If you’re like me, you just can’t wait to get sowing seeds and laying out the new season’s garden. But there’s one task essential to setting yourself up for success, and it can be done right now: getting the soil ready. Well prepared soil will jump-start your garden and give your plants the very best start to the season.
Cover Bare Ground
In nature the ground is rarely bare. Whether it’s leaves, old plant matter, weeds or sprawling plants, there’s usually something keeping it covered. We want to follow nature’s lead by covering up our beds – and the sooner we do it, the better.
When you consider all the nutrients that were taken up by garden crops, then removed at harvest time, that’s an awful lot of nutrients that have been lost from the soil. All that needs replacing, and the best way to do it is with a thick layer of good old organic matter.
Compost is excellent organic matter to use, and can be easily made in your garden. Horse or cow manure (from a trusted source where you know there’s no risk of herbicide contamination) is another great source of rich organic matter.
Spread your chosen organic matter out to cover the soil surface to a depth of at least two inches (5cm), and ideally more. You can dig this organic matter into your soil, or simply leave it on the surface where it will bury weed seeds, while keeping the soil structure beneath undisturbed. Let the worms do the digging in for you I say!
Warm Up the Soil
If spring typically takes its time in arriving where you are, taking measures to warm up the soil could pay real dividends, shunting forward your growing season by as much as two weeks.
Raised beds can help improve conditions by enabling wet, cold soils to drain through and dry out that little bit earlier. Speed things along even more by physically barring rain and snow from reaching your soil. Cover beds with something light-blocking and non-porous like black plastic. You’ll need to properly anchor it down so it doesn’t blow away, but this dark sheeting not only keeps the soil dry, it also absorbs heat, which is only a good thing for your ambitions to get on and plant.
If you’re not keen on plastic, you could use old salvaged windows. Lay them directly onto the ground, or raise them up onto a simple frame of wood or bricks– an effortless, instant cold frame. And if your ground is full of weeds, use a layer of old cardboard beneath to exclude light – weakening the weeds and making them much easier to clear later on.
Clear Out Weeds
Beds freshly charged with lots of organic matter are great if you can raise young plants and seedlings elsewhere to plant once they’re a bit bigger. That way, if there are a few weeds, your plants should be big and tough enough to hold their own against them. But what if you don’t have the space or time to raise seedlings away from your beds?
This is where stale seedbeds come into play. A stale seedbed is what you get when you actually encourage weed seeds near the soil surface to germinate, and then remove them while they’re still young to leave a clear, sterile bed. Doing this means that your young vegetables can start life with significantly reduced competition from weeds.
Lightly disturb the soil surface then warm up the soil using sheets of clear plastic or a cold frame. Once the weed seedlings are up, pull them out or hoe them off. Don’t dig up the soil, which will just bring new weed seeds to the surface – the idea is to just remove those that are already at the top.
This works best for annual weeds, but perennial weeds won’t give up quite so easily, so check over beds regularly and hoik them out as you find them, taking care to remove as much of their roots as you can.
Once you’ve completed these steps, your soil should be raring to go. But it’s easy for spring to start only for it to apparently retreat for a few weeks, so make sure you have cold frames, row covers or garden fleece at the ready to throw over plants if there’s a surprise late frost.