The first step in deciding if your soil is ready to start planting is figuring out what kind of soil you have. On a day in which the ground is neither overly dry nor wet and muddy, grab a handful. Is it hard packed and nearly solid? Does it maintain its shape but break apart when you crumble it? Is it loose? Does it run through your fingers?
If it is sticky and doesn't break, you have claylike soil. If it runs through your fingers, your soil is sandy. If it maintains its shape until crumbled, it's called loam. Clay soil means that plants will have trouble digging deep with their roots. Sandy soil can mean water slips through the soil so easily that the roots can't soak up the vital nutrients.
Just like Goldilocks, the ideal soil is the third one—loam is just right for gardening. The soil will be thick enough to hold on to water and nutrients but thin enough to allow roots to take hold.
Hope for clay or sandy soilHope for Clay or Sandy Soil
If your soil is claylike or sandy, there is still hope, but it will take a little bit of prep work. Adding decomposed organic matter like compost or humus—which you can buy at garden centers—will help both kinds of soil. It aerates clay soil, creating space for roots to burrow deeper, and promotes growth aboveground. It also allows sandy soil to clump together better, giving roots better access to the nutrients and water stored in the ground.
Promote the loamy quality of your garden by adding organic matter to the earth throughout the growing season and allowing it to decompose. This includes grass clippings (but only from grass that isn't chemically treated), plant cuttings, thinned seedlings, weeds that have not gone to seed and compost.
Measure your soil's fitnessNitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium and pH
Soil's fitness for growing is measured by several key factors. First is pH, which measures the general chemistry of a substance on scale of approximately 0 to 14. Most plants prefer a balanced pH reading of close to 7 . Acidic soil (with a pH reading under 7) and basic soil (with a pH reading above 7) are bad for most plants, though some thrive only in those environments.
Also essential to plant growth are three elements: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. These three are commonly referred to by their atomic element symbols—N for nitrogen; P for phosphorus; K for potassium—which you will see written on bags of fertilizer.
Nitrogen is the element that promotes growth in the green parts of plants—specifically leaves and stems. While that vibrant growth can look great, an overabundance of nitrogen comes with a downside. It can make plants grow too quickly, hurting root development and restricting fruit growth.
What nitrogen does for leaves and stems, phosphorus does for roots. Like nitrogen, there can also be too much. Excess phosphorus in the soil can get into the ground water and cause serious pollution problems.
Potassium is important for general health, especially for the oldest parts of the plant.
To find out your garden's soil makeup, buy a soil testing kit (make sure to get one that also measures nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) from a hardware or gardening store, and check in on it throughout the growing season. Another option is to get your soil professionally tested. This will cost a bit, but you'll get more accurate and detailed results.
Before putting anything in the ground, know how each plant deals with slightly cooler or warmer temperatures. If you sow too early, the cold ground and air will stunt growth. A late frost could even lead to a plant's death. If you sow too late, you'll miss out on some of those crucial and limited days for growth.
To best gage the ideal time for planting, learn the date of your area's last frost, which you can find in the Farmer's Almanac or by asking any experienced gardener in your area.