broadfork over a tiller? When a tiller turns soil over, it brings up buried weed seeds, which can sprout and give you a weed-filled garden.
Get a jump on weeds before the planting season begins. Many cool-season weeds, including perennial weeds like dandelion, pop up long before it’s time to plant. Use gardening’s pre-season to hand-pull weeds. A Korean hand plow (sometimes called a ho-mi) is the perfect all-in-one tool for the vegetable garden. Use it to dig weeds, create planting holes, loosen soil, form rows — and countless other tasks.
It takes a lot of different parts and pieces to pull off a successful vegetable garden. Don’t forget to check items like stakes, trellises and small fences. Make repairs as needed, or purchase replacements. Also double-check your tie supply (twine, cotton string, soft twist ties, etc.).
Prior to planting and after soil is workable, go ahead and get stakes into the garden for plants like tomatoes. Adding stakes prior to planting gives you a chance to fine-tune plant spacing and adjust your shopping list as needed. Get your bean or pea fences in place, too, along with any hoop supports if you’re using a growing tunnel for squash to keep vine borers at bay.