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Vegetable gardening is arguably one of the most rewarding outdoor activities. How else could you combine sunshine, exercise, the joy of watching things grow, and the added bonus of some delicious vegetables for your table?
The key to a successful garden is healthy soil. Without the right composition, pH, drainage, and tilth, your plants won't flourish. Prepping your soil for a vegetable garden is not just a first step—it's the step that will determine how well your garden grows. Understandably, this important process can seem a little stressful for beginning gardeners. Luckily, we've broken it down into easily digestible components:
Choose Your Location
Before you plant anything, you'll need a plot of land. In an ideal situation, you'll have access to a well-drained location that gets plenty of direct sunlight and is within reach of your gardening hose. Unfortunately, many yards do not offer such an exemplary setting. If your land doesn't meet some of these requirements, just try to scope out the sunniest spot in your yard. Be sure to avoid planting in areas that tend to collect a lot of water; unless you plan on growing rice, it's hard to grow vegetables in a puddle.
If you are starting a garden from scratch, you will need to remove the sod from your yard before you can prepare the soil. The most straightforward way to do this is simply to dig up the sod and peel it back, removing the grass and exposing any soil underneath. You can get a jump start on this process by laying cardboard over sod to kill the grass. Once everything has been cleared away, it's time to start looking into soil preparation.
These days, most home gardeners choose to grow vegetables in raised beds. These are ideal for growing vegetables for several reasons. For starters, they conserve space and boost crop yields since deeper soil allows plants to grow larger and closer together, and it saves you from having to deal with messy garden pathways. Consequently, the large plants grown in raised beds are usually able to shade out most invading weeds. Raised beds are also more efficient when it comes to tending and harvesting, as you will never need to worry about accidentally kneeling on seedlings.
You can construct raised beds out of quite a few different kinds of material, from wood and cinder blocks to straw bales. This makes them accommodating to most budgets and ideal for gardeners with a limited growing space. You will likely need to add more soil to your raised beds once they're finished. Any general garden mix will do, but note that these mixes do not come with the necessary nutrient balance. You will have to make amendments like adding plant food after you've conducted a proper soil test.
Test Your Soil
Many gardeners choose to test their soil prior to planting. This lets them know if it has an adequate nutrient balance or is harboring any harmful bacteria, like e. Coli. Testing is a great way to determine what you should be adding to your soil for maximum plant growth.
Very few people are lucky enough to inherit perfect soil, and growing anything will eventually contribute to the depletion of nutrients if you're not vigilant about making amendments. The basics like peat and manure will give you a good start, but your plants will need more. Plant food like Osmocote carries several fertilizers that promote plant health and net bigger harvests. And, because it is a slow-release formula utilizing osmosis (rather than the normal water activated slow-release), there's less worry about waste that could negatively affect your soil next year. Osmocote returns nutrients to the soil at the exact rate your plants use it.
Other issues, such as poor pH, can be easily corrected by using lime, sulfur, or another basic amendment.
Clay, Silt, or Sand?
The type of soil you have will determine your starting point. Clay soils do not drain as well as sand or silt and may require some additional sand or loam to be mixed in for improved drainage. Soil that is too sandy, on the other hand, drains too quickly and should be mixed with clay to help retain a little moisture. If your soil is very rocky, or you plan on building raised beds, you may need to invest in some topsoil. All soils are usually sold by the yard but can be bought in bags for smaller gardens.
Regardless of what type of soil you have, you should seriously consider composting. Adding a mixture to your soil is the best way to improve the tilth and fertility of your garden. It improves drainage and water holding capacity, encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria and microbes, and contains the nutrients your plants need for growth. If you don't already have a composting pile, now is the time to build one. Of course, you can always buy composted manure from your local garden store or farmer instead.
Construction, foot traffic, and rain often cause soil to become dense and compacted. Loosening your soil with a digging fork or broad fork is a good way to find and remove any unwanted rocks and will encourage your plants' roots to reach deeper into the ground for water and nutrients. As you aerate, keep an eye out for any worms. If you don't see any, your soil is in desperate need of some compost.
Once your soil is nice and fully prepped, you're ready to start planting. Form a garden plan before you scatter any seeds to make the best use of your planting area. Space your plants appropriately, and consider doing some companion planting to save some room and improve plant growth.
Many aspects of your soil can be left to their own devices once you have done your initial improvements. Your soil makeup, the ratio of clay to sand to soil, won't change heavily year over year. However, you will want to keep a close eye on your pH and nutrient levels throughout the year.
Fall is the best time of year to incorporate compost and other amendments into your soil in preparation for the following spring, as it is generally the time when gardens are emptiest. However, if you are continuing to grow flowers and vegetables or starting bulbs for next spring, you will probably want to keep using plant food like Osmocote throughout the fall and into next year. Create a feeding schedule and stick to it, and your garden will thank you!