Growing your own vegetables engages you directly with the production of your food. Nurturing something while it grows, then being able to serve the results to friends and family is both fun and rewarding. But to get the most out of your vegetable garden bed, you want soil that has what it takes to grow healthy, luscious plants. While you can prepare your garden bed any time of the year, fall is the best time. Soil prepared in the fall has all winter to absorb any amendments you put in before you plant. Consider it pre-season training for your soil.
You don't want hard, compacted soil in your garden. So start by digging it up. While you're at it, take a moment to remove any rocks and weeds you expose. If you pull the weeds, make sure you remove all the roots. Otherwise, they'll come back next spring.
It helps to study the soil you're working with. Is it sandy or full of clay? In either case, you’ll want to improve the native soil by incorporating products like Miracle-Gro® Garden Soil for Fruits & Vegetables. By amending the soil, clay soils will have improved drainage and air flow, and sandy soils will have better water holding and nutrient availability. Does it drain well, or remain soggy? You can tell by digging a hole 12 inches deep by 12 inches across. Fill the hole with water and time how long it takes to drain. After the hole drains, wait a few hours then refill it and time it again. Divide the total water depth (24 inches) by the total time it took to drain. You’re looking for a rate around an inch per hour for “well-drained” soil. If your rate is much less, you may want to consider relocating your garden, if possible.
Different crops like different kinds of soil. Acidic soil tends to predominate in wet climates. Asparagus, onions, garlic, cucumbers and tomatoes prefer acidic soil (pH 5.8-6.5). Cabbage, turnips, Brussels sprouts and mustard like a more alkaline soil (pH 6.0-7.5), which is typically found in dry areas. For you, the important thing is to know which type your future crops will like. That means a soil test. You can buy a kit and test it yourself, or bring a sample to your local nursery or county extension service. Once you know what you have, you can amend it as needed. Limestone and wood ashes will make soil less acidic. Aluminum sulfate and sulfur make soil less alkaline.
Sketch the garden you want to have and use it as a guide to lay out stakes and mark where the rows will go. Some plants, such as peas and beans, need support. Now is a good time to erect trellises or insert sturdy stakes to hold them up. Build mounds of earth for your vine plants, such as cucumbers, pumpkins, and melons. Since you won't want to walk on your dinner while it's growing, add a few pathways. Let the garden lie dormant over winter, and when spring springs, you'll be ready to plant the garden that will produce food for you and your family for months in the future.