The first question is whether the soil is ready to be prepared. If it is still too wet, working that soil does more harm than good. There is a simple test. Pick up a handful of soil and try to make it into a ball. If the ball holds together the soil is still too wet to work. If the ball crumbles the soil is dry enough to get started.
If your garden beds had mulch covering them all winter you can remove the mulch and that will help the soil dry faster. Also it is easier to prepare the soil when the mulch has been removed. We will put the mulch back after the garden has been planted and is growing well.
It is good to spread a thin application of granular organic fertilizer. Then you work the fertilizer into the soil with a rake. A handful for every 50 square feet is good.
The big question is whether you need to till the soil. The general rule of thumb is that if your soil is compacted and not easily handled then it is probably wise to rototill the garden. However once the your soil has sufficient organic material and is soft and friable than you should put the roto tiller away. With good soil you can break it up with a garden fork or a U-Bar Digger; my favorite tool for prepping the soil in the spring.
The U-bar digger has been used in Europe for centuries. It has not been a common tool in the United States, though every vegetable gardener should have one. This tool is far superior to the spading fork for loosening up soil in a garden bed as long as there are no perennial plants to have to work around. It is not as effective in soils with lots of rocks, but in a loamy or well-tilled soil, it is a dream to operate. Design – The term “U-Bar” refers to the two handles of this tool that are attached to the ends of the digging tines forms what looks like a “U” shaped tool. This is a spading fork on steroids. It can have from 4 to 8 tines as long as 5 to 8 inches. Most U-bar diggers have some sort of a lever device at the back of the bar holding the tines. Some U-bar diggers have wooden handles and others have steel handles. The tines vary is size and strength. Most U-bar diggers on the market will work just fine in the average home garden situation.
Durability – As with the spading fork, the U-bar diggers’ lifespan is directly related to the quality of the construction and the strength of the tines.
Comfort and Technique – The U-bar digger is a standup type of tool. Holding the tool is almost a vertical position, you sink the tines into the soil with the pressure of your foot on the bar holding the tines. Then you back up a step and pull the handles towards you. This movement causes the tool to lean on the lever device establishing a point, just above the soil level, where your energy spent on pulling the handles toward you is transferred to the tines below the leverage device. The effect is for almost effortless soil loosening. Your back is spared virtually any stress at all, yet the soil is loosened thoroughly. You then pull up the U-bar digger, move it a few inches ahead and repeat the process. Once you get a rhythm you can loosened a 100 square feet of garden bed in a matter of ten or fifteen minutes; all with little stress on your body, especially on your back.
Once the soil has been loosened an optional step that has great benefit is to spread a thin layer of quality compost over the surface of the garden bed. The compost does not really need to be raked into the soil; your choice.
Now we keep track of the soil temperature and when it gets to be 40 to 45° we are ready to start our garden.
What Is Happening In Nature
I saw my first robin and the daffodils have started to blossom. The leaves should be popping on the lilacs and the cherry blossoms are out. While you will not see them, the lightning bug larvae are emerging in the lawn and eating every pest insect in sight. Earthworms will surface in late evening; use a flashlight to spot them.