Our first big decision came long before any planting took place. Believe it or not, soil is more than just dirt, and you have to decide exactly what that means for your garden. This decision gave me the same anxiety that I used to get in calculus class; it really sucks to get to the end of a page-long math problem only to learn that you screwed up in the first step. Gardening is much less exact than calculus, but you get the idea…
So, in order to prep the soil you will need fertilizer. There are two very different ways to go: organic matter, and synthetic fertilizer. We entered this particular discussion with contrasting biases. Coming from a town and family of staunch organic gardeners, I was 100% for organic matter. Sean, being an engineer, tended toward the built-by-man synthetics. This lead to a research battle with each of us trying to prove the other wrong. After a considerable amount of time and countless lackluster articles, we found that both methods are acceptable and it really boils down to choice and resources.
It is universally agreed upon that building healthy soil is the key to having a healthy and productive garden, so the question is how do you want to get there? Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium are the three main elements needed for a happy garden. As long as you find a fertilizer that has a good balance of the minerals you want, it should be ok. We ended up using organic matter with some synthetic fertilizer tilled in. Was it the right choice? If this were a calculus problem we would only be a quarter of the way down the page. So far it looks good, but if we made a mistake in the first step we won’t know until we check the answer!
Here are some pros and cons, and a few links that we found helpful
(+) releases nitrogen more slowly and lasts longer
(+) large amounts won’t hurt the plants
(+) supports microbial life in the soil
(-) generally more expensive than synthetics
(-) can be messier and more laborious
(-) more variable in composition
(+) less expensive than organic
(+) comes in a bag ready to spread
(-) can burn plant roots if applied in too high of a dose
(-) chemicals leach out and expire more rapidly
(-) does not support microbial life in the soil