Whether you want to grow a few vegetables, turn the backyard into a landscaped sanctuary, up the curb appeal, or are simply expand what is already growing, late winter and very early spring are a great time to get the space ready for planting. Good preparation will result in healthier plants and less work for the gardener later in the season.
Select a location based on what you plan to grow or the look you are trying to achieve. For fruit and vegetable gardens, you are choosing based on these plants’ needs, which is at least six hours of direct sunlight per day for almost all of them. A level, well drained space is also ideal, but the site can be modified for these things if necessary. You will also want to avoid planting in and around tree roots when possible.
For flower and/or landscape spaces, choose a site based on the need for screening, shade, balance, color, etc., and select plants later based on the amount of sunlight the site receives, soil type and other factors.
Eliminate grass and weeds from the site. If they are actively growing and there are several warm days in the forecast, you can cover the area with black plastic for a few weeks to kill the existing vegetation. Otherwise, remove weeds and grass by physical means with a shovel, spade, hoe, tiller, rake or other tools.
Test the soil to determine the pH and check for nutrient deficiencies. Soil test kits are available at many garden centers and hardware stores. They are mostly reliable but may not offer a lot of guidance about how to amend the soil. County Extension offices also accept soil samples and submit them to the Kansas State University Soil Testing Laboratory. These tests are offered at minimal cost and sometimes offices have grant funds that make tests free to local residents.
Amend soil if necessary after receiving soil test results. This is also a good opportunity to add organic matter such as compost. Organic matter improves soil drainage and workability, and makes nutrients and water more available to plants.
To add organic matter, spread it evenly across the top of the area, then work into the soil with a shovel, spade, pitchfork, cultivator, tiller, or other tool. If the soil already has a lot of organic matter and fluff, you might only add a half-inch to an inch of compost. If the soil has a lot of clay or seems heavy and compacted, add as much as 3 to 4 inches of compost.
There are many options for what type of organic matter/compost to use. Most commercially available composts are really about the same, although many gardeners have their favorites. Another inexpensive option is the City of Lawrence’s compost offerings. Its main sale is March 23, 24 and 25 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and compost is available for $10 a pickup load or free for self-loaded quantities.
According to the city’s website, compost and woodchips are also available this year for self-loading every Saturday from March 4 to mid-December. They will also load trucks for $10 per scoop on the first Saturday of each month from April to October. This is at the compost and mulch facility at 1420 E. 11th St. and is a great bargain for a high-quality product.
When completing garden preparation, avoid working the soil when it is very wet or very dry to prevent compacting or pulverizing it.
— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation. She is the host of “The Garden Show.”