Get Ready for Planting

By Steve Reiners, Professor and Chair, Horticulture Section, Cornell University, Cornell AgriTech. This is part of a series of columns that he wrote about vegetable gardening during the pandemic that ran Spring-Summer 2020. Read more articles from 2020 | Read later articles in this series.

April 17, 2020

This week has been chilly, and we saw the return of snow. But I promise, spring is here and it’s time to get going on your garden. 

That constant chilly wind you’ve been suffering through lately actually has a bright side. It helps to dry out your soil, allowing you to start preparing  your beds for planting.  You can start working your soil without harming  it once it can pass the “squeeze test.”  Grab a handful of soil and squeeze.  If it crumbles easily, it’s ready to work.  If water drips out or it stays together in a lump, let it dry out a few more days.  Working soil when it’s still too wet will ruin its structure, not only for this season but often for years to come.

Starting a new garden

If starting a new garden where the lawn is currently growing, you have your work cut out for you.  Simply going out with a spade and turning the grass under can lead to problems.  The grass takes a long time to breakdown, leaving the soil cloddy and difficult to plant.

One alternative is to scrape off the grass about one inch deep and put the sod in the compost pile.  It’s effective. But it’s a lot of work.  This is one of the few times when I would recommend a rototiller.  If you have a rototiller-- or better yet if a neighbor has one -- the job is relatively easy.

I’m not a big fan of rototillers because if overused, they’ll destroy soil structure and reduce your soil organic matter.  I’d limit my use to preparing a new garden in the spring or turning under garden debris in the fall.  Your long term goal should be to create a healthy, loose soil that can be prepared with only a shovel, fork and rake.

Make your first pass fairly shallow to  break up the sod.  Then make a second, deeper pass perpendicular to the first. If you have the time, its best to wait a week or two between rototilling, which allows the sod to break down a bit.  Then make an additional pass or two to eventually work the soil about 6 to 8 inches deep. But avoid the temptation to till too much, pulverizing your soil in the process.

Preparing an existing garden

If you are preparing an existing garden, it is much easier.  Just use a spade and turn under the area to be planted.  If the soil is very soft, you may be able to use a claw rake or a hoe.

As you prepare your soil, it is also an excellent time to add soil amendments.  Hopefully you have had your soil tested so you know the garden’s nutrient levels and pH, a measure of the soil acidity.  Contact your county’s Cornell Cooperative Extension office and see what they have to offer. 

Soil amendments

When amending soil, the most important thing is to correct the pH.  Ideally we would like to see a slightly acid pH, about 6.5. (The pH scale runs from 1 to 14 with 7 being neutral).  Without a soil test, I’d recommend adding no more than 5 pounds of limestone for every 100 square feet of garden.  As for the limestone, you have choices.  You can use dolomitic limestone, which contains magnesium and calcium, or calcitic lime, which is mostly calcium.  If it’s a new garden, I’d go with the dolomitic type. Apply the lime before you till the soil to mix it in to the top 6 to 8 inches.

As you prepare the soil, add a 1 to 2-inch layer of organic matter.  This will not only add nutrients that plants need but will also feed beneficial soil microbes.  Compost is ideal if you have it.  If you don’t have your own compost, you can buy composted manure or peat humus at garden centers.

Don’t use fresh manure in your garden as it may contain human pathogens that could contaminate your crops, possibly causing serious illness.  If you have access to fresh manure, compost it first before using in the garden.

A 2-inch layer of organic matter could provide all the nutrients you need.  Some may choose to use synthetic fertilizers.  When purchasing any fertilizer, you will see three numbers on the bag, which tells you the percentage of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in the mix.  For example, a 10-6-4 fertilizer has 10% nitrogen, 6% phosphorus, and 4% potassium.  For vegetables, stay away from fertilizer designed for lawns with a high nitrogen content.  Sprinkle about 1 pound of a 10-10-10 fertilizer across 100 square feet and work it into the soil. If using a 5-5-5, you would need twice as much or 2 pounds to provide the same nutrients.  This will be enough to get the plants started.  We’ll talk more about feeding the garden later in the season in future columns.

Early planting

This week in the garden, if your soil is ready to work try to prepare the beds prior to the next rain.  While soils are still chilly, it’s not too early to seed peas, spinach, carrots, radish, Swiss chard, and probably, transplanted broccoli, cauliflower, onions, and lettuce.  Be prepared to cover them if we have a hard frost. Normally I’d be starting potatoes now but the it’s been so cool, I might wait another week.

No garden? No problem!

Many people would love to garden but may not have room or access to good soil.  No excuses though, as long as you have some direct sun for part of the day you can grow plants in containers.  You can use anything, just make sure there are holes in the bottom for drainage.  Fill them with a potting soil mix available at garden centers and you’re ready to plant.  One of the most ingenious “containers” I have seen used was by a commercial greenhouse grower in New Jersey.  He took a 40 pound bag of potting soil, made some holes in the bottom for drainage, cut two holes in the top and planted tomatoes (see picture).  He ran a trickle irrigation line through each bag, and also ran some fertilizer though the trickle.  He got about 15 pounds of tomatoes from each plant.  At the end of the year, he removed the tomatoes and grew a second crop of zucchini squash the following spring. No trickle, no problem.  Make another small hole between the two plants and water with a hose or bucket.