Establishing a new patch
Getting a good mix of clay and sand is important. A sandy soil doesn't hold nutrients well and a clay soil doesn't drain properly.
Test your soil by wetting a small amount and rolling it between your hands to for a "sausage". Bend it and if it crumbles readily it is likely your soil is mostly sand. If it holds together well it is likely you have a high clay content.
Improving poor-quality soil can be hard work, but here are some tips:
- Adding organic matter (manure and compost) will improve the water and nutrients retention of a sandy soil.
- Lime helps break up clay soil
If you soil has a very high clay content you have two main choices. Either bring in sand or build raised beds and bring in new soil.
New soil can be expensive, but keep an eye out in the local paper or trading webistes. Building projects (both large and small scale) often create excess top soil and you may be able to pick some up for free or at a reasonable price.
Potatoes are a good first crop for a new patch because their roots help break up the soil. Even a good soil can be hard to work over in the first year, especially if it has been a lawn and got very compacted.
If the basic elements of a good soil are already there (sand and clay) then add some compost and manure, plant potatoes your first year and you should be able to grow anything you like in the second year.
Before you plant
No matter what crop you are about to plant, breaking up the soil and working in some extra manure is a good idea. The main exception to this rule is herbs, where too much manure can cause excessive leafy growth at the expense of oils and nutrients.
There really is no substitute for good old fashion digging here. Go down to one spade depth and work the organic matter right through the soil.
If you are planting seeds straight into the soil (especially fine seeds like carrots) then take extra care to break up any lumps and remove any visible stones. See also how to make a simple soil sieve.