Are you dreaming of a large vegetable garden in your backyard for next summer? If so, then fall is the time to start preparing the soil. The key to a healthy vegetable bed is great soil. By preparing the soil for planting in fall, you ensure that your amendments have time to break down and blend into the soil to create a healthy mix. The following guide will walk you through preparing your vegetable bed.
Step #1: Remove the turf
Begin by removing the grass and turf on the garden site. The least labor-intensive method is to rent a turf cutter and use it to remove the grass and its roots in strips. You can even save the sod strips to plant in bare areas of your yard. Alternatively, use a spade to cut 6 inches into the soil, then slide the blade of the spade under the grass roots and lift the turf out in chunks. This is more time consuming, but just as effective as using a turf cutter.
Step #2: Perform a soil test
Next, either purchase a DIY soil test or contact your county extension office and request a soil testing kit. Follow the directions on the kit for taking a core sample of soil from the garden bed. For a DIY kit, you will generally mix the sample with water in a tube, which is equipped with a litmus strip that changes color to show soil acidity. A professional test requires one or more samples, and then the testing lab will give you a full printout of soil acidity as well as any nutrients present.
Step #3: Adjust acidity
Use your acidity test results to determine how to adjust the soil quality. Plants generally need a neutral pH level, which is around a 7.5. If the soil is acid, the number will be lower than 7.5. You can mix ground lime into the soil to raise the pH to the desired number. A higher pH means the soil is too basic for vegetables. Adding ground sulfur to the soil will lower the pH to the desired 7.5 reading.
Step #4: Add nutrients
If you have a professional soil test, you may get a nutrient analysis that you can use to help choose amendments. Otherwise, general amending is usually sufficient. Begin by spreading a 3 to 4-inch layer of compost over the garden bed, then apply a general-purpose vegetable fertilizer that contains both nitrogen and phosphorous. You can also purchase blended soil mixes that contain compost, topsoil, and fertilizer.
Step #5: Till and solarize
Till the compost or soil blend into the top 6 inches of soil. Don't walk on the bed after tilling, you don't want to compact the soil. Finally, cover the bed with a sheet of dark plastic, such as plastic mulch or even a tarp. The sun will heat the soil beneath the tarp, killing any weed seeds that survived amending and tilling. This way you will have a weed-free plot with good soil ready for spring planting.