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How to Prep Soil for a Vegetable Garden

A good garden starts with a good soil—and there's no better example than a vegetable garden. Now that you've got a little time to spend on your vegetable garden, here are some tips to make sure you succeed.

Site selection. The first major decision is where to put the vegetable garden.

  • Choose a sunny spot. Most vegetables do best in full sun, over 8 hours of direct sunlight per day. If you don’t have this much sun, consider sticking with crops that are more likely to tolerate some shade, such as herbs, and greens, like lettuce and spinach.

  • Avoid low-lying areas. Plant roots need oxygen, and vegetables are particularly sensitive to being submerged. Avoid putting a vegetable garden in a spot where the water accumulates after a rainstorm.

  • Consider convenience. If you have many spots to choose from, consider a location that is easy for you to get to, and one with easy access to irrigation water.

Choose your garden format.Raised-bed gardens use elevated frames that define a small, manageable space for the garden. While they involve more up-front labor and expense, they work well when the existing soil is not suitable for gardening. In-ground gardens work well when the soil is suitable for a garden, are less expensive to get started, and are easily moved to another location if needed.

Test the soil. Vegetable crops grow best in soils with a pH of 6.5-6.8. Our native NH soils are usually much more acidic than this (4.5-4.8), and lime or wood ash are added to raise and maintain a high pH, as well as to supply calcium and magnesium. Lime works slowly, so should be applied in the fall if possible. Wood ash acts more quickly, and can be applied in the spring before planting. If the garden site is still grass, you can apply the lime or wood ash on top of the grass. If your garden site is already tilled and prepared, incorporating or mixing the lime or wood ash into the top 4-6 inches of soil will help it work sooner.

Prepare the ground for planting. Most new vegetable gardens start out as lawns or a combination of perennial weeds that need to be removed. Two easy and effective ways to kill perennial weeds in a garden setting are tillage and mulching, or a combination of these. Regardless of the method you use, perennial grasses are most easily killed in the very early spring before they begin to grow, or immediately after they have been mowed very short. Ideally, it is best to start this process the summer before you want to plant the garden, because it takes time to kill the grass and weeds.

Tillage. It is possible to physically kill perennial weeds by hand or using various pieces of equipment. A spade or shovel can be used to prepare a small garden plot by hand using the double-digging.

Making a plan and planting the garden. Once the garden soil has been prepared and is ready for planting, it’s time to make a plan for fertilization, weed control during the season, and irrigation.

Weed control. If the perennial weeds were not completely killed prior to planting, they will try to re-grow and compete with the crops in your new vegetable garden. The first growing season is the most critical time to get these perennial weeds under control. They can be managed by repeated hoeing or cultivation (either by hand or with equipment), or by using mulches.

Irrigation. As a general rule, most vegetable crops grow best if they receive about an inch of rainfall per week through the growing season.

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