Time to get out the vegetable seed catalogue and get transplants going ASAP. If you are new to growing your own food, get out in the backyard and contemplate where the best spot is for some tomatoes or beets. If you don't have access to your own bit of terra firma, sign up for a plot at your nearest community garden or make a deal with a neighbour.
Once you have a spot secured, stick a shovel in the ground and have a look at your soil. The presence of earthworms is a great sign. If you have sod (aka grass), dig it up, knock the soil off the roots, and move it far away. Grass is the worst thing to have in your garden, so clean out every little bit. Pick up a bit of the topsoil and give it a squeeze. The best kind is black and spongy. This means high organic matter. If it’s gritty, you have sandy soil. If it’s slimier, it has more clay. Sand is good for drainage and clay has the micro-nutrients more readily available to plants. How deep is the topsoil? You will see a transition from dark organic soil to either a gravel or clay layer underneath. This is the subsoil. Blue-grey clay means you are in a very soggy spot. You want at least 15 cm (6”) of topsoil for a food garden.
If you are deficient in topsoil and you're in a hurry to remedy the situation (of course you are) then get some well-rotted compost from a nearby bin, purchase bags of composted steer manure, Sea Soil (a brand-name), or other additive. Increase the volume of your soil up to 25 percent with compost. More than this and you run the risk of burning your plants' roots. Mix it in well.
Then, smooth out the bed with a rake and leave it alone for a couple of weeks. This will give the weed seeds a false sense of security. By then they will have sprouted (if it doesn't snow in time for the big sport-fest-orgy coming up) and you have them where you want them—you can hoe the little weeds down without worrying about anything you've planted, because you haven't yet.
The first things to go in are peas and maybe some greens, like spinach and kale. Start the greens indoors under lights first, and put them out in about a month. Plant in starter mix which is weed-free. If you are opposed to the peat moss content (good for you) then you can make your own with one part screened composted steer manure, one part perlite, one part sawdust and a dash of greensand. Mix thoroughly. Use a maximum quarter-inch mesh on the manure screen.
If you're a Victoria Day gardener (someone who starts planting in late May), you can put in a cover crop now, or what’s called a green manure. This is a grain or legume crop that gets turned in later in the spring when the shoots are still green and tender. This provides a nitrogen hit for the subsequent planting. Some candidates are oats, white clover, vetch or spring rye. No perennial grasses please.
I'm getting excited just writing this stuff. What could be more rewarding than seeing a neat row of Swiss chard leafing out?
For information on community gardens, see:
In Greater Vancouver http://www.cityfarmer.org/vanccomgard83.html
More tips coming in mid-February. Feel free to send me your questions or story ideas. [email protected].