How to prepare garden space…fast

‘Tis the time of year for work parties: a chance to harness people-power to make a really big difference, really fast, in your garden space. But sometimes the garden doesn’t get ready right on schedule for your big day. So, how to best prepare to leverage all that potential energy into rapid change?

The most common type of garden unreadiness in early spring is cover crop that hasn’t been cut down, or sheet mulch that hasn’t fully decomposed. In both of those cases (and in most others), there’s one surefire work party-buzzkill: sopping wet soil. DO NOT work it. If you think it’s even a little bit likely to be wet wet wet on the day of, tarp the area you’re going to dig and keep it dry(ish) until you are ready to go. Then, if it is raining at work-time, uncover small sections at a time and work fast.

Also, avoid the temptation to rototill, if you can help it. Mechanical tilling and working wet soil are bad habits that will do more damage than good, and undo all the work your soil’s done through the winter to get ready for spring. Instead, use trusty spades and digging forks to chop up the cover crop, or break down the clods in the sheet mulched area. Same goes if you’re prepping a new area (or reinvigorating an area that was left bare through the winter): remove sod/weeds, add organic matter, and turn soil. You’ll arrive at just about the same state.

Here’s one example of what you’ll see happen, and the tools you’ll use to effect this transformation:

If you’ve got a big area and/or a little work party, you can shape your beds and stop there, come back in a week or so to remove weeds (including any re-growing cover crops), and then rake a seedbed and plant your plants. But if after you’ve turned the soil and shaped your bed(s), your work party’s just getting started⎯say, you have seeds and starts right there waiting to be planted⎯you have one prep step yet to take.

Your newly-disturbed “real” soil needs time to settle in and re-establish relationships before it’s suitable as a planting medium. You don’t have that time to give. So, rake your beds level and break up the big soil clods, then bring in a thin layer of bulk planting mix (often 3- or 4-way, depending on the supplier/ingredients) or potting soil (esp. if you’re working with a raised bed) to give your seeds an easy time getting started.

Rest assured: even if you cover up your soil with another layer, your hard work was not in vain. You’ve created an amazing environment in the soil underneath for microorganisms to get to work. And once your seeds get started in good contact with the top layer of imported fill, they’ll reach their roots into the real, lovingly-prepared soil below and find everything they need to thrive.

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