In preparing the garden for annuals, the first thing to do is to spade up the soil. This can be done shortly after the frost is out of the ground. This is about all that can be done to advantage, at this time, as the ground must be allowed to remain as it comes from the spade until the combined effect of sun and air has put it into a condition that will make it an easy matter to reduce it to proper mellowness with the hoe or iron rake.
Right here let me say: Most of us, in the enthusiasm which takes possession of us when spring comes, are inclined to rush matters. We spade up the soil, and immediately attempt to pulverize it, and of course fail in the attempt, because it is not in a proper condition to pulverize. We may succeed in breaking it up into little clods, but that is not what needs doing. It must be made fine, and mellow, - not a lump left in it, - and this can only be done well after the elements have had an opportunity to do their work on it. When one comes to think about it, there is no need of hurry, for it is not safe to sow seed in the ground at the north until the weather becomes warm and settled, and that will not be before the first of May, in a very favorable season, and generally not earlier than the middle of the month. This being the case, be content to leave the soil to the mellowing influences of the weather until seed-sowing time is at hand. Then go to work and get your garden ready.
If the soil is not rich, apply manure from the barnyard or its substitute in the shape of some reliable fertilizer.
Do this before you set about the pulverization of the soil. Then go to work with hoe and rake, and reduce it to the last possible degree of fineness, working the fertilizer you make use of into it in such a manner that both are perfectly blended.
There is no danger of overdoing matters in this part of garden-work. The finer the soil is the surer you may be of the germination of the seed you put into it. Fine seed often fails to grow in a coarse and lumpy soil.
In sowing seed, make a distinction between the very fine and that of ordinary size. Fine seed should be scattered on the surface, and no attempt made to cover it. Simply press down the soil upon which you have scattered it with a smooth board. This will make it firm enough to retain the moisture required to bring about germination.
Larger seed can be sown on the surface, and afterward covered by sifting a slight covering of fine soil over it. Then press with the board to make it firm.
Large seed, like that of the Sweet Pea, Four-o'-Clock, and Ricinus, should be covered to the depth of half an inch.
I always advise sowing seed in the beds where the plants are to grow, instead of starting it in pots and boxes, in the house, early in the season, under the impression that by so doing you are going to "get the start of the season." In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, plants from seed sown in the house will be so weak in vital force that they cannot stand the change which comes when they are transplanted to the open ground. In the majority of cases, there will be none to transplant, for seedlings grown under living-room conditions generally die before the time comes when it is safe to put them out of doors. Should there be any to put out, they will be so weak that plants from seed sown in the beds, at that time, will invariably get the start of them, and these are sure to make the best plants. A person must be an expert in order to make a success of plant-growing from seed, in the house, in spring. There will be too much heat, too little fresh air, too great a lack of moisture in the atmosphere, and often a lack of proper attention in the way of watering, and unless these matters can be properly regulated it is useless to expect success. Knowing what the result is almost sure to be, I discourage the amateur gardener from attempting to grow his own seedlings under these conditions. If early plants are desired, buy them of the florists whose facilities for growing them are such that they can send out strong and healthy stock.
Do not sow the seeds of tender plants until you are quite sure that the danger from cold nights is over. It is hardly safe to put any kind of seed into the ground before the middle of May, at the north.
If we wait until all conditions are favorable, the young plants will get a good start and go steadily ahead, and distance those from seed sown before the soil had become warm or the weather settled. Haste often makes waste. If the soil is cold and damp seed often fails to germinate in it, and this obliges you to buy more seed, and all your labor goes for naught.
To the method and time of planting advised above, there is one exception - that of the Sweet Pea. This should go into the ground as soon as possible in spring. For this reason: This plant likes to get a good root-growth before the warm weather of summer comes. With such a growth it is ready for flowering early in the season, and no time is wasted. Dig a V-shaped trench six inches deep. Sow the seed thickly. It ought not to be more than an inch apart, and if closer no harm will be done. Cover to the depth of an inch, at time of sowing, tramping the soil down firmly. When the young plants have grown to be two or three inches tall, draw in more of the soil, and keep on doing this from time to time, as the seedlings reach up, until all the soil from the trench has been returned to it. This method gives us plants with roots deep enough in the soil to make sure of sufficient moisture in a dry season. It also insures coolness at the root, a condition quite necessary to the successful culture of this favorite flower.
Weeds will generally put in an appearance before the flowering plants do. As soon as you can tell "which is which" the work of weeding must begin. At this stage, hand-pulling will have to be depended on. But a little later, when the flowering plants have made an inch or two of growth, weeding by hand should be abandoned. Provide yourself with a weeding-hook - a little tool with claw-shaped teeth - with which you can uproot more weeds in an hour than you can in all day by hand, and the work will be done in a superior manner as the teeth of the little tool stir the surface of the soil just enough to keep it light and open - a condition that is highly favorable to the healthy development of young plants. I have never yet seen a person who liked to pull weeds by hand. Gardens are often neglected because of the dislike of their owners for this disagreeable task. The use of the weeding-hook does away with the drudgery, and makes really pleasant work of the fight with weeds.