Nancy Brachey

Prep your garden for early planting

We have many beautiful days in winter, and it is easy to spend them in a reverie, enjoying the clear sunlight, blue sky and mild temperatures. Not every day is this good, of course, but there will be enough this month and into February to accomplish important tasks.

Garden prep should be at the top of your to-do list. While it is a tad early to plant outdoors, it is not too early to define and prepare a spot for the vegetables you want to plant in late winter and early spring. Getting this work done early means the space will be ready to sow seeds or set out transplants of your spring garden in March.

The soil is pretty soft and easy to work now, which is a help. But before you dig or till, think hard about how big to make it. Think small. It is easy to let enthusiasm for vegetable gardening lead you down the path toward a huge bed that will eventually be too hard to take care of well. The cool and mild weather of spring will turn into the heat and humidity of summer; the beach or mountains will be calling and enthusiasm will dim sharply.

So pick your space in the sun and make it no larger than 10 by 15 feet or so. This is plenty big, especially for a starter garden. As your skills and interest expand, you can make it bigger.

Another advantage of a small plot is that you can work the soil into top condition. This means the addition of compost, which will add nutrients and improve the soil’s ability to stay moist yet still drain well enough to keep from getting soggy.

Get the grass off the space by digging it up. Some sections of turf may be good enough to reset in bare spots on the lawn, so don’t overlook that possibility. Discard stray rocks and other debris.

Because the space is small and the soil soft, you can probably dig it up with a shovel or spade. And since it is early, you can stagger the job over a couple of weekends if necessary. Piedmont soil is mostly red clay, which can become very hard and tight once heat arrives and the soil stays drier in summer.

Once dug to 8 inches or more (and more is better), add a top layer of compost several inches deep. This can be bought and it is worth every cent. Many people make their own with leaves and other yard debris. Once you see its value, you will probably become a composter.

Dig in the compost, which will do wonders for clay soil. It makes it looser and lighter, enabling roots to spread easily. Next year, you will probably want to add more compost, which will continue to improve the quality of your soil. People who work their soil well over time get deep, rich soil loose enough to work easily at planting time.