It may not feel like it yet, but spring is right around the corner. That means gardeners everywhere are starting to break out tools, tend to soil, and grow seedlings indoors to prepare for spring planting. There’s a lot to do, and it can be easy to forget all the tasks that need to be completed to reap a successful harvest.
This guide is here to help. If you’re new to gardening – or if you could simply use a refresher – follow these steps to get your garden ready for planting as soon as spring arrives.
Select a Site (If Applicable)
If you’re starting a new garden, choose a plot of land that maximizes your chances of a successful harvest. Choose a location that is fairly level, near a water source, and protected from intense winds. It should also have adequate drainage and receive at least six hours of direct sunlight every day.1 Test the soil to learn about its nutrient composition so you can amend it properly (more on that later).2 Learn more about how to reclaim neglected land for a garden here. In the rest of this article, we’ll assume you’re working with an existing garden.
Conduct Basic Maintenance and Cleanup
About a month before planting, clean up your garden area and tools so everything is ready to go as soon as it’s time to start working the soil.3 Clear out leaves and fallen branches from your flower beds. If you compost, go ahead and add the leaves to the compost; if you don’t compost, now’s a good time to start. Fix broken gates and fences, and make sure all your tools are clean and in working condition. It’s especially important that tools be clean so you don’t accidentally spread a fungus or insect eggs throughout the garden. Remove any clumps of soil from tools using a hard-bristle brush, hose them down, and dry them off before storing.4
Start Seeds Indoors
Many plants won’t grow well (or at all) if you simply put seeds directly into your garden’s soil.5 The solution? Start growing from seed indoors in the weeks leading up to spring, and then transplant the small plants into the garden when they’re ready to thrive. Alternatively, you can purchase starter plants from local farmers or greenhouses right before you’re ready to plant.
To start seeds indoors, begin by choosing a container. Small paper cups with holes punched in the bottom, cups made from newspaper, or folded cardboard all make great options since they can be added to the compost when you transplant the seedlings.6 Whichever method you choose, make sure the container is around three to four inches deep.7 It’s also helpful to buy or build a watertight tray to hold all of the containers. This allows the seedlings to soak up water from both the top and the bottom; it also helps ensure you don’t create a mess every time you water. (Don’t forget to empty any un-absorbed water from the tray after each watering.)8
Next, acquire some seed-starting mix. Fill the containers with the mix up to ¼ inch below the top of the containers – the soil should be packed firmly but not compacted.9 Refer to your seed packet instructions to determine how deep to plant the seeds. In general, it’s a good idea to plant two or three seeds in each container; however, if you’re planting large seeds, plant only one in a container.10
Once you’ve planted the seeds, you may choose to apply a light layer of sand or vermiculite. Some sources recommend doing so, while others state that it’s not necessary – your best bet is to experiment to determine whether this a step you want to include or skip.11 Then, cover the containers loosely with plastic wrap or clear plastic bags; keep the seedlings covered until they start to germinate.12
It’s important to make sure the containers are exposed to light; either place them in an area that receives direct sunlight for several hours a day or place them directly under fluorescent lights.13 Research your specific seeds to determine their light requirements. The location should also be warm – most seeds require daily exposure to temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees (or warmer) in order to germinate.14 If you’re worried about the seedlings being warm enough, consider setting a heating pad underneath the tray.15 Continue to expose the containers to light after the seedlings have germinated. As always, remember to water! You may also need to apply compost or organic fertilizer if you’re keeping the seedlings inside for more than three weeks; research the specific plants you’re using to determine whether this step is necessary.16
After the seedlings germinate and the first true leaves appear, repot any seedlings that have become crowded.17 Keep them exposed to a consistent supply of light until you’re ready to transplant them into the garden. Again, research your plants’ specific needs to determine the amount of light exposure that will work best.
Start Working the Soil (But Time it Right)
Most folks choose to work the soil before planting spring crops, and it’s important to time this step correctly. Work the earth when it’s too wet (e.g., from melting snow), and you risk compacting the soil, which makes it more difficult for plants to grow.18 To determine if the soil is dry enough to work it, conduct this soil test from Rodale’s Organic Life:19
Pick up about half a cup of earth in your hand. Now squeeze the soil together so that it forms a ball. If the ball of earth can readily be shattered by pressing with your fingers or dropping it from a height of 3 feet or so, it is dry enough to dig. If the ball keeps its shape or breaks only with difficulty into solid sections rather than loose soil, it still contains too much water.
Once the soil is dry enough, you’re ready to break it up. If you planted cover crops, be sure to start working the soil several weeks before planting in order to mix in the cover crops so they have time to decompose in the soil.20 If you didn’t plant cover crops, start by removing weeds and other dead plant matter; you can choose to compost these or mix them into the soil.21 Whether you used cover crops or not, be sure to use a broad fork to break up the soil so it’s more hospitable to new plantings.
Amend the Soil
“Amending” the soil is just a fancy way of saying “add whatever you need to in order to create a nutrient-rich environment for plants.” While synthetic fertilizer options abound, your soil and the surrounding ecosystem will be much healthier – and stay that way – if you stick with organic fertilizer options.22 As an added bonus, organic fertilizers tend to be much cheaper than synthetics.
Conducting a soil test before planting helps you discover which nutrients the soil is lacking. That information can help direct you toward an appropriate fertilizer option(s).23 The best organic fertilizer options are:
Because it’s incredibly rich in nutrients, compost is a great way to improve soil’s health in every way, from providing crops with the nutrition they need to improving water drainage.24 Some sources suggest that gardeners apply one inch of compost to the top of the soil, while others advise incorporating a few inches of compost deeper into the soil.25 You can make your own compost from kitchen and yard scraps or seek out compost from local farmers.
Similar to compost, grass clippings supply a garden with nutrients.26 They can also be used like a mulch cover to slow weed growth and improve the soil’s ability to store water. Many communities offer free yard waste compost; check with your local municipality to explore your options. You can also collect grass clippings from neighbors; just be sure not to use grass from lawns that have been treated with herbicides. Mix a half-inch of clippings into the soil or add one to two inches of clippings on the surface.27
Mulch can be made from a variety of organic matter, including shredded leaves, hay, and grass clippings.28 Applying one inch (or more) of mulch on top of the soil provides a steady stream of nutrients as the mulch decomposes. Many gardeners choose to use mulch in conjunction with compost to create exceptionally healthy soil.
Create a Planting Calendar
Regardless of whether you start seedlings indoors or purchase small plants to transplant into your garden, it’s important to plant them at the right time. Cool-season crops – which include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, and onions – can be planted early in the season.29 Warm-season crops – which include eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes – should be planted only after there’s no risk of frost (typically toward the end of May).30
When you transplant crops, it’s important to “harden off” any seedlings that you started indoors before planting them in the garden.31 Do this by setting them outside in the shade for an hour or two for the first couple of days, and then gradually increasing their time outside over the course of a week.32 That way, when it comes time to transplant them in the garden, they should be hardy enough to survive the outdoors.
No matter what you plant, remember to rotate your crops’ placement to avoid planting the same items in the same place each year.33 A failure to rotate crops can result in a higher incidence of pests and diseases and can deplete the soil over time. It can help to create a written record of what you’ve planted and where so you can compare your garden’s successes and challenges over time.34
It may seem like a lot, but investing some time in late-winter garden prep helps ensure your garden can provide a healthy home for your crops come spring. The payoff is worth it – both your wallet and your health will benefit from growing organic produce at home.