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Early Spring Soil Preparation: When And How

by Amanda

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!