Early spring is here in the Philadelphia region and it is cold! One good way to keep warm is to get going in the garden. Now is the perfect time to clean-up and prepare the garden beds for spring and summer plantings that will produce bountifully up to autumn’s first killing frost.
While clean-up and preparation may be the most tedious and boring of all garden chores, it is essential to begin the growing season with properly prepared beds. Gardeners who take the time now will be rewarded throughout the growing season. Start off by assessing the immediate and long term needs of the planting bed. If it is loaded with debris such as leaves and plant material from the previous summer, these should be removed. Also remove any objects such as stones or rocks that may have found their way into the garden over winter. Clearing the bed of debris will reduce the number of insect pests that will show up once warmer weather sets in. It also makes the bed more visually pleasing.
Next, the garden bed itself should be prepared. Digging deeply and turning the soil over is not recommended, although this is a common practice. Soil nutrients are found in the top layers of the garden bed, and flower and vegetable roots rarely extend deeper than six inches under ground. Digging can damage soil,which contributes to erosion and loss of nutrients, and disturbs much needed microorganisms and other life within. Digging will also bring to the surface any dormant weed seeds that have been buried over time. Weeds will then be in constant competition with bedding plants for water and nutrients all summer long.
Although such labor intensive digging is unnecessary for vegetable and flower beds, the soil needs to be loose and airy enough to work and plant in. The addition of organic materials such as peat, humus, and composted manure will require some mixing with a tiller, spade, or pitch fork. This can be accomplished by layering and spreading the added materials to the top of the bed and gently working them into the top four to six inches of the existing soil.
The planting bed should be assessed for pH and nutrient levels. Soil testing kits and meters can be found in any well stocked garden center. Soil pH is extremely important to plants because it determines whether or not a plant can uptake nutrients from the soil. If the pH of the soil is too high or too low, garden plants will not benefit from soil nutrients. Ideal soil pH is neutral, although certain plants such as tomatoes will require a soil that is slightly acidic and cabbages will require a soil that is more basic. To meet the needs of specific vegetables or flowers, add these amendments locally rather than to the entire planting bed. To neutralize an acidic soil, limestone, either granular or powder form, should be added and worked into the soil. To neutralize a basic soil, add Canadian peat moss.
Once pH is adjusted, a slow release, granular fertilizer can be incorporated into the bed. All plant foods and fertilizers will contain the three basic nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N-P-K). Some will also contain trace elements such as manganese, zinc, copper, and calcium. Soil testing kits that measure the amount of N-P-K in a bed are handy for alerting us to nutrient deficiencies, which can then be corrected. Phosphates, potash, and nitrogen rich fertilizers such as blood meal can be purchased at any garden center to add to beds that are lacking in specific nutrients. Ask the salesperson to help you choose the correct product for your garden.
After the beds are all made, there isn’t much left to do except wait for the perfect planting day. The time and effort spent now in clean-up and preparation makes it easier for your garden plants to thank and reward you with beautiful flowers and a generous harvest all summer long.