How to Prepare Soil for Planting

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Lawn & Garden

Soil is often taken for granted when planting flowers. However, it is important to alter the soil to create the best growing environment. The first and most crucial step is to conduct a soil test to determine what your soil lacks and doesn’t lack. This article provides guidance on the soil test and other steps to get your soil where it needs to be. The article includes helpful sections such as:

  • About Soil: This section covers the basics of soil, including how to get a soil test and how to read the results. It also discusses how to alter nutrients and pH levels to make soil fertile. Texture and drainage checks are also highlighted.
  • Preparing Soil: This section suggests ways to amend soil using inorganic and organic fertilizers, composting, and other soil-improvement methods. It also explains the three main nutrients found in chemical fertilizers and how to read NPK formulas on packaging. The section also offers tips on organic approaches to soil improvement.
  • Soil Techniques: This section covers the best ways to prepare your garden bed for planting, including rototilling and hand digging, and how to install a mowing strip around the bed. It also provides advice on special soil techniques such as double-digging and creating raised beds.
  • Mulching: This section explains the benefits of mulching and offers tips on how to lay mulch properly and achieve the desired look using different types of mulch.

Even if you have healthy soil, it is still beneficial to follow these tips and techniques to get the most out of your garden. Conduct a soil test today to improve your soil and enhance your gardening experience.

Sources of Specific Nutrients

There are various processed and packaged fertilizers available that contain specific nutrients.

  • Boron: manure, borax, chelated boron
  • Calcium: bonemeal, limestone, eggshells, wood ashes, oyster shells, chelated calcium
  • Copper: chelated copper
  • Iron: chelated iron, iron sulfate
  • Magnesium: Epsom salts, dolomitic limestone, chelated magnesium
  • Nitrogen: livestock manure (composted), bat guano, chicken manure, fish emulsion, blood meal, kelp meal, cottonseed meal
  • Phosphorus: bonemeal, rock phosphate, super phosphate
  • Potassium: granite meal, sulfate of potash, greensand, wood ashes, seabird guano, shrimp shell meal
  • Sulfur: sulfur, solubor, iron sulfate, zinc sulfate
  • Zinc: zinc sulfate, chelated zinc

Even if your soil is healthy, there are still a few steps to take before starting your garden, particularly if you’re growing high-maintenance plants. Check out the next section for some helpful tips on soil techniques, like double-digging garden beds.

About Soil

Good soil is crucial for a thriving garden. However, the rich, loose soil of perfect gardens seen on TV and in magazines is not a natural occurrence. It is a result of gardeners improving their original soil.

Soil types range from extremely dry, nutrient-poor sand to soil comprised of 90% rocks and 10% soil to thick, heavy clay that turns into a sticky, shoe-grabbing mess when wet and hardens like brick when dry. Luckily, most soil falls somewhere in between these extremes. Nonetheless, few homeowners have the ideal “rich garden loam” to work with.

You can amend soil by adding sand to make it looser and drier or clay to make it moister and firmer. You can also add organic matter like old leaves, ground-up twigs, rotted livestock manure, and old lawn clippings to enhance texture and structure. Organic matter nourishes any soil kind, encouraging better plant growth.

You can learn how to maximize the soil in your area by reviewing the tips below. The first step is to identify your garden conditions by having your soil tested.

Soil Testing

Prior to adding fertilizers and amendments to your garden soil, it is important to determine if you have a light and sandy soil, a moderate and productive soil, or a heavy clay soil by having your soil tested or conducting your own tests. It is recommended to follow the old advice, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” as unnecessary tampering with nutrients or soil acidity can create more problems than benefits.

Soil tests, similar to nutrient guides on packaged foods, provide information on the nutrient levels in your soil, as well as the pH and organic content, both of which are crucial factors for overall soil health.

© 2006 Publications International, Ltd.
To obtain a good soil sample, dig down 4 to 6 inches in several different locations.

To have your soil tested, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service, which can be found under state or county government in the phone book, to obtain a soil-testing kit, which includes a soil-collecting bag and instructions. Follow the directions precisely for accurate results, which may be presented as a chart full of numbers. The following key points can help interpret the results:

  • If the percentage of organic matter is less than 5 percent, additional compost is needed for the garden.
  • Nutrients will be listed separately, possibly in parts per million, and may also be rated as available in high, medium, or low levels. If any element is low, it is important to add a fertilizer that replaces what is lacking.
  • Soil pH measures the acidity of the soil. Ratings below 7 indicate acidic soils, while 6 to 7 is considered the most fertile pH range. Above 7 is alkaline or basic soil, which can become problematic above pH 8. Excessively acidic and alkaline soils can be treated to make them more moderate and productive.

    © 2006 Publications International, Ltd.
    Hand carry or mail the soil sample
    to the testing lab for analysis.

It is crucial to add only the necessary nutrients indicated by the soil test. Over-applying nutrients can lead to toxic results, similar to disease or worse. Purchase and apply only what is required, and save the rest of your money for a better use, such as more plants.

Determining pH Levels

It is always best to choose plants that thrive in the pH of your existing soil. If you must alter the pH, follow the guidelines below.

The pH level of soil can be adjusted by using different methods. Ground limestone can be used to increase the pH level of acidic soil. It is important to add limestone in the fall and not randomly, to avoid overdosing the soil. Home test kits or professional tests can be used to determine the soil’s pH. To lower the alkalinity and increase fertility, cottonseed meal, sulfur, pine bark, compost or pine needles can be added to limey and other soils with high pH levels. It is important to add these amendments as recommended in a soil test. Maintaining the new pH level is an ongoing process and the soil’s pH should be rechecked annually.

Checking the texture of soil is crucial for determining the plants that will grow well and how much care they will need. A simple test can be done at home by filling a jar with soil and water, adding a small amount of powdered dishwasher detergent and shaking the jar. The relative percentages of sand, silt and clay in the soil can be determined by measuring the amount of settled particles at different intervals.

Soil with a high percentage of sand tends to be well aerated but needs frequent watering and fertilization. Soil with a high percentage of clay retains moisture well and needs less watering, but requires the addition of compost to break up the density. Soil with equal percentages of sand, silt and clay is generally well-suited for gardening.

Drainage can also be tested to ensure that soil is not too compacted and allows for adequate water flow.

To test the drainage of your soil, you can dig a hole and fill it with water. By observing how quickly the water disappears, you can determine how efficiently moisture moves through the soil. This can help you determine if your soil is too dry or too wet, which both pose problems for plant growth.

To conduct this test, wait until it hasn’t rained for a week or more and the soil is dry. Then, dig several holes that are 1 foot deep and 2 feet wide. Fill them with water and time how long it takes for the holes to empty. You can compare your results to the following scale:

– 1 to 12 minutes: The soil is well-drained but may be too dry for some plants.

– 12 to 30 minutes: The soil has ideal drainage for most plants.

– 30 minutes to 4 hours: Drainage is slow but adequate for plants that require moist soil.

– More than 4 hours: Drainage is poor and needs improvement.

While this soil testing may seem like a lot of effort, it can greatly benefit plant growth if your soil is working at its full capacity.

Pay attention to the weeds growing in your garden and what they can tell you about your soil. Weeds are opportunistic and grow in any vacant soil. Different weeds prefer different types of soil, such as dandelions favoring fertile, heavy soil. Acidic soil can encourage crabgrass, plantains, sheep sorrel, and horsetails, while chamomile and goosefoot thrive in alkaline soil. Redroot pigweed, chickweed, dandelions, and wild mustard prefer fertile, near-neutral soils. By observing the weeds in your garden, you can learn important information about your soil. For example, if there are few weeds in a vacant area, the soil may need work, and if weeds are growing sparsely with discolored leaves, the soil may have nutrient deficiencies. If weeds sprout up quickly in certain areas, those areas may be moister and better for seed germination.

After understanding your soil, you can amend it to meet the needs of your plants. There are various ways to amend and improve soil, and the tips and techniques below can help. If your soil test shows a lack of certain nutrients, you should supplement the soil accordingly. Organic fertilizers can be used if the imbalance is slight, but if fast results are needed or the nutrient imbalance is significant, inorganic fertilizers should be used. Using a combination of both types can be a good compromise. Commercial plant foods are quick to feed, and organic fertilizers provide slow-feeding nutrients. Chemical fertilizers have a combination of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. The numbers on the bag indicate the percentage of each nutrient in the mix. For example, 5-10-5 contains 5% nitrogen, 10% phosphorous, and 5% potassium.

For more information on preparing your soil for planting, see the next page.

Preparing Soil

Each container of organic fertilizer lists the NPK formula, though the percentages of nutrients are lower compared to inorganic fertilizers. As a result, larger amounts of organic plant food are needed to achieve the same results. If there’s a deficiency in a single nutrient, fertilizers can be purchased separately. Consult with a Cooperative Extension office or garden center staff for assistance. While fertilizers are convenient, there are other ways to improve soil, such as adding sources of organic matter like compost, grass clippings, livestock manure, and shredded leaves.

your hand. If it forms a ball that holds together, it’s likely to have a high clay content. If it crumbles easily, it’s likely to be sandy. A soil that feels silky and holds together but crumbles easily when touched is ideal for gardening.

Looking for local compost? Contact your city or town hall service department or Cooperative Extension Service for information. Landscapers, nurseries, and bulk soil dealers may also have compost available. Don’t forget that yard scraps are often not accepted in landfills, so someone in your area may be composting them.

Plan ahead for bulky organic soil amendments, such as compost, manure, and leaves, which can temporarily raise soil levels as they decay. Keep soil low enough near houses or fences to avoid contact with non-rot-resistant materials. When planting around existing trees and shrubs, avoid covering the crown with organic material to prevent disease problems.

Before planting a new garden, till or spade a thick layer of compost into lightly moist soil to bring it to life. If starting with hard, compacted soil, break it up by spading it first and removing weed roots. Add a 4- to 6-inch-deep layer of compost to the soil and work it down until it’s 10 to 12 inches deep. This will improve soil texture and keep it loose.

To preserve the texture and organic content of thriving garden soils, try spading or no-till systems. Avoid repeated tilling, which breaks healthy soil clumps and speeds up decay. Check your soil texture by squeezing some lightly moist soil in your hand. A soil that feels silky and holds together but crumbles easily when touched is ideal for gardening.

Soil testing:

Prioritizing soil testing is crucial, especially when amending it. To determine the effectiveness of the amendment, take a small amount of lightly moist soil from several inches below the surface. Squeeze it into a ball in your hand and observe the changes when you extend your fingers. This will help you decide the extent of the amendment.

Sandy soils have a rough texture and tend to crumble easily. To improve sandy soil, add a layer of compost and a small amount of clay and mix thoroughly. Once enriched, the soil will hold together better.

Clay soils, on the other hand, have a smooth texture and form a tight ball that is difficult to break apart. To lighten clay soil, add compost and coarse sand. Keep adding until the soil is light enough to break apart easily.

If you want to grow roses, you’ll need to learn some soil techniques. Begin by marking out the boundaries of your garden bed with pegs and string, or a garden hose for curved edges. Use a spade to cut through the sod along the marked lines and remove it entirely. If there are any rocks in the area, remove them as you dig.

If the soil is sandy or loamy, using a rototiller may be possible instead of hand turning it, but clay and rocky soils require hand digging. For smaller planting areas, hand digging or using a spade is recommended. Once the soil is turned, rototilling can be done easily. If you don’t own a tiller, they can be rented or someone can be hired to till by the hour. Spread fertilizer, soil conditioners, and pH-adjusting chemicals over the area after turning the soil. Tilling can be done more deeply the second time to improve the soil to a depth of at least 6 inches. For smaller areas, turn and loosen soil by hand with a spade. Install a mowing strip around the garden bed to prevent grass and flowers from mixing. Allow the soil to stand unplanted for a week or more if possible and eradicate fast-germinating weeds with a scuffle hoe or cultivator. Double-digging can be done for deep-rooted plants like roses and perennials, but it requires a lot of manual labor. Remove a strip of soil a spade’s length deep and a spade’s width wide and turn the soil below it. Alternatively, use a garden fork to break up the hard lower soil and add organic matter if needed.

To prepare the second row of soil, repeat the same process as the first row. However, turn the top layer of soil into the first trench and add organic matter as needed. Then, loosen and improve the underlying soil. Keep filling each trench from the adjacent row and loosening the soil underneath. Use the soil from the wheelbarrow to fill the final strip. If you’re digging a hole or excavating a garden pool, pile the dug-out earth on a tarp instead of the grass. This will make it easier to remove excess soil and prevent clods from getting stuck in the turf. Don’t discard the soil, as it can be used to build a waterfall or fill a raised bed for herbs and vegetables. Raised beds are a great option for areas with poor or no soil. They can be made from pressure-treated wood, reinforced concrete, or bricks and should have a soil depth of at least 6 inches to allow for proper root growth.

One way to meet the soil requirements for a variety of plants is to use a rich loam mixture in some beds and a sandier, well-drained mix in others. Although this may seem expensive at first, the beds will last for years and be worth the initial investment. Vegetable gardens can have planting rows that are 6 to 8 inches high and 2 to 3 feet wide, while permanent and decorative gardens can be placed in raised-bed frames made of different materials, ranging from 4 inches to 4 feet high. It’s important to seek professional help for large building projects to ensure they are strong and durable. Using pressure-treated wood is not recommended for growing herbs or vegetables due to the presence of toxins. Mulching is an excellent way to improve soil health and enhance the appearance of your garden. Adding a layer of mulch to garden beds can reduce weed growth and the need for water, while also preventing evaporation from the soil surface. Depending on the desired look, organic mulches made of bark or compost can be used for a natural-looking garden, while bright gravel can create a vibrant look. Fine-textured mulches, such as twice-shredded bark and compost, work best for thin layers, while thicker layers of coarse-textured mulches, such as straw or bark chunks, can create an airy feel. It’s important to avoid using colored mulch or beauty bark and not to apply fine-textured mulches in thick layers that can suffocate the soil.

The article provides tips on how to improve the quality of soil for gardening. One method involves using newspaper to kill off unwanted vegetation and add organic matter to the soil. Woody mulch, such as shredded bark, should be accompanied by extra nitrogen to prevent soil depletion. Mulching new plants with straw or chopped leaves can also prevent root damage during winter. Adding a thick layer of mulch and allowing it to decompose can release minerals into the soil and make it more fertile. Mulching in winter with straw or evergreen boughs can protect plants from frost heaving and winter burn. Snow is also an effective natural mulch. By following these tips and putting in some hard work, gardeners can achieve beautiful and bountiful gardens.


1. What is the first step in preparing soil for planting?

The first step in preparing soil for planting is to remove any weeds, rocks, or other debris from the area. This will ensure that the soil is clean and ready for planting. You can use a garden rake or hoe to remove any weeds or rocks, and a garden trowel to dig up any large roots.

2. Should I test my soil before planting?

Yes, it is a good idea to test your soil before planting. You can purchase a soil test kit at your local garden center or online. The test will tell you the pH level of your soil, as well as the levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. This information will help you determine what type of fertilizer to use.

3. How do I improve soil drainage?

To improve soil drainage, you can add organic matter such as compost, manure, or peat moss to the soil. This will help to break up heavy clay soils and improve the soil’s ability to drain water. You can also create raised beds to improve drainage in areas with poor soil drainage.

4. How do I know if my soil is too acidic?

You can test the pH level of your soil to determine if it is too acidic. Most plants prefer a pH level between 6.0 and 7.0. If your soil is too acidic, you can add lime to raise the pH level. Be sure to follow the instructions on the lime package carefully, as adding too much lime can be harmful to plants.

5. How often should I fertilize my soil?

The frequency of fertilizing will depend on the type of plants you are growing and the condition of your soil. Generally, it is recommended to fertilize your soil once or twice a year. You can use a slow-release fertilizer or a liquid fertilizer, depending on your preference.

6. Can I plant directly into the ground or should I use raised beds?

You can plant directly into the ground if the soil is in good condition. However, if the soil is poor quality or has drainage issues, it is recommended to use raised beds. Raised beds can also be beneficial for people who have difficulty bending over to garden.

7. How do I prevent weeds from growing in my soil?

To prevent weeds from growing in your soil, you can use a weed barrier such as landscape fabric or mulch. You can also pull weeds as soon as they appear to prevent them from spreading and taking over your garden.

8. Should I till my soil before planting?

Tilling can be beneficial for breaking up compacted soil and incorporating organic matter. However, over-tilling can damage soil structure and harm beneficial microorganisms. It is recommended to only till your soil when necessary and to avoid tilling when the soil is wet.

9. How do I know if my soil is too sandy?

Sandy soil drains quickly and does not hold moisture well. You can test your soil by grabbing a handful and squeezing it. If the soil falls apart easily, it is likely too sandy. To improve sandy soil, you can add organic matter such as compost or peat moss to help retain moisture and nutrients.

10. Can I plant different plants in the same soil?

Yes, you can plant different plants in the same soil. However, it is important to consider the nutrient requirements of each plant and to rotate your crops to prevent soil-borne diseases. It is also recommended to group plants with similar water and sun requirements together.

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