Nutrients and warmth will give your early sown seeds the best possible start, says Gardening Editor Ruth Hayes

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Adding extra compost or manure over dug-in green manure will help enrich your soil

The secrets to successful growing are healthy, nutrient-rich soil and crop rotation, so this week I have been preparing and warming my soil and thinking about what crops to grow where.

Warming and enriching your soil gives your crops the best chance in the months ahead.

Start by digging it over and removing weeds. When you tackle perennial weeds such as dandelions, make sure you remove every last piece as they can regenerate from the smallest piece of overlooked root.

Turning the soil also exposes overwintering pests and their larvae, and brings them to the attention of hungry birds.

You should then add a generous amount of well-rotted manure, compost or leaf mould and fork it in. Don’t worry if there are any large lumps left, as they will be broken down by the winter cold and rain, and you can then rake them to a fine tilth to create a perfect seedbed.

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Green manures add valuable nitrogen to the soil

If you have grown green manures to enrich the soil, you can start to dig them in now. Leave them to rot down, then add a good layer of organic matter.

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Black polythene helps warm soil

Once you’ve enriched the soil you need to warm it. This is particularly important if you are planning early sown crops such as Brussels sprouts, leeks, early carrots and turnips, salads, onions and broad beans.

Soil coverings (see below) should be left in place for at least six weeks. After their removal, dig out any weeds that have surfaced underneath, and rake the soil again before starting to sow your seeds.

Warm soil before planting

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Cloches can be used to warm seedbeds

  • The best way to warm soil is to cover it closely with a layer of clear plastic.
  • Cloches and fleece can also be used, but are not as effective.
  • Black plastic is another option, and should be spread taut across the ground and ideally covered with a second layer of clear plastic.
  • Make sure your soil covers are anchored down to prevent them blowing away.

Top tip

If your soil is heavy clay that holds water, start crops in pots and plant them out in spring when the soil is warmer and drier.