Preparing your vegetable garden ahead of spring can save you time and doesn’t require too much effort. Here’s some advice from someone who’s done it recently.

Getting a head start before you begin planting your vegetable garden has many advantages. Not only will you have more time to enjoy spring, but you’ll also save time planting and could even harvest your plants a little earlier.

There’s not too much that can go wrong, but there are some good tips that can help make everything easier. In this article, I’ll go over my own experiences preparing for spring 2022.

Table of Contents

When to Start Preparing Your Garden for Spring?

We started in late February and plan to start planting in March (depending on the weather). But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can/should do the same—for a start, our February was super warm which made it much easier to work the ground.

Really you can start preparing for spring whenever you get a good bit of weather. If the ground is still frozen, it’s too early. If you’re not sure, grab a shovel and try to dig up some of the earth to see.

And the weather doesn’t necessarily have to remain warm. We took advantage of a warm pocket of weather that was quickly followed by pretty low temperatures in the following weeks. The day after we took some of the photos in this article, it snowed. If you’re really unlucky, you might not get a chance to prepare for spring until… well, spring.

Also, you don’t need to prepare the ground and plant on the same day. We prepared the ground first and will come back later in spring to plant. Our approach to preparing for the year was to do ‘a little bit here, then a little bit there.’

What You Need

Shovel, hoe, and rake. It’s also a plus if you have a pair of pruning shears if you come across any tough roots under the ground.

The essentials (left to right): rake, shovel, and hoe.

Also, wear good shoes you don’t mind getting muddy! (They will get very muddy.) And, depending on the size of your patch, an extra pair of hands.

Shears are optional, but handy if you come across stubborn roots underground.

That’s about it but depending on how you want to outline your patch, you may need a few more tools.

Is Your Patch Suitable?

Before you do absolutely anything, make sure the area you plan to use to plant your veggies is suitable.

What is the ground like underneath your patch? If there is a lot of clay, you have two choices, either pick another patch or you’ll need to add a lot of compost (more on that in a minute). The problem with clay is that it can get waterlogged which causes all kinds of problems—the biggest being rotting roots and slow growth.

Sunlight and drainage are the other two primary things to need to check for before prepping your patch. If they’re not good, it could just be a big waste of time. (If you’ve already grown on this patch before, you’ve probably already checked for this in previous years.)

Our patch gets sun all day long—from dawn till dusk—but if it was located just a little bit more to the south, it would be blocked by the nearby trees and our neighbors.

And if you don’t have proper drainage, your patch could turn into a swamp if you get any very rainy days, and that could ruin some of your plants. Luckily for us, we have a slight slope which means any excess water will flow downhill (we’re pretty close to a mountain which helps a lot).

Finally, you should test your soil for acidity. Landscape designer, horticulturist, and co-founder of Gardening It, Kristina Matthew, explains: “Vegetables need a pH of 6.5-7.0 to grow their best, so if your soil is too acidic or alkaline, you’ll need to add lime or sulfur accordingly to adjust the pH”.

Initial Cleaning

Pull out any remaining plants from last season. In our case, we hadn’t cleared off last years’ tomato plants. Also, look out for rocks or anything else that will get in the way.

Before cleaning, our patch was covered in grass, leaves, weeds, last year’s plants, and even some flowers.

Using a rake, clear off any grass, weeds, or debris from trees (we had a lot from the pine trees behind our property). Rakes get bunched up with debris very quickly and it’s always good to have a stick or something similar to dig off the dirt from the rake.

Technically speaking, you don’t have to follow this step. But it will make the next step easier, and your patch will look neater (in that it will be more earth and less Earth plus debris).

Raking can take a lot of time. Clean your rake often to be more effective.

Note that you don’t have to remove everything—some things you won’t be able to remove with a rake and that’s okay, you can remove them with the hoe in the next step. The main idea here is to make the next step easier and not have too much stuff in the way that could be more easily moved with a rake.

Also, note that some of the debris could be used for compost. For us, we don’t have anywhere to compost any materials at the moment, and we could try this out next year. If you’ve planted on your patch in previous years and there is some compost left from before that’s still in good condition, it may be worth leaving it.

Outline the Area You’re Going to Prepare

At our patch, we have many old logs and roof tiles that were never used.

Initially, we thought about using the logs for an outline, but not many of them were straight enough, so we decided to use the tiles instead. We’re yet to decide if we will make the tiles into a little fence or keep them as they are (and spray paint them pink, yellow, and/or green).

It’s okay if you don’t outline the space properly. In the end, if it is suitable to grow vegetables, it doesn’t matter if it’s a bit unshapely, though it will help you manage the space better, particularly if you have a small patch.

A very rough outline (and testing out the logs—they were the straightest we had, unfortunately).

When we prepared our patch, at points I thought I was working in a straight line, only to look behind me to see I really wasn’t. On top of that, our soil isn’t completely flat, it’s kind of bumpy which further complicates trying to create a neat outline. Our outline changed several times!

Getting there! Here I placed the tiles around the initial area I outlined.

My wife came up with an excellent idea after we had finished; in our shed, we have some old disused window frames. Next time, we can use these frames as outlines for smaller patches nearby (slightly to the north of the patch we’ve made in this article).Last year, we grew carrots, tomatoes, parsley, and beans.

This year, we plan to grow the same, plus potatoes, onions, strawberries, and pumpkins (though probably not all on this patch). If you want to be super prepared, you can outline and mark these areas—for us, this was too much as we might change our plans and grow different things and we may also leave some space for anything random we might want to grow later in the year (it’s too early to decide these things).

Last year’s carrots. Not very big but there were many.

Working the Ground

This step, unsurprisingly, requires the most of your energy. At the end of it all, my lower back and stomach muscles were killing me (they ached for at least two days after!).

A good tip here is to have a sports drink at hand to reduce physical tiredness and take breaks (I took many) and stay hydrated (even in the cold, this will tire you out).

Again, a reminder here, the ground shouldn’t be frozen! It should be soft and workable. If it’s frozen, you could ruin your tools and it will take far too much time and effort.

The technique here is not too precise. Just mash up the earth. I recommend starting from one side and working your way to the other. If you don’t you might end up with very muddy shoes. I didn’t work this way and I had to scrape mud off my shoes a lot at points.

And if you don’t work from a direction, you might end up stuck in the middle, the ground all around you chopped up except where you are standing (which could be a little embarrassing). On top of that, you want to avoid stepping on the soil you’ve just worked.

As Lindsey Hyland, founder of Urban Organic Yield explains, “Another important thing to do is to make sure the soil is loose and aerated. If the soil is too compacted, it can prevent roots from getting the oxygen they need to grow.”

Tiles are as neat as they are going to get, and the soil is prepared until we return with compost.

Soil and Compost

As we mentioned at the start, you don’t have to do all of this in one go. If you just finished chopping up your patch with a hoe, you don’t have to add compost straight away. There’s no reason why you can’t come back later and finish it off, as we did.

As many experts will attest, adding compost is one of the most important things you can do when preparing for spring. It has many benefits. Jessica Fields of Mudbrick Herb Cottage notes how compost locks in vital moisture, saying:

“Applying a heavy layer of fresh compost and deep mulch to protect from water evaporation, in preparation for this prime growing season. Your vegetables will be extra hungry during Spring. As the soil temperatures gradually rise, plants will be hungrier for nutrients to fuel their growth.”

Gardening expert and homesteader Ashley Christian of Homestead Sweet Home has some terrific tips for adding compost: 

“Regardless of the type of soil you have and if it’s hard-packed with clay or overly sandy, all soil will benefit from adding compost. If you can add between 30 to 50% of the volume of your soil in compost, you will be in great shape for a prolific garden.

If you are planning a raised bed garden, you can mix your own soil easily for the healthiest vegetables. There are many different recipes for the best garden soil to fill your containers, but the two most popular are:

60/30/10—60% topsoil, 30% compost, and 10% potting soil (this is actually a soilless blend of peat moss, vermiculite, and/or perlite.

50/50—50% topsoil and 50% compost”.

We added store-bought compost as we currently don’t have any of our own yet (next year we will, and if we’re lucky, this compost will last more than one year).

Our store-bought compost won’t be enough to cover the entire patch—we’ll add more next time.

Note that if you ended up planting too early and now, you’re worried about your plants freezing over, you can take preventative measures by covering the ground where you planted them. There are even products sold for this purpose.

Now all you have to do is wait until spring and you can start planting!

First day of spring—the soil’s been mixed with compost, tiles painted, and some early plants planted.

How to Prepare a Garden Plot

Preparing a vegetable garden for spring is not too much hassle and can be done on your own terms. In this article, I have written largely from my own experiences, and I hope they have been somewhat useful. Here are some invaluable lessons I’ve learned both what went well and what could have gone better:

  • Rake away ALL the debris and grass on your patch. In the end, I was still finding bits and pieces of grass and weeds that could cause issues later down the line (hopefully they won’t).
  • Work backwards when chopping up your patch with a hoe! This way you won’t get super muddy shoes (like I did) and step on the ground you just worked, making it compact.
  • Take advantage of late winter sunny days to prepare for winter, but wait until spring to plant—remember, if it’s still winter, the frost could return and ruin your plants.
  • There are many, many benefits to adding compost to your vegetable patch. While you could go ahead and skip using compost, in the long-run using compost will pay off.

Ask Craig a Question

“Dirt to Food” is Craig Britton’s column on home gardening and growing your own food. Ask Craig a gardening question by sending us an email at youasked@homecookworld.com.