Soil is the most important natural resource in the garden
by Lewis Jett, Commercial Horticulture Specialist, WVU Extension Service
Soil is an investment, and anything that can be done to maintain it and increase its quality will pay off in better and more successful gardens.
Test the soil
As spring blooms, home gardeners begin preparing garden soil for a season-long succession of planting, growing, and harvesting. Gardeners should have the soil tested before planting. While fall is probably the best time to do soil testing, it can also be conducted in the spring. Consult your WVU Extension county office for details about this free service.
Boost your soil’s organic matter
If you grow cover crops on the garden through the winter and plow or till them into the soil, your soil will receive a boost in organic matter. This practice decreases soil compaction and increases the soil’s overall quality. Some cover crops can be mowed and vegetables planted directly in the residue. This method of no-till gardening is well-suited for growing pumpkins, squashes, and other vine crops.
Know how to till soil
Do not till wet soil since this will significantly reduce soil structure. Also, soil should not be overtilled to the texture of a fine powder because this will reduce the soil’s porosity to air and water. Overtilling also reduces the soil’s organic matter. Other types of organic matter such as dried manures, compost, and decayed leaves can be top-dressed and tilled into the garden each year in the spring or fall.
Rotate crops to improve soil
Spring is the time to choose sites for each vegetable or fruit within the garden. Most annual vegetables should be rotated with vegetables botanically unrelated to them. Rotation can be as simple as rotating leafy vegetables with root crops. Rotation prevents buildup of soilborne diseases. Planting the perimeter of the garden in flowering herbs such as anise and borage will significantly increase the number and diversity of beneficial insects.
Use raised beds and mulches
- Low spots in the garden that collect water can restrict growth of vegetables and fruits. You may construct raised beds to promote soil warming, draining, and easier harvesting. New soil made of compost and topsoil can be placed in framed raised beds to improve soil quality.
- Mulching the soil with either plastic mulches or organic mulches will reduce soil erosion. Mulches also reduce emergence of weeds and loss of soil moisture. If the native soil in the garden is inadequate, try growing small vegetables and fruits in containers.
Try helpful techniques
- Lightweight fabric such as row covers can be draped over newly planted crops to speed up germination and protect the crop from frosts and foliage-eating insects and wildlife. Row covers can be used on crops throughout the spring but should be removed when most plants begin to flower.
- A rapid succession of planting every three or four weeks will ensure a continuous supply of vegetables through the spring and summer. This also reduces the risk of crop failure.
- As the spring warms into summer, consider using shade fabric over cool-season crops such as lettuce to extend their production time.