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Prepare the beds for summer vegetables

“It was such a pleasure to sink one's hands into the warm earth, to feel at one's fingertips the possibilities of the new season.”

— Kate Morton, The Forgotten Garden, 2008

My fingers are itching to reach into the garden soil, clasp it tightly in a welcoming handshake, and then let it fall back into the bed where it has hidden beneath a coverlet of mulch all winter. This is my springtime ritual. But the recent rains have forced me to wait a bit until the earth dries enough to allow me to work with it in partnership. Working soil that is too wet risks ruining its texture all season.

Preparing a vegetable garden is, indeed, the beginning of a shared venture between soil and gardener to nurture new life. Before planting anything, it’s essential to take note of soil fertility and consider how it will provide elements needed by the vegetables you choose to grow. The basic indicator is a soil’s pH (potential hydrogen), which shows the acid/alkaline balance. A neutral pH is 7.0; acidic soils have lower pH and alkaline soils have higher. Soil pH meters and soil test kits are available at many garden stores, or a soil sample can be sent to a lab for testing.

According to "Garden Guide for the Rogue Valley" (2007), most vegetable crops thrive in slightly acidic soils (pH 6.2-6.8). Some vegetables, such as snap beans, carrots, cucumbers, onions, peas and peppers, do well in slightly more acidic soil (5.5-6.5), whereas lima beans, radishes and squash prefer higher pH (6.5-7.5) Soil amendments can be added to adjust pH levels — sulfur increases acidity and lime raises alkalinity.

Vegetables also need deep, well-draining soil that contains a lot of partially decomposed organic matter, called humus. Building humus is the most important way to improve soil health; in fact, it’s why organic farmers advise, “feed the soil, not the plant.” High-quality compost is primarily humus and full of beneficial microbes that not only make nutrients in the soil available to plants, but also inoculate the soil from disease-causing pathogens. Earthworms, a gardener’s best friend for their role in loosening the soil, feed on humus and even contribute humus by their castings.

Last fall, I covered my raised garden beds with a heavy layer of compost and crushed leaves. I’ll know my garden beds are ready to be worked when I take up a fistful of soil beneath the mulch and it crumbles apart when it’s dropped. Then, I’ll practice the no-till method, which reduces soil compaction and degradation, by simply pushing aside the mulch and using a trowel to dig a hole for planting, replacing the mulch afterward to keep plant roots cool and reduce weeds.

Certainly, there is much work to be done in the garden this spring, but it is joyful, replenishing work. As Mahatma Gandhi reminds us, “To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”

Coming Up: Don Morrow and Lisa Chaissen from Grange Co-op will lead a class on "Preparing Your Beds" from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, April 2, at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road, Central Point. Cost is $10. For details, see www.jacksoncountymga.org.

Rhonda Nowak is a Jackson County Master Gardener and teaches writing at RCC. Reach her at www.literarygardener.blogspot.com.