We just moved to a new (but very old) house, and I'm wondering if I should now dig up the space where I'll plant next year's garden, or wait until spring. The prospective garden beds have a two-year supply of dead weeds in them.
Gilmer County, West Virginia
Unless your new garden site is on a steep slope prone to erosion, there are huge advantages to digging it every chance you get between now and spring. If the area has been allowed to go weedy for two seasons, it's so rich with weed seeds that you're in for a fight no matter when you dig. Many weed seeds can remain viable for years, so plan on weeding often — and mulching to deprive weed seedlings of light — to reduce weed competition in your new garden.
Begin getting to know your soil by testing its pH with an inexpensive kit. Many soils in the eastern mountains are acidic, which is easily modified by mixing garden lime into the soil. Rock fertilizers, such as lime, need time to become integrated into the soil, but they're so cheap and long-lasting you might want to include them in your first dig-in. In addition to lime, you can add gypsum (for calcium), bone meal or rock phosphate (for phosphorus) and granite dust (for potassium).
Any time is a good time to add organic matter to soil, and anything you mix in this time of year will partially or completely decompose by spring. Explore locally available resources for high quality amendments, such as manure from grain-fed horses or composted poultry manure, both of which are rich in nitrogen and low in weed seeds. Or, add grass clippings every chance you get. Start your own composting projects as close to your garden as you can get — including right on top of your future beds. While you wait for the compost to mature, check with your city's maintenance or parks department for chemical-free finished compost.
Sharpen your spade to make digging easier, and be ready to use a pick if you encounter rocks or compacted subsoil. As you dig, you may get lucky and find a few places where the soil seems more garden-worthy than other spots. Give these areas special attention, so come early spring they will be ready to plant with early crops such as peas and potatoes.