Answer: It's really a good idea to have the soil tested so you know what you're working with. A standard soil test will give you an idea of nutrient levels, pH, and organic matter content. Recommendations for improving your soil are included with the results. Contact your Cooperative Extension Service (805-861-2631) for information about soil test kits.
I like to turn over the soil--either by hand or with a tiller--as early as possible in the spring. Just wait until the soil has dried out so it doesn't form big clumps. Tilling wet soil will compact it too much. Let the tilled garden sit for a few weeks, and till again. This will take care of any newly sprouted weeds.
It's always a good idea to add organic matter to any garden soil. Organic matter improves drainage on heavy soils, and helpswater-holding capacity on sandy soils. Incorporate compost, shredded leaves, grass clippings, well-rotted manure, or other organic matter directly into the soil when you first turn it over in the spring. (Wait a few weeks to plant if you use non-composted additions.) Then throughout the season, use grass clippings or shredded leaves as a mulch--it will keep down weeds and add even more organic matter.
Soil pH is critical, so follow the test result's guidelines carefully. It can take a few years to improve soil pH, so be patient!
Good luck with your new adventure!
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