Eliminating weeds and getting the soil ready for your flowers and vegetables are important first steps in preparing a new garden. Time spent in preparation reduces the time you'll have to spend maintaining and weeding your garden over the course of the growing season and increases the chances of success.
Mark the boundaries. Outline the new garden plot. Use string and stakes for straight lines; use a hose to create gentle curves. You can also mark the boundaries with a line of powdered limestone.
Eliminate the competition for your garden. For best results, plan ahead by mowing existing plants, and then covering the area with a thick layer of organic matter — newspapers, cardboard, mulch, etc. — for several months. This will smother the plants and allow them to decompose and return the nutrients they contain to the soil. This method also preserves important soil life. However, if you don't have that much time, you can remove existing vegetation by slicing under it with a spade and cutting it into manageable pieces. Remove the pieces and add them to your compost pile so you can return the organic matter to the garden in the future. Another option is to rototill the soil; however, tilling damages soil life and exposes buried weed seeds, making it a less-than-ideal option.
Test the soil. Often soil can be deficient of important nutrients plant need to thrive. Soil preparation for a new garden might include adding amendments for better overall soil nutrition. Feed the soil so that the soil can feed your plant. To find out if your soil needs amending, send a sample of garden soil to a private or cooperative extension office soil-testing lab for nutrient and pH analysis. Call the lab or a local garden center for a collection kit and instructions on how to collect the sample. Test results will tell you which minerals and pH amendments your soil needs to grow healthy vegetables and flowers.
Add amendments. Adjust the soil pH -- its measure of acidity or alkalinity -- by adding ground limestone or sulfur as recommended by the soil test results. Improve the soil fertility, clay soil drainage, and sandy soil water-holding capacity by adding organic material, such as compost. Apply a 1- to 2-inch layer of organic material over the garden.
Turn the soil. Lightly work the amendments into the top 6 to 12 inches of soil with a garden fork. Break up large clods and remove rocks and roots. Work the soil only when it is dry enough to crumble easily after squeezing — never when it is saturated with water. Rake the soil smooth with a metal rake.
Do-it-yourself soil test kits work best for detecting the soil pH, but give only a rough idea of the nutrient levels. Professional tests provide more thorough and accurate information and recommendations.
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