The Q&A Archives: Plot Prep in Public Garden

Question: This year I'll have my first vegetable garden in a municipal garden. The town preps soil inconsistenly, I'm told, w/composted material & last seasons rocks, twigs, etc. What can I do to best prep my plot keeping in mind I have neighbors on each side? What first year mistakes can I avoid. Please as much detail as possible.

Answer: "As much detail as possible on the mistakes to avoid as a beginning gardener" is available in book form from Pat Stone, and it's titled "Real Gardeners' True Confessions" (Storey Publications, Pownal VT). It's a how-to book that includes confessions from well-known and now-expert gardeners - all the mistakes they've made while learning to garden. You never stop learning, either! Another great beginners book is "Gardening for Dummies" by the Editors of the National Gardening Association (read more about it at It's a great and simple guide to the mystique of gardening. Specific to your situation, though, I recommend a soil test. You can either purchase your own from at a gardening center or mail order (Burpee's Seed sells one - check out their website at, or have it tested by the agricultural extension service (ph# 201/285-8300). The test results tell what nutrients are lacking in the soil, and what you need to add. In general, you can always use more compost. It contributes to the organic matter content of soil, and organic matter is crucial to keeping plants healthy, since it contains substances that make soil nutrients available to plants. It also helps keep harmful soil diseases and insects in check by maintaining a diverse and balanced population of microorganisms. So pile it on! And build a compost bin or pile of your own! Another general caution is to not work on the soil while it is wet. You may think it makes sense to get out in the garden as early as possible, but if the soil is wet, you'll only set yourself back. Wet soil compacts easily, and it's hard to "fix" once the damage has been done. When you do work the soil, till or dig it to a depth of 12-24" deep. If there is literally no space between garden plots, then outline yours with a frame of planks set on the ground, or a band of mulch (newspaper covered with straw) to define boundaries clearly.

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