Taking time in spring to build fertility and loosen soil will set you up for a more productive year. First, a few weeks before you plan to plant, work in any cover crops and then blanket your garden bed with at least a half-inch layer of good compost — a full inch would be even better. The compost will provide the soil with a fresh infusion of nutrient-rich organic matter, and improve the soil’s ability to handle water and nourish your crops. Quality bagged compost can be pricey at garden centers. Unearth local sources of bulk compost by checking Craigslist.
Second, focus on cultivating your soil. Pounding rain, gravity and other forces can cause soil to become compacted over time, so loosening it before planting should be a priority. If you plan to plant in a young bed that you need to cultivate in order to remove rocks or roots, use a shovel or digging fork to turn the soil when it’s dry and crumbly (never when it’s wet and clumpy, or you’ll be stuck with big, brick-like clods). In established beds, you can use a broadfork to break up the soil. This will prime your garden soil for planting by helping it dry out and warm up, and permit roots to penetrate the soil more easily.
Finally, apply an organic fertilizer to the degree that matches the needs of the crops you plan to plant. Light feeders with shallow roots, such as lettuce, will be fine with a small amount of organic fertilizer raked into the top few inches of soil. But for widely spaced plants that have big nutrient appetites, such as cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes and peppers, you should enrich individual planting holes with a mixture of compost and organic fertilizer just before you set out seedlings. For very heavy feeders, such as sweet corn, use a hoe to make deep trenches in the beds, and place the fertilizer in the trenches so it will be directly below the germinating seeds.
As you complete the final step, steer clear of overpriced organic fertilizers. Instead, try free grass clippings or one of the other low-cost options detailed in Build Better Garden Soil with Free Organic Fertilizers.