How you prepare an existing bed for spring planting depends on what state it’s in. Lots of weeds? Compacted? Mulched last fall?
Let’s go over the possibilities, but first – if your beds have irrigation fittings of any kind you may need to move them out of the way so they don’t get damaged by weeding and digging tools.
If the weeds are soft growth of annuals, they don’t spread by runners or roots, and they are not setting seed, you can safely dig them into the ground, either by hand or using a tiller. If you do this, you’ll need to wait a couple of weeks before planting so that the weed growth can partly rot and the micro-organisms have mostly finished their jobs and freed up the nutrients they use to do it. if the weeds are really small you may be able to get away with hoeing or using a “Garden weasel” tool.
However, weedy beds like this are pretty rare in the real world! Mostly our weedy beds have some perennials like dandelions, creeping or runnering weeds like crabgrass or morning glory (bindweed), or annuals on their way to world domination by way of mega-seed production. In this case you’ll need to get the weeds out of the bed and either into the compost pile or, in the case of real nasties like bindweed or Japanese knotweed, to dry out completely in the sun before composting.
Don’t even think about tilling the real bad guys, you will just encourage them and spread them around. If you have a serious problem with pernicious weeds, in the long run it will pay you not to plant the bed this year at all, but to solarize, mulch or cover-crop the weeds into at least partial submission.
Everyone has their own preferred weeding tools. For dealing with a whole weedy bed, I prefer a digging fork to drive deep, lift a big chunk of soil, and shake it with the fork to loosen the weeds and break up chunks all in one go. Then I pick out the weeds by hand. You can also use a hand fork or trowel to dig out the weeds, but that doesn’t loosen the bed very far down (but also doesn’t bring up weed seeds from deep down – your choice). For just a few weeds, one of the many long handled stand-up weeder tools may be enough. However you do it, get all the weeds out of there.
First question is, why is the bed compacted? Was it walked on? Does the soil compact very easily? Heavy rains or sprinkler use can also compact the soil to a surprising degree. Work out why your bed is so compacted, and then once you’ve rejuvenated it you can take steps to prevent or at least reduce future compaction.
To loosen a compacted bed you may need to resort to machinery like a tiller or rotovator, you may need to double-dig it, or it may just need re-loosening to a single fork’s depth. While loosening the soil, try not to physically turn it over – the more you can preserve the natural soil profile the better for your soil life.
A hard pan is a special case of compaction. It’s a very compacted layer of soil below the top layers, and may have been caused by tilling to the same depth repeatedly using a power tiller, or previous plowing. You may also have a natural hardpan lower down in the soil profile – I have one about three to four feet down below a layer of pure sand. If your hard pan is near enough the surface to cause problems (water not draining, plant roots not able to penetrate it) it’s worth breaking up if at all possible, which may take a crowbar or a tractor with a deep chisel plow.
Congratulations on having mulched the bed last fall! That gives you a real head start with bed preparation. You can dig or rake in the mulch if it’s not too thick, it’s well decomposed already, and it’s a soil builder. Otherwise you may need to rake it off. Underneath, the soil should be mostly weed-free and loose.
Feeding the Soil
Once you have a loose, weed-free bed, what next? Think about any additions or amendments you may need to add to the soil. If you have enough compost, a layer on every bed every year is a wonderful thing – even a 1/4″ layer will help. If you have a limited amount of compost, save most of it for newer or less-well-conditioned beds which need more organic matter.
As well as compost, you may want to add lime (if your soil is acid or there will be lime-lovers in that bed this year) or organic fertilizer of some kind. I believe that manure is best added to the compost pile so it’s always well-rotted when applied to your beds, but you can add old or composted manure direct to beds which won’t be growing food items that will be in direct contact with the soil. Lettuce – bad. Pole beans – good. Fresh manure always needs to be aged or composted first, or added to a bed you’re going to plant in green manure or other non-food items.
You can also feed your soil with pretty much anything you’d normally put in a compost pile. Chop it up, bury it, or mulch it on top of the soil – it will break down sooner or later even if it doesn’t look very pretty for a while.
Finishing the Bed
What else needs to be done? It depends what you plan to plant in your bed, what kind of a bed it is, and how fussy you are.
If your beds have sides, raking the soil out reasonably flat is a good next step.
If you have raised beds without sides, like I do, they probably got pretty messy if you dug or tilled them, and they need reshaping. I pull all the loose soil off the paths back up onto the beds, then rake out the tops reasonably flat and even.
For direct-seeding large seeds (beans, peas, squash etc) or planting transplants, the bed is probably now ready. For direct-seeding small-seeded plants, though, you need to make a seedbed.
Making a seedbed
Small seeds like carrots, lettuce etc., and things which are a little picky about conditions or take a long time to come up, need a bit more preparation to give them a nice fine seedbed.
My favorite tool for this is my “Garden weasel” which, when worked back and forth, does a great job of breaking up lumps, throwing up stones or remaining weed clumps to be picked out (it’s amazing but there are always a few left), and creating a nice fine surface layer to plant your small seeds in.
Future articles will cover the many ways to plant seeds or transplants in your beautiful freshly-prepared beds!