“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
Longer days, birdsong, and the return of warmer weather make it easy to incorporate that Margaret Atwood adage into your spring routine. With a relatively long and cold winter more or less behind us, it’s time to get back into the garden. Warm days send us scrambling out into the yard, eager to get to work. But what to do first? It’s tempting to throw some seeds in the ground in anticipation of fresh, homegrown veggies, but it’s also important to take a little time to do some preparation to improve soil health and make sure you’re planting the right seeds at the right time.
Spring is the ideal time to have your garden soil tested. A laboratory test will tell you the soil’s pH, percent organic matter, and nutrient and trace mineral profile. Some tests will also tell you if heavy metals are present, which is important to know if you’re a woman of child-bearing age or you plan to garden with kids.
I recommend the test from UMASS Amherst’s Soil and Plant Tissue Testing Laboratory (soiltest.umass.edu/); for $15, the lab will provide results for all of the above soil properties and provide recommendations for organic amendments. Testing kits are also available through our local Albemarle County Cooperative Extension office (offices.ext.vt.edu/albemarle).
Allow about two weeks between sending your soil sample and receiving your results by e-mail, and do keep in mind that many organic soil amendments including lime (to correct for low pH), bone meal (to add phosphorous), and trace minerals can take months to have an impact.
Compost, compost, compost
The key to successful organic vegetable production has little to do with the plants themselves and everything to do with the soil in which they’re grown. Healthy soil produces healthy plants that are less susceptible to pests and diseases and confer greater nutritional value to those who eat them. What’s the easiest and most effective way to ensure healthy soil? Add compost.
Compost is organic matter that has been broken down by naturally occurring microorganism decomposers. It adds plant-available nutrients to the soil, improves its water-holding capacity, inoculates it with beneficial microorganisms that help feed plants, and provides food for earthworms and other beneficial insects that improve soil structure and add nutrients of their own. If you do only one thing to improve your garden soil this spring, add compost. Local high-quality sources include Panorama Paydirt in Earlysville (www.panoramapaydirt.com) and Black Bear Composting in Crimora (www.blackbearcomposting.com).
Early spring plantings
Now is the time to begin seeding early plantings of lettuce, peas, fava beans, carrots, radishes, turnips, beets, arugula, kale, swiss chard, spinach, cabbage, potatoes, broccoli, collards and onions directly in the garden. As seeds sprout in the coming weeks (or don’t—early spring germination can be tricky!), plan to fill in with seedlings that you have started indoors or purchased from area nurseries or the City Market.
Hankering to plant tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers and squash? Hang tight; we have to wait until after our last frost (usually sometime in mid- to late-April) before those crops can be planted, as they’re not as cold-hardy. If you can’t shake the urge, try planting these seeds in pots indoors for transplanting later in the season.
Happy spring!—Guinevere Higgins
Guinevere Higgins is owner of Blue Ridge Backyard Harvest, which provides consultation on home-scale edible gardens. When she’s not gardening, she works in fundraising with Buford Middle School’s City Schoolyard Garden and the Center for a New American Dream.