Issue: April 2004

Prepare the Garden Before Planting

Before planting vegetables this spring, take some time to plan the garden layout and prepare the soil.

When selecting a site for the home vegetable garden, make sure soil is deep and well drained. Underlying hard layers of soil or calcium carbonate, commonly called caliche, may inhibit root development. Raised beds can help with drainage problems.

Most vegetables prefer full sun. Locate vegetable gardens away from trees that cast shade and compete for water and nutrients. Before planting, make a map of the garden to determine crop placement. Place taller crops like corn on the north side to avoid shading shorter crops. Shade-tolerant, leafy vegetables can grow in partially shaded areas.

Add organic matter to improve soil structure. With sandy soils, organic matter improves water holding capacity and ability to retain nutrients for plant uptake. Organic matter helps aerate clay soils while improving drainage.

Applying compost is an easy way to add organic matter. Compost is often made from leaves, grass clippings, food wastes and garden vegetable waste from the previous season. A 1- to 2-inch layer of well-decomposed compost improves soil structure while adding nutrients needed for plant growth.

Supplement organic matter with appropriate commercial fertilizers. Most contain one or more of the three major plant nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. A soil analysis will indicate the amounts of nutrients needed for optimal growth.

Incorporate compost and fertilizers with a rototiller or garden fork, then level the garden with a rake to remove stones and other debris. Lay out rows on level ground or raised beds, depending on the type of irrigation system used.

Create a guide for planting seeded rows by stretching a string close to the ground between two stakes. Plant most seed at a depth equivalent to four times the diameter of the seed, using twice as many seeds as necessary to ensure a good stand. Cover seeds with soil and tamp down with the backside of a hoe.

Keep the seedbed moist until seedlings emerge. Thin plants to recommended spacing after they develop one or more true leaves.

Set transplants outdoors in a shaded, semiprotected area for a few hours each day to harden or toughen them up about a week before planting them in the garden. Gradually increase the time they are left outside during the week and withhold water gradually. Water plants just before transplanting and plant in moist soil. Transplant in the early evening when it's cool to give plants time to adjust to the new environment before facing full sunlight. Firm soil around the plants and water immediately.

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For more gardening information, visit New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service publications world wide web site at

George W. Dickerson, Ph.D., is is a horticulturist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. New Mexico State University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer and educator.

Also Please join us on Southwest Yard & Garden, a weekly garden program made for gardeners in the Southwest on:
KNME-TV Albuquerque at 9:30 p.m. Saturdays,
KENW-TV Portales at 10 a.m. Saturdays,
and KRWG-TV Las Cruces at 11:30 a.m. Saturdays (repeated at 1 p.m. Thursdays.)