So, you have an area that has never been gardened. In the Sierra Nevada Foothills, where I live, the soil will probably be the color of a terra cotta pot; hard, lacking worms and tilth. Good tilth is a term referring to soil that has the proper structure and nutrients to grow healthy crops. Soil in good tilth is loamy, nutrient-rich soil and has a mixture of sand, clay and organic matter that prevents severe compaction (wikipedia). All plant health begins with the soil.
The lazy person’s guide to beginning a garden:
1) fence it if you live in area with deer roaming. 2) Set up a water system, before you plant a thing! 3) break up the soil, down to about a foot by digging or rototiller. 4) plant a “green manure” cover crop recommended by your farm and garden supply: according to the season, water availability and your soil needs. Peaceful Valley has an excellent selection. You can plant a summer cover which will improve the soil for a fall/winter garden or plant a fall cover to improve the soil for a spring/summer planting.
The many benefits of cover crops are:
Increasing organic matter content
Increasing earthworm and beneficial microorganism activity
Increasing the soils plant-available Nitrogen
Stabilizing the soil to prevent erosion
Bringing deep rooted minerals to the surface for other crops
Providing habitat, nectar & pollen for beneficial insects
Improving water, root and air penetration in the soil
Increasing the soils moisture-holding capacity
Choking out weeds
Breaking up subsoil
Reducing populations of pest organisms
Providing aesthetic value and color
However, if you just can’t wait, you could amend your soil with the standard fertilization recipe for the Sierra Foothills. Check out Foothill Mix in the Peaceful Valley Farm Supply catalog. If you live in another area you may want to consult the Master Gardeners for local recommendations. You will eventually build your soil by adding recommended amendments before each planting. This method takes longer and is a larger dollar investment.
Taking a soil test is also very helpful, as it will assist in deciding which fertilizers are needed to balance your soil. Balance is the key word here. Be sure that you have sufficient amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and trace minerals to assist with uptake of nutrients. Too much or too little can potentially block the plants ability to absorb nutrients. It is recommended that you use compost rather than manure for a nitrogen source, as the nitrogen source in good compost are is fully digested and can easily be assimilated by the plant.
For further assistance, hiring a reputable organic farm advisor in your area, who could look at your soil tests and be very specific regarding your soil and crops can be very helpful. Your local Master Gardeners office is also be a good free or reasonable resource. For your local office go to http://www.ahs.org/master_gardeners/
May your raw patch grow into an Eden. Best of Luck.