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My fiancee and I just bought our first home and I'd like to start my journey of vegetable gardening. The previous homeowners have 3 raised beds on the South side of the house. We haven't moved in yet so I'm not able to verify the amount of sunlight they get, but I'm going to assume (for now) that it's in an adequate spot.

How should I take over their raised beds? I have no idea how good of condition their soil is in (i.e. maybe they haven't touched the garden in years or perhaps they take great care of it).

Should I do a soil test when we move in? Or should I assume the soil is lackluster and instead put in a mixture of compost and topsoil? Or should I do something entirely different?

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Topping with compost is always a good idea, it should be an annual fall event, however it won't hurt to do it in the spring when you move in.

In any case it's always good to bring some samples from each bed to your agricultural extension office and get a full test done. It will tell you what the soil has and what it should be amended with.

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  • Are there any reliable methods of testing the 3 beds with some sort of at home test? I'm right by UW Madison so I certainly have places to take the soil to get tested, but I was curious if you knew of any ways to test at home. – Justin Helgerson Apr 8 '16 at 3:05
  • Oh you are in a great spot, just bring them the dirt. I used to know the viticulture researcher there. – Escoce Apr 8 '16 at 3:10
  • Thanks for your help. For the sake of argument, say my soil tests to be quite low in nutrients. Would it make sense to shovel out a few inches of soil and replace it with compost? I'm very new to this, but I want to work towards building a nice garden over the next few years. – Justin Helgerson Apr 8 '16 at 3:19
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    Depends on the nutrients, but good compost never hurts. – Escoce Apr 8 '16 at 3:20
  • The UW has great information on how to take your sample. I seem to remember that the results come with recommendations for how to remedy any problems they find, but it has been awhile since I've sent a sample in. uwlab.soils.wisc.edu/farmers/lawn-garden – michelle Apr 8 '16 at 14:53
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Soil is mainly composed of eroded rocks with some water, air, and some organic material. Compost is derived from organic matter which has been decomposed into a form that can be used to add organic matter into soil. They are not interchangeable. So there's no point in adding top soil if you already have soil in your raised beds unless it's really poor quality or hard to work with such as clay.

Compost as well as adding organic matter which feeds the soil life, also helps to retain water, provides carbon, nitrogen and some micronutrients that can be slowly released. However, it's not a substitute for a soil that has been depleted of specific cations such as calcium, and potassium etc.

A soil test can't be done at home easily. The easiest thing you can do is a pH test which might hint at a calcium issue.

With the soil test results you can then amend the soil that might be missing any particular minerals. Otherwise you can spend a year or two trying to grow things and find out that they don't grow well.

If you're not going to get to the vegetable beds soon, you could try and grow a green manure crop so that they're not sitting unused. Manure crops pull nitrogen into the soil, and add carbon from CO2 that you can dig in at the right time.

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  • Oh I fully intend on trying to get some vegetables growing this year. Thanks for your response it was helpful. I'm going to try to get the soil in for a test ASAP after we move in. – Justin Helgerson Apr 9 '16 at 0:05
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Another suggestion when you get going on the raised beds is to turn the soil over. It helps mix the existing soil and with compost (if you decide to add more compost). It will also help loosen the soil particularly if the beds have not been maintained. This will help your new vegetable plants grow easily rather than having the roots spend energy trying to break into hard soil. I would say atleast loosen the top 12 inches (24 is better if you can).

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  • Would you suggest using something simple like a garden fork to accomplish this? – Justin Helgerson Apr 9 '16 at 0:13
  • The way I like to do it is first using a square point shovel, remove 1 feet of dirt and put it on the side. Below the first feet, I use a fork to loosen the soil. Once I have done that, I fill in the soil using the square point shovel. Then I put compost on the top and using a fork, I mix the compost with the top 2 inches of the soil. Someone taught me this method and it seems to be working for me. – JStorage Apr 9 '16 at 1:03

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