For most of us the earliest date for planting peas has already past and if we haven’t opted to brighten our yards with pansies, we’re looking ahead to summer annuals. Okay, even those who had chosen to add some pansies to the yard are probably looking ahead and planning for summer flowers. But is your flower bed ready? What about your vegetable garden?

If you haven’t removed last year’s growth from plants like blanket flower, echinaesia, daisies, and other perennials that come back from the root every year, now is the time to do it. Obviously, removing last year’s annuals that might still be poking up here and there is well overdue by now–though I still have a handful to clear out of my beds.

I know my weeds are filling the flower beds far faster than my bright daffodils and tulips can grow. While the weather is still cool but warm enough to make working in the yard comfortable, head them off as much as you can. If you let them take a firm hold now, they’ll be impossible to deal with as the summer grows hotter.

If you’re miles ahead of the rest of us and have already got your beds cleared out, It’s time to step out and check your soil. Do you have spots that get puddles when you water? Or do you have areas that never seem to get enough water, no matter how often you irrigate that part? Both of these issues can be solved with the addition of compost or other organic additions. This picture from Wikipedia shows a compost pile cooking away. If you live in a warmer climate and already have plants in the ground, adding compost as a top layer is a great option as well.

Here in Utah we won’t be able to plant tender summer bloomers or most of the vegetables until mid May–that’s still a month off, so it’s not too late to improve your soil. And don’t worry about making it perfect overnight. Going from rock-hard clay to a great planting medium can take several years, so do what you can this year, and know you’ll need to work on it more next year as well.

Compost is the ideal addition, but since that isn’t always possible, either because of a budget or availablility, I’ll mention some other things you might want to consider.

First compost. Bagged compost is available almost anywhere gardening supplies are sold, but there are far more economic options out there for people trying to live on a budget. In my area there is a mushroom growing facillity. Their spent compost can be purchased for a terrific price. Last year it was about $15 a truck load–not a scoop, but to fill the entire truck or trailer bed. This is how I built most of my garden beds. I’m not sure what they’re charging now.

Alternately, one of the high school teams had a huge amount of compost donated to them by a local feed company to sell as a fund raiser. This was $40 a truck load.

Many municipalities have green waste barrells, I know when I lived in Payson, Utah, this was the case. I could then pick up compost from the city. It’s been a while, but I believe we got a certain number of loads for free, and then the rest were a reasonable price–but it’s been several years. I know BYU also had a compost program which my neighbor took advantage of in the spring.

Check around, you might be surprised at what is available near you. My local horse stables that are across from the race track have lots of manure available to anyone who wants to shovel it. If you check and see if there’s a stable near you, they may have some that has been cooking for several months that they would love to have hauled off.

The major caveat here is that you want to make sure the pile is old enough that the manure is no longer ‘hot.’ Manure is extremely nitrogen rich–and nitrogen is an essential ingredient in fertilizer. But if the pile hasn’t been left to compost or age long enough, or if it didn’t ‘cook’ long enough, you get two problems. First, you are likely to get seeds in the compost which are still viable–ending in alfalfa growing in your vegetable or flower bed (my rabbit may love it, but it’s not quite what I had in mind). The second possibility is that because it didn’t ‘cook’ long enough, the nitrogen may be too strong, and it can burn your tender roots if you use too much.

If these aren’t an option, there are a few others available. I’ve shredded newspaper or office papers to mix into my ground like the picture I found online that you see above. (Never add slick newspaper pages or magazines because they don’t decompose properly). If you can still find leaves that need raking somewhere, those are great to mix into the ground. Also, if you know someone who is already mowing their lawn, you can use their clippings to mix into the bed. Pine needles are another option in smaller doses. Peat moss can be purchased in large bales as well, it’s not a really fabulous price, but in addition to other additives can really make a difference to your soil after a couple of years.

Anything that hasn’t had time to decompose should be added in small amounts, and mixed in well as soon as possible before you’re ready to plant. I know some people use saw dust or wood shavings as well, but these need to added only with something really nitrogen rich like manure because they will steal the nitrogen from the ground to break down. It’s best to add things like this a year before you want to plant in the bed, or in the fall if possible. Peat moss or coconut coir make great additions to most garden beds.

Mix in your additions, and water them in well. If you have excessively sandy or clay soil, adding organics to the soil will really help improve your soil’s ability to retain water around the roots, and drain off the excess. It’s nearly the perfect solution to any problem–if you’re willing to be patient and put in the work.