Step #3: Prepare Your Soil
An in-ground garden often provides you with limitless options for what you can grow, while utilizing the natural ecosystem of nutrients, bacteria, and insects already present to help your plants grow. Ideally, choose a site that receives at least 6 hours of direct sunlight and faces south.
For those that can't plant a traditional in-ground garden, whether because of poor soil or no soil at all (apartment or city dwellers), container gardening is a fantastic alternative! There are many different types of containers available at nurseries and home improvement stores. Your containers can vary in shape, size and material to suit your gardening needs (and personality). Beyond terra cotta and clay pots, almost anything can work as a gardening container: plastic bins, untreated wood barrels, galvanized metal buckets, a hanging planter, a planter box on a windowsill—even a recycled yogurt container or an old boot! Every container is different; some lose moisture quickly and others retain heat, so research before you buy. Make sure the container has adequate drainage and the appropriate depth to sustain the roots of your plants. A container garden is ideal for using store bought organic potting soil, which is aerated, nutrient rich, and weed-free. It is best to place plants with similar moisture and sun needs in the same container. Not every plant is suitable for container gardening and not every container matches up well with every plant. Remember that deep-rooted plants (carrots, for example) require a deep pot (at least 10-12 inches). Ideal candidates for container gardens are leaf and head lettuces, spinach, green beans, peppers (require staking) onions, radishes, tomatoes (require staking), squash, carrots, garlic, and herbs.
Raised beds are a happy medium between a traditional garden and a container garden. The benefits of this garden include better control over the soil, more manageable weed control, and easier access for gardeners who experience pain from bending over too far or have limited mobility. Materials used to create raised beds include cinder blocks, bricks, untreated wood and even rocks. A raised bed can be anywhere from 6 inches off the ground to the height of a standard table, and generally, these beds are about 3-4 feet wide with a depth of at least 16 inches. (Make sure your beds are not so wide or so deep that you can’t reach the plants in the center.) Fill in these beds as you would a standard garden, using good soil enriched with compost. Carrots, cabbage, and other deep-rooted vegetables do especially well in raised beds because you avoid compacted dirt that could be full of obstructions to their deep roots. For more information about raised beds, look into the square foot gardening method.
Next, check your soil. Poor-quality soil can seriously hurt a gardener's best efforts. What characterizes good soil? A high-quality soil for gardening will be:
Simple tests are available from any garden center to check the quality of your soil, including its pH. Generally, most plants thrive in soil with a pH that is slightly acidic. (There are exceptions to this, however, such as blueberries, which love an acidic soil, and beets, which enjoy alkaline conditions.) If your soil is too acidic, try adding bone meal, dolomitic limestone, or wood ashes. To amend alkaline soil, try materials such as peat moss, sawdust, or pine needles.
Well-aerated, which means air circulates through it well. Dense soil, like clay, is often too thick for roots to grow properly and doesn't drain well.
Free of stones and other obstructions. Soil shouldn't be too sandy, either.
Rich in organic matter, such as compost or aged manure. Organic matter provides nutrients to plants. When a garden is rich in these resources, the soil itself will provide nutrients for the plants to grow, which means that artificial fertilizers are often unnecessary.