If you are planning to grow your own vegetables this summer to save money on soaring food prices, now is the time to prepare a garden plot for planting.

Heidi Wood, a horticulturist from the town of Stratford, PEI, says it’s her favorite part of the gardening season because well-prepared soil is the key ingredient to growing a bountiful garden throughout the summer.

“Preparing my floor is my favorite thing,” Wood said from his office at the Robert L. Cotton Center. “You really only have one chance.”

First consideration: how big should your garden plot be? Wood suggests a size of six meters by 12 meters (20 feet by 40 feet) for a family of four. Its own plot in Stratford Community Gardens measures three meters by five meters (10 feet by 17 feet).

You can make your plot smaller or larger depending on what you want to grow – check the seed packets for advice on space.

Heidi Wood’s garden plot before preparation, left, and after, right. (Heidi Bois)

You can also reduce your plot size and reduce weeding and other soil care by going vertical. The wood grows climbing yellow and green beans, and cucumbers can also climb. Her dad helped her build a structure with thrown two-by-fours and netting — or you could just use strong fallen tree branches secured with twine at the top.

Vegetables like pole beans can even be grown in hanging baskets with the cascading vines, Wood said. Or you can grow them in a container on your patio with climbing poles, as well as containers for tomatoes, lettuce and herbs.

Prepare the ground

If you’re starting a garden plot from scratch using a lawn patch or field, it’s best done in the fall, Wood said. But there is still time to start this spring.

Choose a spot in full sun (no shade). Wood suggests seeing where the grass grows best on your lawn: this indicates better soil.

Wood spreads compost over his garden plot in the community garden in Stratford to make the soil a little less alkaline and combat compaction. She does not use conventional fertilizers. (Heidi Bois)

She suggests three ways to prepare the ground from scratch:

  • Work your plot, grass and all, then remove grass blades and weeds by hand.
  • Remove and discard the sod and then till the ground underneath.
  • Dig up the sod, turn it over, and leave it on the ground for a few weeks to decompose, then discard what’s left.

You can buy a mechanical tiller, which starts at around $200, a hand-held tiller for around $60, or choose an all-purpose garden spade for around $20.

If you already have a garden patch, simply remove as many weeds as possible to “start with a clean bed,” Wood said.

Most gardens will then benefit from a layer of compost, which can be purchased by the bag for around $5. There are also frequent giveaways or compost sales in PEI and Wood suggests keeping an eye on social media for those. She also advocates checking with local farmers for free manure – she recommends it be around a year old to be well-rotted, not fresh.

Spread about an inch of compost over your plowed soil, then mix it lightly with a metal rake (about $20) or with a shovel, or even by hand.

“Almost like you’re baking, you incorporate it,” Wood said. Try to avoid standing on your soil, as this will compact it and make it inhospitable for seeds to take root, she said. If you need to add more compost, you can do so later in the season.

Minimize soil bed disturbance, she advises, because there are weed seeds lurking and earthworms doing a good job.

Tools you will need

You can invest a lot in gardening tools, but you don’t have to. Wood suggests at a minimum you’ll need a spade, metal rake, hoe, and hand trowel. These should cost less than $100 in total.

This is chickweed, which Wood says can indicate several things: soil that is nitrogen-rich, alkaline, and compact. (Heidi Bois)

To stay thrifty, you can borrow what you need from a neighbor or offer to share the cost of tools with some neighbors.

If you join a community garden, you’ll pay for one plot per size, but most memberships include access to all the tools you’ll need, as well as a water source.

You can also purchase a $50 subscription to the Charlottetown Tool Library. Pick up tools by appointment at their storage locker on Thompson Drive. Most tool rentals last about a week. They also have tools such as hammers, saws and drills for building raised beds. The library can be found on Facebook or by calling (902) 314-9732.

You will also need access to water for the garden. Wood suggests making or buying a rain barrel that can be attached to a downspout on your house or shed. You can also simply put buckets to collect rainwater. Gardens prefer rainwater to cooler tap water, she says.

Planting time

Spinach, leaf lettuce and green onion seeds can now be planted in the ground, Wood said, as can cabbage, cauliflower or broccoli transplants you started indoors.

“It’s easy to plant seeds,” says Wood. (Joyce Bois)

“Things like that, which can adapt well to cool temperatures,” she explained. “The ground is warming up, but it’s not quite there yet. I know it’s hard for people to kind of sit down on these beautiful sunny days and think ‘Oh, I should go in the garden, ‘but … we could have snowed.’ ”

In mid-May, gardeners can start planting some of the seedlings they have started growing indoors or purchased from a garden center – things like head lettuce, carrots, beets and parsnips.

Late May or early June is a good time to plant things like beans, which are very susceptible to frost.

For planting instructions, refer to your seed packages, Wood said.