You dig holes in your garden, drop in some seeds and they grow to produce beautiful vegetables. That's the dream of every gardener, but it's the rare lucky one that has the perfect garden soil to make this dream come true. Everyone else needs to prepare their soil in one way or another before planting, from changing the texture to adding nutrients that their plants will need to grow.
All garden plants need certain nutrients and a range of acid and alkaline properties in order to grow well. If this is the first year you are gardening and you don't know anything about your soil, have your dirt tested. Take small cups of soil from eight different spots in your garden and mix them together. Place the mixed garden soil into a plastic container and send it to your local extension service to be tested. The extension service will let you know of any nutrients needed for general garden use and the pH of the soil as well.
A pH level of 7 is neutral and most garden vegetables do fine between pH 6 and 8.4. Your soil test will tell you where your soil lies in this range. Many soils are too acid or alkaline to grow vegetables well, but you can remedy this. If your soil is too acid, ask the extension service about the recommended amount of lime and work it into your soil. Conversely, if your soil is too alkaline you will need to add sulfur in the same manner.
Good garden soil is not too clay, not too sandy and full of organic manner. Fix all the deviations of this ideal by using the exact same method. Dig in a 4-inch layer of compost in the spring when you first start to prepare your garden. Compost helps clay soil by allowing it to drain better so your roots won't rot. Compost will improve sandy soil by helping to hold onto a certain amount of moisture, keeping your plants watered longer. Finally, compost adds nutrients and trace elements to your soil to help feed your plants.
Along with improving your soil you need to actually dig out the area in which you will plant your garden. Don't do this too early in the season or you will risk ruining the texture of your soil for the season by compacting it down so the seeds can't grow. Check your garden soil by grabbing a handful of dirt and squeezing it into a ball. Open your hand and try to flick the ball apart. If if breaks apart like chocolate cake, your soil is ready to work. If the ball stays in a muddy clump, wait a week or so and test again before working your soil.
When you finally begin to dig out your garden, dig down 12 inches to make a soft and welcoming bed for your seeds and transplants. Remove any rocks or roots that you find and take away sod that may have been on top of the soil. Mix in your compost and any soil additives you may need, then rake your soil to create a smooth surface.