Now that you have evaluated your yard and chosen a spot with good drainage and at least six hours of direct sun each day, it’s time to prepare the soil. This is the most important step, so don’t cut corners here.
Remove the sod.
I’m assuming the spot you chose has grass growing on it right now. The first step in the process of turning that grassy spot into a garden is to remove the sod (the grass and the grass roots.)
If you have a week or 10 days before the time you want to plant, you can kill the grass with a product like Round-Up. It will kill everything it touches (well, nearly so) and when the grass and weeds are dead, you can rototill the soil– grass, roots and all.
I have been reading some things about Roundup lately that make me reluctant to recommend this for use in a vegetable garden. If you want to kill the grass before tilling, you can cover it with black plastic (do it as soon as you can if you are planning to dig your garden for this year.)
If you have not killed the grass roots ahead of time, you will need to remove the sod by scraping the sod and roots off the soil surface manually. The best tool for this is a sod spade, a sharp square shovel that cleanly slices beneath the grass and allows it to come off in sheets.
Rototill the soil.
Once the sod is removed, you can rototill the soil beneath until it is loose and crumbly. When the soil is evenly tilled, make a ball of the soil and press it enough to make it stick together. Gently poke at the ball of soil with your finger. If it continues to stick together it is clay soil, if it totally falls apart it is sandy soil, and if it crumbles partially, it is loamy soil. Loam is the ideal.
If your soil is not ideal, you need to add soil amendments. Organic ingredients like peat moss, compost, or composted cow manure will improve the soil structure and add some nutrients. These additions hold water in dry times and allow water to drain away in wet times. They break up the dense soil to make spaces for roots and air. The addition of soil amendments also feed the microorganisms that live in the soil.
If you are building raised beds for planting, the preparation of the soil where you will build the bed does not have to be as complete, since the plants will mostly be rooting into the soil and soil amendments that you fill the beds with after they are built. A mixture of topsoil, peat moss, and compost or composted manure is a good blend for planting. This is also a good mix for use if you have chosen to grow some or all of your food plants in pots or planter boxes.
Mix the amendments with the subsoil until well-blended, then rake the surface smooth with a garden rake. Now you are ready to decide what to plant. (See the next installment for help in deciding.)