It’s not just tomato envy that is causing urban gardens to pop up by the dozens. The rising cost of produce and the many miles and days it takes for fruits and veggies to get to the table has many beginners itching to pick up a spade. There’s also nothing like gardening to deepen your connection with the environment around you and gain an appreciation of our intricate earth and its ability to grow life-sustaining foods.

The best way to start preparing soil is in the fall. Yale Tolwin, an octogenarian gardener in Wisconsin who’s been planting for six decades, uses the trench system to prepare his soil for the spring. He suggests digging linear trenches about the depth of your spade and patting your leaves and vegetation into them. Dig a second trench and throw the soil you dig up over the first trench full of leaves. Dig as many trenches as you need to cover the space where your garden will be.

“You can also add fertilizer to the leaves and vegetation before covering it over,” says Tolwin, “this helps ‘cook’ the leaves, making them decompose and disintegrate faster.”

Over the winter, this mix of leaves and dirt will turn into great soil. In the spring, once the moisture from the frozen earth is gone, pick up a handful of soil and it should crumble in your hand. At this point, the soil is ready for planting.

Turning trash into garden-rich compost

For those who don’t have leaf piles or aren’t interested in digging trenches, there are other ways to prep the soil. Compost piles make great fertilizer for the dirt, and break down in about two to three months. Compost piles can be left out in the backyard or collected in a special compost container that helps with mess and moisture control. Take a look at some of the nifty containers they have at gardening shops, or design your own to fit the size and space of your garden needs.

If you don’t have a compost pile to use in your garden this spring, start one now for mid-summer planting. Take all of your cuttings and peels from the kitchen (you can chop them up smaller to help the disintegration process) and throw them in the compost heap. Don’t include any fish and meat scraps, as these will only attract unwanted critters. Add hedge trimmings, grass clippings, and anything else on this handy compost list.

Turn the compost heap once or twice during the season, and keep it slightly moist. Be sure to test your compost to make sure it is ready to use, as immature compost can actually harm the seeds.

As a general rule, it should look like mulch and not like the original item you added to the pile. The mulch should also be nice and cool, not steaming hot as it typically is while breaking down.

If you’re planning ahead and have time to grow your own sprouts, start them off in a cool, dark spot in your home. Mix soil and some starter mix, add seeds, and water lightly until the first leaves sprout. Then move the plants to a warmer, sunnier spot in the house until the growing season starts. In warmer climates, this can be as early as late March, and in cooler climates early May. Once the danger of frost has passed, the plants can go into the ground.

If spring has sprung and you’ve just decided to plant a garden, start with the small ready-to-go plants at the store and look forward to the joy of starting your own seeds for next season.

One of the biggest decisions you’ll make is where to plant your garden. Choose a spot with sun and shade, and away from tree roots and large bushes. Once the area is defined and the soil is fertilized and loose, you can draw lines to mark off where each item will be planted. Use the stick and string method to help you keep straight lines and an organized well-kept garden. Root vegetables grow nicely in rows; other veggies, fruits and herbs can be contained in square spaces.

We’d love to hear about your gardening experiences. Share your successes and disasters with us in the comments section below.

See also:

Easy vegetables to grow

How to start a vegetable garden