How to prepare your vegetable garden for spring

How to prepare your vegetable garden for spring

John, Passionate gardener, Cambridge

Guide written by:

John, Passionate gardener, Cambridge

Each year, gardeners everywhere look forward to the first sunny days of the year marking the start of the best gardening months. From working the soil to adding compost or fertiliser, preparing to sow seeds or plant demands a lot of preparation. Read on for our top tips on how to prepare the vegetable patch for spring.

Important features

  • Preparing the soil
  • Hand tools vs. machinery
  • Mulch
  • Fertilising
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Preparing the soil in a vegetable garden

Working the soil

Autumn and the start of spring are the best times of the year to prepare the soil for the growing season ahead. It is especially important to prepare the soil in a vegetable garden as fine, loose soil is able to surround seeds much more evenly. In turns this aids with germination and the development of a strong root system. Never attempt to work the soil while it is frozen and try to wait until the soil has drained off some of the excess water from winter before starting work.

Soil on the slightly drier side will be easier to work with.

Weeding the vegetable garden: an essential step

What to sow in the vegetable garden

In the spring, the soil will slowly start to warm up allowing biological activity to ramp up once again. This is the perfect time to get to work. At this point, you should weed the vegetable garden thoroughly. Weeds will be starting to grow rapidly at this time. Pull them up before they get the chance to grow too big.

If you're hoping to eliminate weeds without the use of weed killer, there's only one efficient method: manual weeding. For this you can use a tool like a hoe or, if you're feeling brave, you can roll up your sleeves and pull the plants out by hand. The first step involves loosening the earth around the plant to detach the roots from the soil.

You can then grab the plant by the collet (the part between the root system and the base of the stem), twist it and pull it towards yourself. An effective alternative to hand weeding tools is to cover the soil with a weed control fabric and leave it in place for three weeks. After this time, the weeds should have wilted away through lack of sunlight.

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Weeding tools

Loosen the soil to help your plants take root

Working the soil

Preparing the soil for seeds or planting essentially involves eliminating weeds and using a number of tools to create a fine soil texture (the smaller the seeds the finer the soil should be). If you are planting on, you don't have to be as rigorous, but the soil should still be loose enough to help the root systems take hold.

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Weeding tools

What tools do I need to prepare the soil?

Working the soil

Use a broadfork to protect microbial life

Traditionally, the first step when it comes to preparing soil is to loosen the earth using a garden spade. However, another tool that has become really popular for this task is a two-handled fork known as a broadfork (also called a U-fork or grelinette). The advantage of this type of tool is that it saves a lot of effort. But most importantly, it won't disturb the different layers of soil (or horizons), which is important for microbial life. Another important benefit – these tools will spare your back!

Breaking down soil and amending it naturally

Next, you'll need to pick up a fork tool to break down soil clumps. You can use a fork hoe or a garden claw and work to remove roots and stones at the same time. During this stage, you might want to incorporate some fertiliser or compost which can be dug a few centimetres into the soil.

Break down and level the soil to prepare a seed bed

Cover up your grass seed

To finish off, use a rake to break down the soil even further to create a light texture. Level out the surface of the soil, getting rid of any remaining weeds, soil clumps or stones as you go. At this point, you will have created a 'seedbed'. This final stage is not essential if you are planting directly (for example, potatoes, cabbages or tomato plants). If you have a large garden, you might want to use garden machinery for this task. For example, a tiller can be used to work the soil loosely while a cultivator creates a finer texture.

For smaller gardens, it's best to use hand tools rather than machinery like cultivators. In fact, cultivators do present some disadvantages: they can divide the root systems of plants like couch grass or bindweed which can make them more invasive. Furthermore, they disturb the different layers of soil and kill a great number of earthworms.

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Electric cultivators

Mulch: an easy way to prepare a seedbed

Mulch the soil

If you took the initiative to mulch your soil in the autumn, you can likely skip the first stage of preparing the soil. At this point, you can simply remove the mulch or at least whatever remains of it that hasn't been broken down by nature's little helpers (i.e. soil micro-organisms)! Add the remains to your compost pile and nothing will go to waste.

Once the surface of the soil is bare, it will heat up more quickly under the sun. Loosen the top layer of the soil gently using a fork hoe and remove any dried weeds, as well as any that have started to grow beneath the mulch.

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Mulch and weed control fabric

Organic fertilisers: garden compost and green manure

Why fertilise your soil?

Spring is a great time to add some compost to the soil. You can dig it into the first 10 cm of the soil when you loosen the top layer with your fork.

However, there is one condition: your compost needs to be fully mature and should not contain any worms as this is evidence that the compost isn't ready yet. Alternatively, you can instead use some dehydrated manure (in powder or granule form) or an organic fertiliser that can be directly absorbed by the plants.

Digging in green manure crops

Surface composting

If you sowed green manure seeds in the autumn (such as vetch or clover), it is time to break down the crops using a lawnmower set to mulching mode. Dig the plants into the top layer of soil and wait about a month before sowing seeds or planting.

If you are handy with a scythe or even a weed hook, you can go ahead and use it to break down small areas of green manure crops. You can then gather the crops and add them to the compost pile. Next you can loosen the soil gently or proceed to using a fork hoe.

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Weed hooks

Tips for starting a vegetable garden

Working the soil

As soon as March arrives, you mustn't forget to start chitting any potatoes you want to grow. This should be done about five weeks before you plant them on. Spread your potatoes out in a well-lit and cool (but not cold) spot. Once the potatoes have sprouted and have about 1cm of growth, you can put them in the ground.

Divide any plants already in place such as mint, sorrel, oregano or tarragon. Finally, one last word of advice – if you haven't done so over the winter, take the time to check your tools. Repair any that have suffered damage and change any handles that look at risk of breaking.

There's nothing more annoying than having to delay work because of a broken tool!

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Weed hooks

More information

 
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Guide written by:

John, Passionate gardener, Cambridge

John, Passionate gardener, Cambridge

When I was young, I was already working in the family garden. Perhaps that is where my interest in plants and gardening came from. So, it was logical for me to study plant biology. At the request of various publishers I have, over twenty-five years, written many books on the subject of plants and mushrooms (a subject that is close to my heart). They were mostly identification guides at first, but shortly after they were about gardening, thus renewing the first passion of my childhood. I have also regularly collaborated with several magazines specialising in the field of gardening or more generally in nature. There is no gardener without a garden, I have cultivated mine in a small corner of Cambridge for the last thirty years and this is where I put into practice the methods of cultivation that will I advise you in as well.

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