It’s April and it’s time to start thinking about preparing your gardens for spring planting. While we’re still a week or so away from planting out cool-season crops in northern Idaho (even they need the soil to be a bit warmer), here are a few tips to help you prep your garden for the coming growing season.
First, consider going “no-dig” in your established vegetable garden this year. This practice is exactly what is sounds like — no turning of the soil with a rototiller or a shovel. The only digging is to create a planting hole or sowing trench.
The constant digging or turning of soil on established garden beds destroys the structure, removes the essential space for oxygen and water, and can actually compact the soil. Plus, rototilling is especially destructive on the macro- and micro-organisms living in the soil.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, turning the soil brings all those buried weed seeds to the surface where they will happily germinate.
I’m a huge advocate for mulching; it keeps weeds down, moisture in, and cools the soil in summer. However, coming into spring, mulch keeps the soil cold. To help warm the soil in beds that have been thickly mulched, remove about half the material in early spring.
Next, feed your soil with a good two-inch layer of quality compost. Your soil is the foundation of your garden; healthy soil means healthy plants. Compost brings organic matter to the soil, improves its structure, and feeds the organisms and bacteria, which in turn, feeds your plants.
Be cautious of using compost made from municipal bio-solids on edible plants. This material works wonders on lawns, shrubs, and flower beds, but I don’t recommend using it on edibles.
There is no need to dig in compost – it will gradually work down into the soil over the season. If the bed is mulched, rake it back, add the compost and rake the mulch back in place.
This time of year, the urge for spring cleaning is great, but resist from tidying-up too much. Many pollinators and beneficial insects overwintered in dead leaves and debris around the garden. Leave the fallen leaves until the temperature is consistently at 50 degrees, allowing insects to come out of hibernation.
If you’ve started cool-season crops from seed, begin to harden them off before planting. This process acclimates tender plants to the outdoor environment. Start by placing seedlings outside for an hour in a shady, protected area. Gradually increase the time and light over the next 7 to 10 days. Skip any days of inclement weather (windy, wet, or excessive cold).
Our spring weather is very unpredictable, so once seedlings are planted, keep frost cloths or floating row covers, cloches, or other frost protection items handy for sudden drops in temperatures. A cold frame or low tunnel made of greenhouse plastic placed over a raised bed makes a great mini greenhouse to protect plants.
And, it goes without saying that early spring is a great time to start pulling weeds! Typically the soil is wet enough that perennial weeds will easily pull from the soil. If you have dandelions growing, you might consider letting a few flower, as these are a first food-source for many native bees, which will be appearing soon. You can always snap the spent flower heads off before they set seed. The bees will thank you!