How to Prepare Your Soil for a Successful Spring Garden

A successful Spring garden starts in January!

Whoops! Did you miss January? It’s not too late to get a head start on a successful Spring garden. Here is a step-by-step tutorial on how prepare your soil. But, first, take time to start some of your plants from seed now so they will be ready to put in the ground in a few weeks. You can still start your tomatoes, peppers, and herbs in seed starter. (For a step-by-step tutorial, see my posts, and

Don’t let the temperatures lull you into waiting to start your garden.

There’s a lot of life going on in the soil during all of the seasons. So let’s talk about your dirt first. I just call the whole community of dirt, bacteria, and enzymes “soil”. Soil needs time to digest and break down the food you are giving it so that the nutrients can become available to the seeds you plan on planting in a few weeks. The “digestion” takes longer in the winter months-her system is “sluggish”, humanly speaking.


There are different schools of thought when it comes to the best way to prepare the soil for a garden. Twenty-five years ago, my garden started out with a friendly farmer disking my soil. Then, I acquired a used tiller. I used that for a few years until it died. I graduated down to a mini-tiller. But I wasn’t satisfied with the amount of produce I was getting. My soil seemed to be less fertile and some nearby oak trees were invading the garden too. So, I researched and discovered a different way to work my soil. Once the roots from the oaks were cut, I started a big project of restoring my soil. It worked. My yield doubled or tripled once I began doing that. But, it’s not just digging.

Soil Preparation Steps:

  1. Harvest leaves
  2. Harvest manure
  3. Dig and turn your soil as you make your soil beds
  4. Cover with leaves
  5. Water occasionally
  6. Wait for the soil to warm up

Harvest leaves?

Yeah, well, rake them! It just makes me feel better to say, “harvest”. But, I let others harvest their leaves too and then I bring them home by the bag fulls. I line the back of my small suv with a water-proof shower curtain, draping it over the back of the back seat. I know it may look weird, putting bags of leaves in my car, but I’ve gotten over looking weird! When I get home, I pile them in a huge pile near my garden as I will need them throughout the year.


Who wants to harvest manure? And just what do you put it in? If you are getting horse manure, the farm will have the best bags for it: feed bags. Call them ahead of time and ask them to save the bags for you and let them know when you will be there. Be sure to take a shovel with you.

First, a word of CAUTION.

Any kind of manure should be at least one year old. Fresh manure can kill your seedlings.It needs to ripen, just like everything else in the garden. Another word of caution. I harvested old manure for years and then, suddenly, the manure infected my soil with herbicide. Yes, herbicide can pass through a horse, believe it or not. It’s in their feed and hay. The uneaten hay that gets mixed in with the stall shavings (which are mixed in the manure) can have residual herbicide too. So. I quit using horse manure for vegetables or fruit.

I found the perfect alternative-guinea pig shavings.

It is at least one year old when I get it but it is still ripe with old urine and feces, already broken down into a form that the soil will digest quickly. If you live in or near Eastern Hillsborough County, I’m happy to pass the info along to you, there’s plenty. If you are not local, I highly recommend that you find a source that is similar.

If we have to be technical, since I use fertilizer from animals and shavings that are not organic, I can’t call my garden true organic. But, it’s a close as I can get to organic.

This is the progression of turning your soil.

First block is removed and pitchfork will loosen soil below.


Topsoil of the first section is placed in buckets.
Leaves or dried grass, then a light layer of manure.
Last step, put the next row of soil on top, turned over.



  1. Get two to four five gallon buckets.
  2. Start a section that will be for convenient future harvesting. I recommend that your new bed will be three or four feet across. You only need to dig down the top 6-8 inches. (Don’t believe that corn goes two feet down-a popular notion. They run their roots wide if that’s where the nutrients are.)
  3. Place a width of about eighteen inches of that top-soil into the buckets.
  4. Once you have removed a section across, use a pitchfork and loosen up the soil that is at the bottom of the trench you just dug.
  5. Spread a layer of leaves and a layer of manure over that.
  6. Now, start digging the section, right next to that space you just put manure in.
  7. Turn the shovel full OVER onto the manure and/or leaves, weeds and all. The weeds will die if you turn them under the soil.
  8. Continue to do this until your whole row is done.
  9. The buckets of dirt will then be the last dirt to go over the very last section you turned.

I normally do not turn the whole garden. I only turn the raised beds this creates because the pathways do not need to be prepared. Do NOT walk on your new beds. Your seedlings will thank you for that!


Beans DO NOT do well with manure.

Place only leaves in the trench. I also amend with sulfur for all beans. If you plant beans in high nitrogen (manure), they will make a beautiful bush and few beans. Your garden may not need the nitrogen-rich manure for beans. I don’t add manure to the row where beans will go. It’s good to have a garden plan. (First hint.)

Corn LOVES manure.

Place extra for them. (Do you have your garden planned out? Second hint.) Save some manure for when the corn plants get about “knee-high”. They will need a boost of compost or this harvested manure as a mulch at that time.

Whew. That’s a lot of work, but you’ll be glad you did it. That’s why I said that January is a busy month. I will go out and shovel for about an hour to an hour and a half for one day.

To preserve all your hard work, cover with a layer of leaves.  Water twice a week, long enough to work through the leaves and into the soil, being careful to not make the soil water-logged.

Could you save yourself some time and trouble by tilling? Absolutely. You can still have a decent garden, but I choose to hand dig because the results are worth it. The yield in my garden has substantially increased. I have to admit though. My garden is about one third what it used to be. If I still had a family of nine and had a large garden, I would use a tiller. Or, I would see which boy can turn a bed the fastest!

Happy digging! It’s great exercise. Just don’t overdo it.


manure in bottom of hole


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