Best Time to Prepare Your Soil
The best time is either spring or fall. The main thing you want to try to avoid is hot, dry-as-a-bone ground and extremely hot temperatures. Try to work in soil that is neither too wet nor too dry. It’s best to work when temperatures are pleasant — best for your body, best for your mental outlook, and best for your soil.
Never till wet soil because it will cause heavy clodding and the layer beneath will become further compacted.
Before You Begin
If you’ve done any reading on preparing a garden you’ve probably read about double digging a bed. I’m recommending a slight adjustment to the original double digging process. (I’ve done both.) You’ll still need a shovel, but by allowing a tiller to do some of the work it will go a bit quicker.
First you need to decide the size of your bed. I would suggest 3 1/2 feet wide by 7 or 10 feet long. (If you want to straddle the bed while working it – 2 feet wide would be your width of choice.) Whatever width you choose, you want to be able to reach easily to the middle without having to step on any part of the bed. The idea is to keep the soil from compacting again once you have gone to the work of un-compacting it. Using heavy equipment or walking on the bed defeat the purpose of preparing it in the first place. Your soil needs to be loose and crumbly. Compact soil cuts down on plant production as much as 50% and sometimes more.
After you decide on the size, add about 2 to 3 feet to each side. Call that area your paths. You can add another bed on the other side of the path parallel to the bed you will be digging now. And you can continue this until you have as much garden space as you want.
The Main Idea
The idea is to loosen the soil to a depth of 12 to 24 inches to help create conditions under which your plants can thrive. (Note I say “help” because you will recall that Organic Matter is the 2nd Key to Soil Improvement.)
How you do this will depend on what kind of soil you are working with.
(Some places require that you call a “Miss Utility” hotline before you dig. Check it out before hand.)
9 Steps to Proper Soil Preparation
*NOTE: Steps # 2, 3 and 4 are different for clay soil and are given at the end of Step #9.
Remove any sod or weeds from the soil surface.
Bill and I have tilled through sod and broken it up into the soil. It’s not the best way since the grass will continue to grow and you will have to take it out sooner or later. If you plant the bed (or till it) without taking out the sod — it will be a nightmare and you might not ever get it all out. It makes too much work in the long run if you don’t take out the sod or weeds first.
Warning about wire grass. I guess wire grass got its name because it runs like a piece of wire through the soil. And believe me the “wire” runs deep. If you till wire grass you’ll have hundreds of pieces of wire grass instead of one piece and they will ALL grow! Take out all the wire grass you can find before you till.
The good news is that in a properly prepared bed, any wire grass that grows there in the future should come out easily.
Till the entire area including the “path” area. Use a heavy duty tiller so you will be able to till as deeply as possible (24 inches), but at least 18 inches. (Please note that I am recommending a tiller for use in initial preparation only. With this exception of starting a bed I never till in my garden – ever. I will cover more about this in Part 3 – Organic Matter – 2nd Key to Soil Improvement.)
At this point – take out any remaining grass or weeds in the soil.
If you have any organic matter that can be added to the soil ———add it now and till it into the soil.
I’ve used straw that has been cut with the lawn mower, grass cuttings, old wood chips, compost, leaves, cow manure and horse manure. Manures that are free from residual herbicides are harder to find now. Know what you are getting before you use the manure.
If you are not able to obtain any organic matter to add to the soil – skip this step for now. (I’ll talk more about this in Part 3.)
Break up remaining large clumps in soil.
Shovel or rake dirt from the path area to the bed. Bed will then be much higher than the path. Level the top.
Fill paths with pine needles, straw or wood chips. (The bed will no longer appear as high.)
You can plant if it’s time.
Cover your newly prepared bed with a mulch like straw or pine needles to keep the ground soft. Otherwise the rain will compact the soil again and the sun will bake it. It is very important that you mulch the bed.
The following points for clay soil replace #2, #3 and #4 above:
- If you have hard clay below your few inches of soil you must remove the soil above the clay first. (Shovel it onto a tarp or into a wheelbarrow.)
- Then till or at least break up the clay as deeply as possible. (It you don’t have a heavy duty tiller that will work in clay, you can use a shovel or a garden fork to break up the clay.)
- It will be of great benefit to your plants if you can remove a few inches of clay and then add large amounts of straw, pine needles, aged wood chips, manure, or leaves. Put the clay back and evenly disperse it.
- Return the first layer of soil to the bed and remove any remaining weeds or grass. Till lightly.
- Follow remaining steps starting with Step #5
If you are unable to use a tiller or if you just want to use the original double digging method here’s how:
Note: Some people invert the sod and put it at the bottom of the trench. (grass side down — at least 12 inches under) If it has wire grass in it — it will still live. Thus — the best way is to remove the sod. Let it dry and shake all the dirt from it. It’s a little work — but you want your dirt.
- From one end of the bed to the other dig a trench about 1 foot wide by 1 foot deep.
- Place the excavated dirt from this first trench into a wheelbarrow or on a tarp.
- Work a garden fork into the floor of the trench and rock it back and forth to loosen the soil. (Or break and turn the soil at the bottom with a shovel.)
- Dig a second trench (like the first one) next to the first.
- Place the excavated soil from the second trench into the first trench.
- Loosen the soil at the bottom of the second trench as you did for the first trench.
- Continue this process until you reach the other side of the bed.
- Fill the last trench with soil in the wheelbarrow or on the tarp.
Warning: Please use your own good judgment about what you are able to do and what you are not able to do. You need not complete all this in one day. A little at a time will get it done.
Also, please read the instructions thoroughly. Make sure you understand exactly what to do. Improving soil is time consuming and you will loose more time by not following the instructions correctly. I want you to be successful! Good luck!
______END of Part 2_______