basil, seedling

Sweet Basil seedling

Gardeners, we’ve turned the corner into spring, but we’ll probably have some frosty weather yet, especially in early April.  Old timers call this Blackberry Winter because it almost always occurs when the blackberries are blooming.  A little frost won’t deter those early spring crops like English peas and radishes, but don’t let a spell of warm days lull you into thinking it’s safe to plant frost tender crops like those tomatoes and peppers you started from seed last month.

There are two chores on your plate right now: weeds and turning/preparing soil.

Preparing Soil & Tilling

If your garden is a patch you turn up each year, you need to work that soil as soon as it dries out enough to crumble in the hands instead of sticking together.  You can turn soil with a spade or with a tiller, whichever suits your budget and energy level.  Top off with compost and leave sit.  You’ll do a second pass with the tiller right before planting time, about mid-April.

Gemini Pepper, pepper, seedling

Gemini Pepper seedling

If you garden in containers or raised beds, you don’t need (and shouldn’t) turn your soil but you may need to top off your raised beds with additional compost and soil.  Containers which have been used multiple years need more than just a top-off, they need to be refreshed.  Dump out the soil and mix well with 25% fresh compost.  Containers with significant disease issues should be thoroughly washed out and have their soil completely replaced.

Weeds

The best way to keep the weed pressure down in the garden is by preparing ahead.  It’s time to get out there and pull up those spring weeds before they produce a million seeds that will sprout this fall or next spring.  Annual spring weeds like henbit, dead nettle, chickweed and bittercress are shallowly rooted and easy to pull.  Chickweed and bittercress leaves are both delicious and nutritious.  The rest of the plant and other annual weeds should go in the compost pile.  Perennial weeds like violets are tougher to remove and likely to re-sprout in your compost pile, so they should be discarded or destroyed.

If you plan to garden using only transplants and will not direct seed anything, you may want to consider using a pre-emergent herbicide.  It’s too late to stop spring weeds from sprouting, but when the soil temperature reaches just over 50F, usually in mid-March, a pre-emergent can help reduce crabgrass and other summer weeds.  If you decide to use a pre-emergent, be sure to use one labelled for vegetable gardens, such as trifluralin (PDF), and follow the package directions to be sure you are using it safely.

Preparing healthy soil and getting a jump on weeds early goes a long way toward having a happy and successful garden.  Less time spent weeding and dealing with problems means more time spent enjoying your vegetables.

Nicole Castle Brookus

Nicole advocates a non-dogmatic approach to sustainability, integrated pest management, permaculture, community involvement and resilient local food systems, and is available for on-site consultations and speaking engagements. She lives in Madison, Alabama and is also a nature photographer. Learn more about Nicole's work towards sustainable food systems at Southern Foodscapes and see her art & photography at Brookus.com.