Gardens that have not been planted recently (that is, within the past three or four years) require more work. It is best to begin preparing the soil in the fall before the first frost. This can be done using a spade or shovel. The ground is lifted from a depth of six or eight inches and turned over so that the top level, with its grass and weeds, becomes the bottom layer. Large clumps are broken up with a power hoe or roto-tiller. Conditioners such as fresh leaves, composts, mulching materials, pH adjusters, and slow-release fertilizers are added and worked into the soil so that they can begin to decompose over the winter. It is especially important to add these materials if the soil is packed, mucky, or clayey. Soluble fertilizers should not be added in the fall since they leach to the subsoil with heavy rains.
In the spring, as soon as the ground is workable, it should be turned once again. If it still feels packed, add more conditioners. If you are using manure or other organic materials, make sure that they smell clean and earthy and are well-decomposed. (Fresh materials tie up the nitrogen in the soil while they cure, making it unavailable to the plants.) Commercial fertilizers and readily soluble organics such as blood meal and wood ash are added at this time.
The ground can also be seeded with clover or other legumes. Legumes (clover, alfalfa, vetch, etc.) are plants which form little nodules along their roots. The nodules contain bacteria which live in a symbiotic relationship with the plant. As part of their life process, these bacteria absorb gaseous nitrogen from the air and convert it to chemical forms that can be used by the plant. During its life, the legume uses up most of the nitrogen, although some leaks into the surrounding soil. However, when the plant dies (or when any of its leaves die), its contents become part of the soil. The process of growing a cover crop and turning it into the soil is called "green manuring."
After the last threat of frost, at about the same time that corn is planted, the soil should be worked into rows or mounds, or hoed, and the seeds planted. If any concentrated fertilizer is added to the soil, it should be worked into the soil first, rather than coming into direct contact with the seeds.
The actual amount of tilling that a soil requires depends on its condition. Sandy soils and light loams may need no turning, since they are already loose enough to permit the roots to penetrate. Since turning breaks up the soil structure, damaging its ecology, it should be done only when necessary. These soils are easily fertilized using soluble mixes or by the layering technique described below. Soils which are moderately sandy can be adjusted by "breaking" them with a pitchfork: the tines are pushed into the ground and may be levered, but the soil is not turned. This is done about every six inches and can be accomplished quickly. Farmers can loosen sandy soil by disking at five or six inches. Some gardeners mulch the soil with a layer of leaves or other materials to protect it from winter winds and weather. This helps keep the soil warm so it can be worked earlier in the spring. In states west of the 100th meridian, this is helpful for preventing soil loss due to erosion from dry winds. Soil often drains well in these areas and the soils' ecology is better served when they are not turned. At season's end, the marijuana's stem base and root system are left in the ground to help hold the topsoil. The next year's crop is planted between the old plant stems. Some gardeners prefer to plant a cover crop such as clover or alfalfa, which holds the soil while enriching the nitrogen supply.
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