Cultivating a productive garden food plot starts as soon as the hard winter frost is off the ground and continues until the fall frost returns. Cultivation is caring for the soil so that it stays healthy and produces the best possible plants. The goals of soil cultivation are aerating the soil for better oxygen flow and water penetration, feeding the soil to promote microbiotic life, and keeping the soil free of weeds that compete with your plants for light, water and nutrients.
Start tilling the soil in late winter, as soon as the ground is soft and dry enough to work. Tilling when the soil is too wet will result in soil compaction and large, hard clumps later on. It will also leave you with a very sore back.
Add any soil amendments so you can till them in. Have you soil's pH tested if you're not sure what the best amendments are for your soil type. Contact a county extension service or university about soil testing.
Spread compost and/or aged manure before tilling. Adding fertilizers to the soil a month or two before you start sowing gives them a chance to break down into more soluble elements the plants can use.
Use a mechanical tiller if you're breaking new ground or if you want to reduce your labor. For the best quality soil, however, hand tilling with a digging fork or shovel is best. Hand tilling reduces the amount of damage to microbes and earthworms and leaves you with the finest tilth.
Watch for weeds after the tilling is finished, especially after any rainstorms. Pull or hoe any weeds you see as soon as possible to keep them from seeding or getting rooted very deeply.
Add organic fertilizers to your soil as needed when seeding or transplanting. Some plants, such as tomatoes or eggplants, do well with a little boost of manure, fish emulsion, or bone meal upon transplanting and when they begin to set fruit.
Keep on top of the weeding throughout the season. If weeds become very deeply rooted, they can damage the plants' roots when you pull them out. Weed infestations can grow quite quickly and choke out your plants.
Hoe weeds when their roots are no more than two or three inches long. Gently scrape the surface of the soil with the hoe to get under the weeds' roots and uproot them. Hoeing also helps to aerate the soil by breaking up the hard layer on top.
Clear spent plants in the fall, and put them into the compost pile. Spent plants can also be tilled into the soil to break down over the winter.
Spread mulch over the soil when the growing season is finished. Mulch protects the soil, keeps weeds down, and helps keep the soil moist. Another option is to sow a cover crop like vetch or crimson clover. Cover crops protect soil and hold it in place while fixing nitrogen with their roots. In the spring, cover crops can be tilled in to decompose as green manure.