As we approach the average last frost date north of the Mason-Dixon line, it is time to begin sowing those seeds that can stand frost and laying out the garden plan for those more sensitive plants, such as tomatoes, which you will set out later or plant directly in warm soil – squash, cucumbers, and the like.
If you have covered your soil with black plastic, then most of the weeds should have been killed and the soil will be warmer than the surrounding ground.
Some veggies can be planted very early; in fact, my radishes and spinach are already up in the garden despite a light snow this week.
The seed packet will tell you when to plant and some seeds will say to plant them as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring – that means as soon as it is thawed on a nice day, even if you expect more frosty mornings.
Other seed packets such as those for tomatoes say to start them inside (or buy established plants). These need long, warm seasons to produce fruit and the plants can easily be transplanted. Tomatoes, for example, should be planted deep, right up to the leaves, and the main stem will throw out new roots.
But cucumbers, squash, and melons are very difficult to transplant – while you can just pop bare tomato plants out of planters and drop them into the ground, the only way to successfully transplant the melon family is to use large peat pots or pots made of newspaper that can go right into the ground.
For most people, it is best to just wait until the soil is about 55-60 degrees and plant those seeds directly in the ground.
Although simply digging a small hole and mulching around the plant will work for tomatoes and some other plants, or piling up some soil to hold cucumber, squash, or melon seeds, improving the soil will always make for easier gardening and better crops.
Depending on soil type and whether it has been dry enough (or you had the soil covered), you can begin to dig over the ground either by hand or with a tiller.
I have a suggestion for the tiller to buy if you don’t want to just rent one (often difficult because everyone needs them at the same time).
Gas-powered tillers usually work fine for a year or two, but unless maintained carefully they get harder and harder to start and can be a real handful to operate.
Although it doesn’t look able to till a sandbox, the $190 Troy-Bilt electric cultivator is a powerful and tough machine and suitable for preparing even hard ground.
Covering grass with mulch or plastic will make it easier to till but if you didn’t do that and want to get started, you will want to shovel off the sod (green grass and roots), pile it in a heap to start making it into compost, then run the tiller on the bare ground.
Even the Troy-Bilt tiller can deal with sod but it will be physically easier on you, the gardener, if you dig off the sod first – the harder the ground is to till, the more effort it will take on your part.
Preparing the ground means more than just softening it – if you take the time to till you should also add improvements – sand if the soil is too hard, and some sort of organic material (old leaves, dead -not green- grass, compost, even shredded newspaper – but not magazines).
This fall you can compost grass cutting, leftovers (but not meat), old garden plants, etc., by simply piling them up as high as possible and keeping the pile wet. If you use basins, you can even dump dishwater on the pile.
But composting takes time and material you probably don’t have yet so, starting from scratch, you need to buy soil amendments such as composted manure, sand, and peat moss.
If you are avoiding chemicals, then you stop there, but one chemical you should add is magnesium sulphate – don’t head for your kid’s old chemistry set; just buy Epsom Salts at the drug store – you can even soak your feet in the mixture first and pour the water on the garden.
Adding calcium is usually a good idea even for acid-loving plants such as tomatoes (which develop blossom end rot if they don’t have enough calcium in the soil). The easiest way to get calcium is with a bag of pelletized lime. This is easier to apply than regular powdered limestone.
Soil testing is the only way to be certain what you need but doing things on the cheap means just taking a guess – if something is growing now, you can probably grow food in the same soil, especially if you add some Epsom Salts and a bag of manure. It is always safe to add some peat moss too.
If you are not going 100 percent organic, then one 50-pound bag of 10-10-10 fertilizer will boost a 10×20-foot garden’s fertility a lot. Spray (foliar) fertilizers go right on the plants, not the soil.
Neither are strictly organic and will not do your soil much good in the long run, but a bit the first year won’t hurt and what organic gardeners are really trying to avoid are the really dangerous insecticides and weed killers.
As far as insecticides go, there are several options – you can use all simultaneously. Keeping plants healthy and strong provides some protection and you can let the insects have a small share.
Plain dishwater detergent or Ivory soap can make a good insect killer and if you mix it with hot sauce and/or garlic, you can kill and repel insects at the same time.
You can even buy insects that just eat other insects.
But that is another topic for a bit later in the season when the problem arises.
A word about dogs. Don’t use dog droppings on your food garden. Also, as The First Lady discovered, dogs love newly turned soil and compost heaps – if you have dogs in the area, they may destroy your garden.
Inexpensive plastic deer fencing can help keep critters out, but look at other gardens in your area to decide if you need to be concerned about rabbits and, if so, how to deal with the problem.
Here on the ranch we have some fenced and some open plots depending on the plants – some are more attractive to critters than others. Also, although we don’t actually own any cats, there are always volunteer felines patrolling the area as sort of unpaid staff.