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How do I prepare my garden for planting?

If you’re like me, when the first warm days of spring arrive, you can’t wait to get out into the garden and start planting. It means winter is finally over and the gardening season has begun. You’ve been looking at seed catalogs for months and have plenty of ideas you’re just waiting to try. However, before you plant anything you need to get the soil ready.

Don’t be intimidated
This can be quite a bit of physical work, but luckily it is pretty straightforward and doesn’t take a lot of explanation. It helps to do it methodically though, so I’ll go through the steps here. And, while it may feel overwhelming to considering tackling a large garden space, keep in mind you don’t need to do the bed preparation for your entire garden at one time. You can easily do each bed as you need the space for planting, and leave the rest for another time. Start small to keep it manageable.

When to start
Just because it is a beautiful day doesn’t mean you can just go out into the garden and get to work on the beds. I know it’s tempting, especially after a long, wet winter, but digging very wet soil can damage its structure and cause long-term harm (not to mention being harder to dig).

To determine whether your soil has the right moisture content, you can do a rough check by lightly squeezing a handful of soil into a ball and dropping it from approximately waist height. If it doesn’t break up when it hits the ground it is probably too wet to dig (you have to take into account that a sandy soil breaks up more easily than a clay one).

Another indicator of excessive wetness is when you walk on the soil and leave shiny footprints where water was squeezed from the soil. If your garden tends to stay wet every spring, it helps to use raised beds, as they drain and warm up faster than flat areas.

One very wet spring I was so desperate to get outside and get planting I covered some of my raised beds with plastic sheet to prevent them absorbing any more rain. This actually worked quite well, though such extremes aren’t usually necessary.

Clearing the space
If the soil is dry enough to work, you can start bed preparation by removing all of the surface vegetation. If there are only a few weeds or dead crops, it only takes a few minutes to loosen them with a fork and pull them out. If you have been growing a cover crop over the winter, removing it is a much bigger job. The quickest and easiest way to do this is to skim off the above ground parts with a sharp flat spade and compost them (cut right down at soil level, to sever the top growth but leave the roots in the soil). You could also dig the cover crop into the soil, but it will need a couple of weeks to break down before you can plant into it. This means you will have to prepare beds a couple of weeks before you intend to plant.

Amending the Soil
Now that you have your garden bed cleared, it’s the perfect time to add any soil amendments you need. Typically, I add a couple of inches of compost and some standard fertilizer mix. If you know your soil’s pH balance if off, this is also a good time to add some ground limestone for acidic soil, or some pine sawdust for alkaline soils.

These are simply scattered on to the soil surface and then incorporated into the soil. If the soil is already in good shape, you can simply dig them into the top few inches of soil with a fork. If it isn’t so good then single digging works better. If the soil is very poor or compacted you may have to resort to double digging (usually you only need to do this once though).

Once you have your amendments thoroughly incorporated, all that remains is to break up any large soil clods with a fork and then shape the bed with a rake. It is then ready for sowing or planting and your garden season has officially begun.

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Sugar Snap Peas

Have you considered growing peas? Looking for something to feed your sweet tooth, straight from the garden? Look no further than the Sugar Snap pea. There’s a reason they’re called “garden candy.”

The Sugar Snap is actually a relative newcomer to the garden (first introduced in 1979), but it is now established as one of the great treats of spring. When my Sugar Snaps start to ripen they become the center of the garden and remain so until all the pods are gone.

The Sugar Snap differs from traditional garden peas (like Green Arrow) in that the whole pod is edible, and differs from the edible podded snow peas (like Mammoth Melting) in that the pod is fat, sweet and succulent. As the whole pod is edible they produce a significantly bigger harvest and don’t need shelling. The original Sugar Snap variety was so successful it eventually spawned a whole range of snap peas: bush varieties, disease resistant types and some without strings. There are now even yellow, purple and pink tinted types.

The Sugar Snap was hailed as a revolutionary new kind of pea when it appeared, but it wasn’t actually as new as it seemed at the time. It turns out that the Amish have been growing snap peas for a long time and they are so similar that a casual observer probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Should I grow peas?
Peas (along with beans) have a special place in the vegetable garden because they are host to nitrogen fixing bacteria and so can add fertility to the soil as they grow. This won’t happen unless the right type of bacteria is present in the soil though, so if you haven’t grown peas within the last five years you should inoculate the seed with a suitable strain of inoculant.

The real flavor of Snap peas comes through best when they are eaten raw and this is how almost all of ours get eaten. My children will eat them straight from the vine all day long and few pods actually make it as far as the kitchen (their friends have been known to strip a planting of all pods of any significant size). They are also good when very lightly steamed, but don’t cook them for more than a couple of minutes, or they may turn to mush.

Tips on growing great peas

  • Air Temperature – Peas thrive in cool weather and don’t like heat, with 60-75˚ F being optimal. They are fully hardy and the first planting can be sown directly into the garden in early spring, a month before the last frost date.
  • Soil Temperature – The soil doesn’t even have to be very warm, as they will germinate (if rather slowly) at temperatures as low as 40˚ F.
  • Succession Planting – It is a good idea to make several succession plantings about 3 weeks apart, to ensure an abundant supply of pods until the weather gets too warm.
  • Weeding – The established plants don’t require much care. Weeds can be a problem for the young seedlings, but they soon outgrow and overshadow any weeds.
  • Watering – They do need regular moisture, but in early spring there is usually plenty in the soil and you rarely need to water.


Set up

The original Sugar Snap is a pole variety and must have a tall support structure for good growth (hog wire fence works well). If it isn’t tall enough they will eventually run out of climbing room and flop over (when my dad first grew them in England they went right over the top of his 6 foot high wall and started supplying his neighbor with pods). It is a good idea to set up your supports before you plant, as it’s easy to damage the fragile seedlings. If you don’t want to deal with such a tall plant there are now bush varieties, such as Sugar Ann.

It is easier to provide support for the plants when they are growing in rows, so they are commonly planted in double offset rows with 3” between the plants and 6” between the rows. If you need more than one double row, then leave 24” between the pairs of rows. You can also wrap hog wire fence into a cylinder and plant in a circle around it (this looks quite ornamental when fully covered, though not for long). Established plants grow vigorously and quickly produce a wall of foliage 6 to 8 feet high, which makes an attractive (though temporary) screen.

Pests
The biggest obstacle to growing Snap Peas is getting them established. It’s not that they are hard to germinate (this is easy) but rather that birds like to eat the succulent green parts and often pull the emerging seedlings out of the ground. The best way to prevent this is to cover the whole bed with netting. Mice can sometimes be a problem too, as they sometimes dig and eat the seed before it has even germinated. If they are a problem you might have to start your plants indoors, though they dislike transplanting, so must be grown in individual cell packs (and not kept indoors for too long).

Harvest
The pods mature quickly after pollination and you need to check and harvest the plants regularly (every day or so). Harvest the pods when they are fat and round and sweet to taste. Don’t harvest too early or they won’t be as good as they can be. It is important to pick all of the pods as they size up, if you leave some on the vine the seed will mature and production may decline (if this happens save the seed for planting next year). In cool weather, a well managed planting may yield for 6 weeks or more, though if the weather turns hot it may be as short as 2 weeks.