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Preparing the Soil

Good soil for growing vegetables must be protected by proper cultivation, use of organic matter, maintenance of soil fertility, and control of plant pests. Properly prepared soil provides a desirable medium for root development, absorbs water and air rapidly, and usually does not crust badly.

Tillage practices do not automatically create good garden soil. Tillage is needed to control weeds, mix mulch or crop residues into the soil, and alter soil structure. Unnecessary tillage increases crusting on the soil surface, and if the soil is wet, tillage compacts it.

Fertility requirements differ between long and short growing seasons and among soil types. In almost every State, the Extension Service will test soils and provide fertilizer recommendations.

Plant pests compete with garden crops and impair their growth. These pests include weeds, insects, fungi, bacteria, viruses, and nematodes.

They must be controlled or the garden will not succeed. However, chemical controls must be used carefully to prevent damage to neighboring crops or subsequent crops. When mechanical and chemical controls do not work, crops that are resistant to the pests should be planted in the area for a season or two.

The time and method of preparing the garden for planting depend on the type of soil and the location. Heavy clay soils in the northern sections are frequently benefited by fall plowing and exposure to freezing and thawing during the winter, but when the garden is cover cropped, it should not be plowed until early spring. In general, garden soils should be cover cropped during the winter to control erosion and to add organic matter. Gardens in the dry land areas should be plowed and left rough in the fall, so that the soil will absorb and retain moisture that falls during the winter. 

Sandy soils, as a rule, should be cover-cropped, then spring-plowed. Whenever there is a heavy sod or growth of cover crop, the land should be plowed well in advance of planting and the soil disked several times to aid in the decay and incorporation of the material. Land receiving applications of coarse manure either before or after plowing should have the same treatment.

Soils should not be plowed or worked while wet unless the work will certainly be followed by severe freezing weather. Sandy soils and those containing high proportions of organic matter � peats and mucks for example � bear plowing and working at higher moisture content than do heavy clay soils. The usual test is to squeeze together a handful of soil. 

If it sticks together in a ball and does not readily crumble under slight pressure by the thumb and finger, it is too wet for plowing or working. When examining soil to determine if it is dry enough to work, samples should be taken both at and a few inches below the surface. The surface may be dry enough, but the lower layers too wet, for working. Soil that sticks to the plow or to other tools is usually too wet. A shiny, unbroken surface of the turned furrow is another indication of a dangerously wet soil condition.

Fall-plowed land should be left rough until spring, when it may be prepared by disking, harrowing, or other methods. Spring-plowed land should be worked into a suitable seedbed immediately after plowing. Seeds germinate and plants grow more readily on a reasonably fine, well-prepared soil than on a coarse, lumpy one, and thorough preparation greatly reduces the work of planting and caring for the crops.

It is possible, however, to overdo the preparation of some heavy soils. They should be brought to a somewhat granular rather than a powdery fine condition for planting. Spading instead of plowing is sometimes advisable in preparing small areas, such as beds for extra-early crops of lettuce, onions, beets, and carrots.

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