Today I want to guide you through the stages of creating a perfect seedbed for springtime. We’ll talk about soil structure, how to dig effectively, and how to enrich your soil. Most noteworthy, we’ll learn why these subjects are so important when it comes to growing plants successfully.
Winter is well and truly upon us, and a new year is already under our belts. It’s at this time of the year that I look forward to a new growing year in the garden. On the dreariest and coldest of days, I dream of the brighter springtime weather, longer days, and warmer temperatures.
I know that I’m not alone in this kind of impatience. Many gardening friends like myself, wish to hibernate from the bleak months of October, right through to March. Winter is a time for cosying up next to a roaring fire, looking back over the past year, and preparing the allotment for a new season/year of growth and possibility.
This type of time investment is never lost when it comes to preparing your garden and its soil. After all, these aren’t just daydreams: they’re plans! All of your current hard work will be rewarded once the spring and summer months roll around again.
Let’s talk about Last Year’s Garden
It’s just as important to look back, as well as forwards, when planning for the new growing season.
“How did your garden perform last year?”
This is a question I often ask to get a feel on what we can do to make this year a better and more productive growing year for you. In fact, it’s really helpful to keep a garden journal, specifically for this purpose. In my journal, I keep records of positive and negative points, and reliable seed germination.
I also note drastic changes in temperature, periods of rain or drought, and successful growing experiences and disappointments. This enables me to plan and improve my garden each year, without having to rely on my awful memory (which is somewhat unreliable and rather selective).
Seedbed Soil Management
How is Soil Formed?
Soil is formed over the course of thousands of years. In simplest terms, it’s made from the breakdown of rocks into mineral particles of sand, silt and clay. This content, however, only makes up around half of the volume. The remaining half is made up of air, water, organic matter, and plant roots. Oh, and countless organisms that live quite happily in the soil.
Understanding your Soil Type
A soil type is determined by the amounts of sand, silt and clay particles held within it. Soils with fairly equal amounts of all three mediums are called loams.
Note that soils also contain varying amounts of calcium, or lime. Calcium is an important plant nutrient that not only affects the soil structure, but also controls the other nutrients’ availability. It’s important to see how much lime there is in your soil, as this determines it acidity. Find this out by performing a soil pH test.
An Easy Test for Your Soil
You can easily identify your soil type by picking up a handful of it and kneading the soil with your fingers. Sandy soils have a grittiness to them. Clay soils are sticky and clumpy, and silty soils feel silkier than sticky.
A very sandy soil will be crumbly when you roll a ball of it between your palms. In contrast, clay soil will form a sticky ball and have a shiny texture.
Soil Structure and Drainage
We know that soil is made up of different particles: clay, sand, and silt.
Sand has the biggest particle size, while clay has the smallest. Silt sits somewhere in the middle. The particle size and spaces in between them defines the soil structure. Soils with predominantly large particles have larger spaces between them, allowing for air to move within the soil and for water to filter through it.
Smaller particles, such as clay, have smaller air spaces between them, so they contain less air and little drainage.
Air spaces within the soil also allow important organisms to move about, and plant roots to penetrate. Compaction destroys soil structure. This is most often caused by flooding, foot traffic, and machinery use. Additionally, attempting to cultivate the soil in adverse wet, or frozen conditions will damage it.
The Importance of Enriching your Soil with Organic Matter
Organic matter is made of living organisms, and is often made in eager gardeners’ compost beds. Typical garden compost will contain several different components. This may include plant debris, farmyard manure, insects, microscopic organisms, and small animals. Organic matter has many benefits, and is an important and irreplaceable part of enriching your garden soil.
What are the Benefits of Adding Organic Matter?
- It helps soil particles stick together to form a “crumb” structure.
- Improved drainage, which is especially useful in improving heavy clay soils. Basically, it makes them warm up more quickly.
- It allows more air particles within the soil, making it easier to work with.
- Plant roots are able to penetrate your soil much more easily.
- Organic matter retains moisture and nutrients, enriching free-draining sandy soils and providing a denser structure
- It’s a food source for soil insects and organisms, enabling them to multiply. In turn, this releases further nutrients for your plants.
- When added regularly, it replaces spent nutrients and maintains good fertility and soil structure.
I always recommend adding a good layer of organic matter onto the soil in late autumn. The imminent rains and cold weather will help break it down, releasing nutrients back into the soil. Then dig the beds over in early spring to spread the nutrients around.
Preparing your Soil
Loam is the ideal “gardener’s soil”, as it’s so well balanced. It contains a mixture of sand, silt, and clay particles, plus organic matter and plant nutrients. Loam can be classified as light, medium or heavy soil, depending on the clay to sand ratio. Before planting your seeds, do some research on which type of soil your plants like best.
Digging is one of the tasks best tackled in the autumn or early winter. This is because it leaves rough soils exposed to the elements, which will break them down over time. Once spring arrives, your worked soil will only need a quick turn over and good raking out. After that, it’ll be ready to plant in.
Dig the soil to remove weeds, and to introduce organic matter into the ground. Additionally, this endeavor will improve the soil’s structure and drainage.
Single digging is best carried out in stages. I recommend marking out grid lines in your veggie beds so you can see your progress.
A Guide on How to Single-Dig your Seedbed:
- Divide your plot into two sections, using a string line.
- Then start by marking out a 12-inch, 30 cm, wide trench on one side of the string line. Use pegs or small canes to mark these out.
- Dig along the line of the trench, thrusting your spade vertically into the soil. Make sure that you’re loosening and lifting the soil as you go.
- Place your lifted soil in a line at the same end of the plot. It should be placed opposite to what will be the last trench to be dug, in the other half of the plot.
- In heavy soil, fork over the bottom of each trench.
- Add well-rotted organic matter into the bottom of your first trench, then dig your next one. Place the dug soil on top of the manured area.
- Proceed down the first half of your plot, one trench at a time.
- Continue with the same technique down the other side of your plot, finishing by putting the line of spare soil into the final trench.
Creating the Perfect Seedbed
When it comes to sowing in your seedbed, you need to make sure that your soil is of a very fine texture, or “tilth”. The soil-to-seed contact is imperative for your seeds to successfully grow and anchor themselves in the ground.
My Easy Guide on How to Get the Right Tilth for Your Seedbed:
- Once I’ve prepared my soil in the autumn and added extra organic matter, I leave my growing beds over the winter. By doing so, I allow the weather to break down any remaining large soil clumps.
- Come springtime, I choose a nice, dry day and fork over my growing beds, breaking up any soil clumps as I go.
- Once forked, I get my trusty garden soil rake and level out the soil bed of soil. The soil crumbs get smaller and smaller, which is exactly what’s needed.
- I continue to work my soil until there are no remaining clumps. At this point, the soil is nice and level and the texture is of a fine grainy compost.
And that’s it! Follow this guide, and your seedbed will be ready to accommodate your garden seeds. Just wait to plant them until the weather has warmed up and the risk of frosts is over.
Maintaining your Garden Seedbed
It’s definitely worth spending time and energy on your growing beds each year. A good soil management plan results in seedbed soil that is:
- Less compacted
- Well aerated
- Freer draining
- Higher in nutrient values
- Richer in micro-organisms
- …and most importantly, adequately nurtured for better crops