NGA Articles: Tools for Preparing the Garden

Tools for Preparing the Garden

By: National Gardening Association Editors

Before a single plant even touches the ground in your garden, it would be wise to spend time preparing the soil. Your soil's health is the basis of the success or failure of your garden plants. Just like in the old saying, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure;" if you prepare the soil properly now you'll have fewer weeds and diseases and better plant growth, flowering, and fruiting later.

Starting From Scratch

If you're gardening in an established garden plot, skip this section and go right to assessing the soil. For a new garden, here are the steps you'll need to follow to create a clean planting bed:

  1. Strip and compost the top 2 to 3 inches of sod or weeds with a spade or sod stripper.
  2. Remove any deep-rooted weeds, such as sumac and dandelion.
  3. Dig out and remove any large rocks with a digging fork and use them for walls or walkways.
  4. If you plan well ahead of time, you can try an alternative method to removing sod. Cover the new garden area in fall with a plastic tarp, old rug, or cardboard. By spring the grass will be dead, and the soil can be tilled without having to remove the sod. However, perennial weeds like burdock may survive and have to be dug by hand.

Assessing the Soil

Once the soil is clear of debris, it's time to get your hands dirty and assess the health of your soil. A simple test will tell you what type of soil you have. Take a handful of moist soil and rub some between your fingers. If the feeling is slippery and smooth, your soil is mostly composed of clay. If the soil feels gritty, it's mostly sand.

To further determine the amount of sand, silt, and clay, try a jar test. Place a 1-inch layer of crushed garden soil -- free of roots, rocks, and debris -- in a one-quart glass jar that's two-thirds filled with water. Add one teaspoon of liquid soap and shake. Sand will settle in a few minutes. Silt will settle in 2 to 5 hours. The clay will settle in a few days. Measure each layer as it forms. By knowing the depth of each layer, you can determine which type of soil particle is dominant in your soil. For example, if the sand layer is 1/4 inch thick, sand makes up 25 percent of your soil.

Knowing the dominant type of soil you have tells you much about its performance. A clay soil will retain water and nutrients better than a sandy soil, but it's slow to dry out. Sandy soil is less fertile than clay soil but drains water faster and heats up quicker. Also, certain plants are better adapted to certain soils. For example, portulaca grows best in a sandy soil.


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