Soils should not be prepared for planting when too wet or too dry. If soil sticks to your shoes or shovel, it is too wet. Press a small amount of soil in your hand. When the moisture is right, the soil crumbles and breaks into small climbs. If it is too wet, it stays molded in a ball.
Have your soil tested for the amount of fertilizer or manure to apply before planting. This can be done through Penn State's cooperative extension for a fee. Click on link for more information. http://www.aasl.psu.edu/SSFT.HTM A routine soil test gives information on any lime requirement, phosphorous and potassium needs and estimated nitrogen requirements.
Rake or harrow the planting area immediately after tilling or spading. A firm, fine seedbed is best, particularly for small-seeded crops, but packing the soil to much could promote crusting of the soil surface and damage emerging seedlings. Tilling the soil in late fall facilitates earlier spring planting.
Planting Early Crops
Cool Season Crops
You can sow early "cool-season" crops such as lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and onions immediately after preparing your garden plot.
Warm Season Crops
Wait until danger of frost is past (mid-May) before transplanting tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and similar "warm season" crops.
Cucumbers, pumpkins and watermelons can be seeded earlier by placing hot caps over the soil one week before planting. This warms the soil and helps those crops germinate more quickly. Keep the hot caps on until plants emerge and are growing vigorously.
Starting Plants Inside
Warm season crops need a long growing season and usually will not mature if seeded directly in the garden. Cool season crops must mature before hot weather. It is necessary, then, either to start these crops early inside or to buy plants at a garden center or greenhouse. Start seeds in plastic trays or peat pots that are 3-4 inches deep. A good soil mixture contains two parts loam, one part sand, and one part organic matter.
Thoroughly mix the soil in a wheelbarrow with a shovel and sift it through 1/4 inch mesh screen. Premixed soil mixtures are available at garden centers.
Fill the transplant tray or peat pots with the soil mixture and carefully firm the soil along the sides. After filling in the depressions, level the soil to about 1/4 inch below the top. Firm the soil evenly. sow the seed by making a 1/4 - 1/2 inch hole using a dibble or pencil with a tape mark to keep the depth consistent. Sow 2-3 seeds in each tray cell or peat pot.
Start warm season crops later than cool-season crops. Peppers and eggplants germinate slowly and should be started before tomatoes. Cover the seeds lightly with sand, screened soil, or vermiculite. Gently water the transplant trays using a fine screened waterer to prevent washing the seeds out of the soil. Cover the transplant tray or peat pots with clear plastic and keep the seedlings in full sunlight or directly under fluorescent lights. Once the seedlings emerge, thin to one plant and apply a starter fertilizer of 1 1/2 tablespoons of 5-10-5 in 1 gallon of water. apply approximately 1/4 cup of the solution to each seedling every two weeks until transplanting. Rinse the seedlings of the solution to each seedling every two weeks until transplanting. Rise the seedlings with water after fertilizing to prevent leaf burn. "Hardening transplants by shading them for a few days outside using either a lath house or shade cloth and slightly withholding water (but not to the point of wilting) will reduce plant growth delay after transplanting, otherwise known as "transplant shock."
Transplanting in late afternoon or on a cool, cloudy, calm day. Water plants before transplanting. Cut the soil between the plants with a knife so each plant can separate easily with a substantial root ball attached. Seedlings grown in separate containers can be transplanted without disturbing the roots. If seedlings are transplanted in peat pots, make sure the top edge of the peat pot is not exposed above the soil surface or the peat pot will act like a wick and rapidly draw the moisture from the root ball, stressing the plant.
Scrape the dry surface soil from the planting area. With a hand shovel, make a hole large enough to easily receive the root ball of the transplant. Firm the soil around the roots and water with the starter fertilizer solution. Apply 1/2 c per plant at planting time.
Transplanted crops may be set out in the garden a week or two before it would otherwise be safe if hot caps are used. Remove the caps after the air temperatures get real warm during the day. If paper hot caps are used, punch ventilation holes in the tops. High temperatures within the hot cap can kill young plants.