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Spring - A New Garden in 7 Steps!

It’s spring in my USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 6b area, and I can’t wait to get elbow deep in what I like to think of as my new season rituals. There’s just one problem, the weather!

With snow on the ground and below-freezing temps, I put planting on hold and decided to bundle up and do something the weather can’t damage - prepare a new vegetable bed.

I don’t have as much spare time as I’d like - and does anyone ever have enough money? - so converting my precious 1/4 acre into an ideal garden experience happens in bits and pieces.

This week’s project is all about preparing a brand new bed, step-by-step.

I’m working on a single bed, but this is the same process used for creating an entire vegetable garden; up to any size that doesn’t require heavy equipment. ;) I’m an organic gardener and I don’t have a giant shed full of tillers, edgers, flame-throwers and a different rake for each type of leaf, so when I write about my gardening adventures, there can sometimes be more ‘adventure’ than gardening.

STEP ONE - Place the Plot
Select a site that gets at least 6 hours of strong sunlight per day during the growing season and if you live in an area that doesn’t get much rain, place your garden near to a source of water. Make sure the hose reaches or that you’re able & willing to carry a bucket and sprayer that far! Mark out the space with some stakes and string if you’re going for symmetrical, or lay a hose or rope along the ground in the shape you desire.

STEP TWO - Cut it Out
(This step can be skipped if you have open ground with no existing growth.)
Grab a shovel. For this step, I use my D-handle flat spade for its straight edge, but a regular shovel will do. Go around the perimeter of the plot and outline the area by holding the shovel vertically and only pressing it into the ground just deep enough to cut through any vegetation roots. Then do the same outlining process to divide the area into strips if the plot is larger than a foot or so wide.

STEP THREE - Sod Off!
Use the shovel horizontally to remove the sod/turf (or any other vegetation). This step can be surprisingly tricky to get right. The object is to only remove the layer of growth while leaving as much soil as possible. Think of it as slicing the top of a cake off - but heavier, harder and without having much room to maneuver in. :) Put the shovel into the ‘outline groove’ you made in STEP TWO and keep the shovel close to level while you force it under the growth and roll up strips of sod/turf. NOTE: If it’s a very large area, or you prefer to be extra kind to your shoulders and back, renting a sod cutter is a good option. For a specialty lawn tool, they’re not particularly expensive to buy either. If you have a large property, it could be a wise investment. You can even set up some sort of neighborhood co-op for tool lending. OK, that’s a story for another day.

This is usually the point where I begin my mantra of “progress, not perfection”. It’s gardening - it’s work, but not precision engineering!

STEP FOUR - Can You Dig It?
It’s time for the shovel to shine. If you have a tiller, can borrow a tiller or rent a tiller, awesome! Simply use it to go over the bare ground to a depth of at least 12 inches. If you’re doing this by hand, it’s the same story, just sweatier. Turn the soil over by shovels full and chop up the clods with the blade. Once the entire patch of land is reasonably broken up, and the larger rocks and roots are removed, it’s time to add amendments.

STEP FIVE - Feed the Land
Here’s where a soil testing kit comes in handy. Handy, not mandatory. Pick up a kit at a big box store like Lowes or B&Q, or at a landscape supply shop; use it and tweak your soil according to the results. Option 2: Look into the soil conditions of the plants you plan to grow, take note of what (if anything) was growing in the area before, and tweak your soil based on what it is like, to what your new plants need it to be. As a very general rule, most vegetable plants like a rich, loose, slightly acidic soil. In almost all cases, mixing in a generous amount of organic compost will help. Simply dump some compost on top of your freshly-turned soil, and then turn it again. It will be worth it!

STEP SIX - Rake it Real Good
This is a job best reserved for a bow rake, sometimes referred to as a garden rake. For any novices, it’s the heavier one with short tines. Spend some quality time with your rake and smooth out the surface of your new garden. Break up any stubborn clumps of compost or soil with your shovel or hands, and once you have a planting area that gives you a satisfying sense of accomplishment when you look at it, step back and prepare yourself for the final step of Garden Prep 101.

STEP SEVEN - Soak and Get Stoked!
Plenty of gardeners far more masterful than myself, skip this step, but personally, I think it’s important for the freshly worked soil to settle and for any amendments to be incorporated thoroughly. It’s also a small safeguard against any pockets or clumps of potentially harmful ‘elements’ staying in pockets or clumps. Get out the hose and spray the area until it’s saturated to a depth of about 3 inches. This will also settle the ground in advance of any planting so you can easily build up or level out any bad spots. I repeat this soaking every day for about a week - it depends on how anxious I am to get planting, but three times is my bare minimum.

Depending on your location and weather, you may want to wait a day or two after soaking, so the ground is more easily workable, to sow seeds or place plants.

That’s it! Get growing!

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