While most of us in January still feel like spring is a distant season far, far away, part of having a successful garden is doing some brainstorming, planning, and preparing for upcoming seasons. In Memphis, our spring gardens will start getting planted towards the end of March. With a growing number of schools preparing to host their spring Planting Day on their own, it’s important to know what steps you should take to prepare your garden beds so you don’t have any surprises or extra work on the day of the event!
The goal is that all of the garden beds (excluding those with garlic and perennial herbs such as rosemary, sage, mint, and basil, which will remain where they are) will be cleared out and the topsoil broken up by hand, so it is loose and fluffy for your new seeds on your scheduled Planting Day. Depending on what is currently growing (or not) in your school’s garden, different considerations should be made to get everything in tip-top shape.
First, touch base with your Memphis Garden Educator (view our Garden Educator Directory), if you haven’t already, to confirm if your school is expected to plant their spring garden on their own, or if you will have a Garden Educator helping to run your Planting Day this season. If you have scheduled a Planting Day with your Garden Educator, it’s crucial to make sure that the beds are cleaned out (see below!) before your Planting Day.
If your school is planting their spring garden on their own, you can consider planning a clean-up day before the Planting Day event to have students assist with cleaning out the winter cover crops and breaking up the soil. Take this opportunity to ask them prompting questions: can we plant new seeds where existing plants are already established, and if we did, what would the effects be on the seeds? Why is it important to loosen the soil after the winter? Will roots grow well in compacted soil? Another crucial aspect of having students participate in clean up is that many hands, however small, make light work!
While you can wait until your Planting Day to remove some of your winter cover crops, if you have fall crops that are still lingering in the garden beds, it is best to clean them out as soon as they are no longer producing food, to prevent ants and other pests from moving into these stagnant spaces. Often, the longer you wait to pull up a plant that is finished producing, the harder it will be to fully remove.
Below are a few key considerations to take into account when cleaning out your beds:
- Save your soil: When you’re pulling out old plants, or even root veggies that are ready to be eaten, be sure to shake off as much of the soil as possible back into the garden bed. This will help keep your garden clean and keep as many of the vital nutrients in the garden beds, where they can get to your soon-to-be-growing spring veggies.
- Turn winter cover crops into organic fertilizer: In order to get the benefits out of your winter cover crops (namely, peas and fava beans) there are a few steps you should follow to allow for the transfer of nutrients from the plants into your soil. First, cut off the tops of the plants (close to the soil) and leave the clippings and the roots in the bed to fully die over the course of a few weeks. To ensure that the root systems die completely and don’t resprout, you can cover the garden bed in black plastic (garbage bags work well) so they don’t receive any water or sunlight. Closer to your Planting Day, remove the plastic, break up the roots and cuttings, and work them into the soil. Now the nitrogen from those crops will be cycled into the soil as an organic fertilizer!
- Pull up crops from past seasons: If not everything was harvested to eat at the end of the fall season, there may be some remaining carrots, beets, or other vegetables left over in your beds. Harvest whatever is still viable to eat with your students (potentially carrots or other root veggies). Pull up what is left and discard or compost the rest to fully clear out the remainder of the beds. Try your best to get as much of the root systems as possible to prevent some rogue “volunteers” growing back in the spring.
- Leave garlic to hibernate: If you also planted garlic in the late fall or winter, be sure not to disturb the bed or pull up the garlic shoots! Garlic takes a very long time to grow and should be left alone (just watered) until late May or June.
- Take the opportunity to solve irrigation issues: You might notice that your brown irrigation tubes are poking out of the soil. The tubing should be about 2-3 inches below the surface, so if they have been disturbed or are popping out, this is the perfect time to get your hands a little dirty and dig them back into place!
TLDR (too long, didn’t read): Your garden beds should be cleared out and cleaned up prior to your Planting Day, whether it is being run by your school or with a Big Green Garden Educator. Leave perennials (such as herbs) and garlic undisturbed for them to continue through a new season. Take advantage of cover crops as natural fertilizer in advance, and get your school and students excited for a productive new season!