Early Spring Soil Preparation: When And How

Early spring is most gardeners’ favorite time of year – we’ve been patiently (or impatiently) waiting for winter to be over so we can get our hands dirty again. But before you start working your garden beds and soil, it’s important to make sure everything has thawed and dried up nicely. And once it has, there are a few steps to take to ensure a healthy growing season.

When It’s OK To Work Your Soil

So how do you know when it’s OK to get working in the garden? It’s very different in each region, so we recommend doing a quick test with your hands to see if your soil is ready. Pick up a handful of soil from your garden, form it into a ball and try to break it. If the ball easily breaks apart then the soil is dry enough to work, but if it keeps its shape (or is visibly moist) it’s not ready to be worked yet.

Working the soil when it is still wet can be disastrous. This can lead to rock-like, wet clumps that can dry like cement and cracked soil. Plants grow best when they have healthy, non-compacted soil with a little air between their roots to grow. You’ll also want to wait until your soil has dried out to add in any soil amendments such as compost, gypsum, lime, or rock phosphate.

If you’re ready to get working in the garden but your soil isn’t quite ready yet, try raking the lightest soil on top (if it’s dry enough). You’ll still want to make sure you don’t disturb the wet subsoil. Why do this? Raking the very top layer of soil can help to remove tiny weed sprouts before they get to be too much of a nuisance. By raking them up and leaving them exposed, their roots will fry in the sun with no major soil disruption.

Natural mulch, such as wood chips, helps build soil as it decomposes.

Make Your Spring Tasks Less Daunting With Mulch

All this work, depending on your tolerance, has a risk of becoming bothersome. A way to avoid it is to mulch your gardens every fall, which helps your soil regulate moisture throughout the seasons, helps to build good soil (meaning you'll have less amendments to apply), and also prevents weeds from sprouting in the first place. We recommend using straw, wood chips, rotted leaves, burlap bags, or layers of thick, wet cardboard and newspaper as mulch in the fall. These natural mulches are building soil as they decompose, unlike plastic and landscape cloth. If you’d rather try a “living mulch,” plant winter cover crops such as buckwheat in the fall.


Soil building is a great way to add nutrient-rich soil to your garden beds without disturbing your plants.

Soil Building In Spring

If you notice your beds could use a thicker layer of soil, try soil building in the early spring or fall. Remove sod and flip it over, adding a thick layer of wet newspaper, then compost or purchased garden soil, then mulch. The idea here is to build new soil that will release nutrients as it breaks down, giving your plants access to these nutrients without having to disturb your garden beds with a shovel. If you’re looking to add new plants to newly built soil, simply remove the mulch when you are ready to plant and replace it afterwards.

Early spring is an exciting time; it’s also the best time to get out in the garden and prepare your soil for a long, healthy growing season. Happy Gardening!

4 thoughts on “Early Spring Soil Preparation: When And How”

  • Sonya Meiselbach
    Sonya Meiselbach April 29, 2016 at 10:51 pm

    Live in Delaware County upstate New York bought some of your seeds and reading on how to sow/plant them. Only problem is I plan on planting them on a hillside/mountain and cannot get a rototiller or any type of equipment up there to clear out brush or weeds plus it is nothing put rock,fieldstone, slate when I try to dig to plant some flowers or bulbs. Have tried to sprinkle seeds out every year for past 3 yrs and very few flowers come up . Any advise would be very helpful . Thank you Sonya

    Reply
    • Jenny

      Hi Sonya, I'm a bit unsure about how to advise you here. I actually have a similar struggle on my property, where I've been trying to build up soil over the rocky areas by cutting down weeds and letting them break down in-place. Each year I make some progress and see more seeds sprouting, but a few weeks of heavy rains or strong wind can bring me right back to my starting point! I'm unsure if your area is small enough and accessible enough to try raking out your soil by hand, but if so, I think that may be your best bet. Best of luck - Jenny

      Reply
  • Melodie Alvarez
    Melodie Alvarez May 2, 2016 at 5:18 am

    I am concerned about using newspaper and cardboard in organic gardening. Are the glue and ink used in these materials toxic?

    Reply
    • Jenny

      Hi Melodie, in the past, using newspaper in the garden was of great concern, as many of the printing inks included heavy metals. Today, black and white newspaper is completely safe to use, and now that most colored inks are soy-based, most colored newspaper is also safe. Generally speaking, glossy materials, such as magazines and some flyers & inserts should be avoided. In terms of cardboard, certain adhesives are made from vegetable starch while others are made from glues that contain synthetic chemicals; if this is of great concern (especially if you're using it in beds that grow food) you can always trim off the edges where you see adhesive, as you might not be able to tell the difference between safe and unsafe. Hope this helps! Happy Gardening - Jenny

      Reply
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