Tips for Healthy Garden Soil

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Lawn & Garden

Children might consider dirt a bad thing when scolded for running into the house with dirty shoes, but outdoors, dirt is crucial for gardening.

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Transform dirt into soil, which is a mixture of animal, vegetable, and mineral material. Good soil is essential for a great garden. Gardeners improve native soils by amending them with sand or clay and adding organic material like old leaves, twigs, livestock manure, and lawn clippings. Organic matter nourishes any type of soil and encourages better plant growth.

The best way to make the most of your soil is to select plants adapted to your soil type and environment. Here are some tips to help you choose native plants:

  • Use plants adapted to the conditions outside your door. Native plants or less common plants from areas with similar conditions are excellent options.
  • Identify your garden conditions, including soil type, sunlight exposure, and climate zone. Find plants that thrive in these conditions by checking nursery catalogs and gardening books.
  • Use the United States Department of Agriculture hardiness zone map to determine winter coldness in your area. Make a list of plants that thrive in all the elements specific to your yard.

Knowing your soil type is crucial for making the right plant choices. Learn how to test your soil on the next page.

Understanding Your Garden Weeds

Take note of the weeds in your garden and use them to gain insight into the soil conditions. Weeds, being opportunistic, grow in any available space in the soil. Dandelions, for example, are native to Eurasia and have successfully invaded America by taking advantage of any vacant soil. However, different weeds prefer different types of soil.

If you pay close attention to the weeds in your garden, you can learn important information about the soil. Crabgrass, plantains, sheep sorrel, and horsetails prefer acidic soil while chamomile and goosefoot thrive in alkaline soil. Redroot pigweed, chickweed, dandelions, and wild mustard prefer fertile near-neutral soils.

Even if you can’t identify the weeds, you can still gather valuable information. If an area has few weeds growing, the soil may need work. If the weeds are sparse and have short, stunted stems and discolored leaves, the area may lack nutrients and require a soil test. If weeds grow more quickly in certain areas, those areas may be moister and better for seed germination.

Looking for more gardening tips? Check out:

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  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Testing Your Soil

Before adding fertilizers or amendments to your garden soil, it’s essential to determine the soil type. Soil tests reveal the nutrient levels, pH, and organic content of the soil. It’s crucial to avoid unnecessary tampering with nutrients or soil acidity, which can create more problems than benefits.

Soil tests are like nutrient guides on packaged foods, and they help to ensure overall smooth sailing from the ground up. Follow these tips to test your soil.

To obtain a soil testing kit, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service which can be found in the phone book under federal or county government. The kit contains a soil collecting bag and instructions which should be followed precisely for accurate results. The results may appear as a chart full of numbers, which may seem overwhelming at first. However, by looking for certain indicators, you can begin to interpret the numbers. For instance, if the percentage of organic matter is less than 5 percent, your garden may require additional compost. Nutrients will be listed separately and may be rated in parts per million or as being available in high, medium, or low levels. If one or two elements are low, you may need to add a fertilizer that replaces what is lacking. Soil pH refers to the soil’s acidity level, with ratings below 7 indicating acidic soil, ratings between 6 and 7 indicating slightly acidic and the most fertile pH range, and ratings above 7 indicating alkaline or basic soil which may become infertile above pH 8. Extremely acidic or alkaline soils can be treated to improve their productivity. Only add the nutrients that your soil test indicates are necessary. It is not always better to add more plant nutrients. Overuse of any one nutrient can have toxic effects, similar to those of diseases or worse. Only purchase what is required and save the rest of your money for other uses, such as buying more plants.

To check the texture of your soil, fill a quart glass jar with a 1-inch layer of pulverized soil mixed well with a little over a cup of water and 1/4 teaspoon of powdered dishwasher detergent. Shake the jar for a minute and let it sit undisturbed. After a minute, mark the level of settled sand particles with a crayon or wax pencil. Set an alarm for 4 hours and mark the next level of settled silt particles. Over the next day or two, the clay will settle and allow you to take the final measurement. These measurements determine the soil’s texture and relative percentages of sand, silt, and clay. Soil with a high percentage of sand is well aerated and ready for planting early in spring, but it needs more watering and fertilization. Soil with more than 35 percent clay retains more moisture and needs less watering in summer. Soil with equal percentages of sand, silt, and clay is well suited for gardening.

To test soil drainage, 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. Sharp drainage takes 1 to 12 minutes, ideal drainage takes 12 to 30 minutes, slow but adequate drainage takes 30 minutes to 4 hours, and poor drainage takes over 4 hours. Knowing your soil type helps you create the best soil possible for your environment.

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Improve Your Soil Quality

Soil comes in different types, from sandy to clay, and with varying drainage levels. However, most soil can be improved to create a thriving garden. Here are some tips to help you improve your soil quality.

  • Use ground limestone to raise the pH of acidic soil. Limestone neutralizes overly acidic soil and is best added in the fall to allow enough time for it to start working. You can determine the amount of limestone to use by using home test kits or seeking professional help. Avoid overdosing the soil with lime by following guidelines on the limestone package or soil test. Re-check the soil’s pH every year and continue to add limestone as needed.

    To lower the alkalinity and increase the fertility of limestone and other soils with high pH, add cottonseed meal, sulfur, pine bark, compost, or pine needles. Garden sulfur is a reliable cure when added as recommended in a soil test. Soil amendments such as compost, decaying pine bark, and ground-up pine needles gradually acidify the soil while improving its texture.

  • Test your soil by feel before and after amending it to judge the extent of the change. A small handful of lightly moist soil taken from several inches below the surface can give you a rough idea of the soil’s type. Sandy soil will fall apart, while clay soil will form a tight ball that’s not easily broken up. Enrich sandy soil by applying a several-inch layer of compost and even an inch or two of clay. Lighten clay soil by adding extra compost and coarse sand.

Regardless of your soil type, you can continue to improve it by regularly adding organic matter. Learn more in the next section.

The article discusses various sources of specific nutrients that can be added to soil to encourage better plant growth. These sources include livestock manure, bat guano, bonemeal, rock phosphate, sulfate of potash, and more. The article also provides tips for adding organic matter to soil, such as using mulch and adding extra nitrogen to prevent decay from consuming soil nitrogen that plants need for growth. Overall, the article aims to help gardeners improve their soil and ultimately achieve healthier plants.

  • Obtain locally-made compost from your city or town hall service department, which is typically created from leaves and grass clippings collected as a public service. For local residents, the compost may be free or reasonably priced. To locate other large-scale composters, consult with the nearest Cooperative Extension Service, as they are knowledgeable about these matters. Alternatively, try contacting landscapers and nurseries, which may compost fall leaves or stable leftovers for their customers, as well as bulk soil dealers, who may sell straight compost or premium topsoil blended with compost. Do not give up, as yard scraps are prohibited or discouraged in many American landfills, indicating that someone close to you is composting them.
  • Plan ahead for bulky organic soil amendments such as compost, manures, and leaves, which may be added by the wheelbarrow-load to enhance the soil. This will elevate the soil level, at least temporarily. As the organic matter decomposes, the soil level will decrease.
  • If soils rich in organic matter drop to expose the top of a newly planted shrub or tree roots, add more soil or organic matter to keep the roots under cover.
  • If your garden is adjacent to a house or fence, keep the soil level low enough to avoid contact with wooden siding or fencing that is not resistant to rot.
  • When planting around existing trees, shrubs, and perennial flowers, avoid covering the crown, where stems emerge from the ground, with organic material to prevent disease problems.
  • The location of your garden and how frequently you till your soil may also impact its quality. Learn how garden maintenance may improve your soil on the next page.

    Sources of Organic MatterValuable organic matter is available in a variety of shapes and sizes. Here are some of the most common:

    • Compost
    • Livestock manure
    • Straw Grass clippings
    • Salt hay
    • Shredded bark
    • Bark chunks
    • Shredded leaves
    • Seedless weeds
    • Peat moss
    • Kitchen vegetable scraps
    • Mushroom compost
    • Agricultural remains such as peanut hulls or ground corn cobs

    Need more gardening advice? Check out:

    • Gardening Tips: Learn effective suggestions for all of your gardening requirements.
    • Annuals: Plant these lovely flowers in your garden.
    • Perennials: Pick outstanding plants that will return year after year.
    • Gardening: Discover how to grow a garden.

    Maintain Your Garden

    The location of your garden, how you till your soil, and many other factors can have a dramatic impact on your soil. These tips should help you tend to your soil the right way.

    The following tips are recommended for maintaining healthy soil in your garden:

    – Avoid walking on wet soil, especially clay soil, as it compresses the soil particles and reduces oxygen flow. Use walkways or stepping stones to keep your shoes clean and dry, and cover the soil with a board when planting.

    – Till or spade compost into lightly moist soil to bring it to life before planting. If the soil is hard and compacted, use a rototiller to break it up, and remove weed roots and other vegetation. Add organic matter, such as compost, to keep the soil loose and light.

    – To preserve the texture and organic content of thriving garden soils, try spading or no-till systems instead of repeated tilling. Loosen rich soil by turning the surface shallowly with a shovel and breaking it apart with a smack from the shovel backside.

    – Double-dig garden beds to make high-performance gardens for deep-rooted plants. This requires physical labor, but it’s a great option to break up compacted soil and create a healthy growing environment.

    By following these tips, you can maintain healthy soil in your garden and promote optimal plant growth.

    To double-dig your garden, you’ll need to put in a lot of manual labor and have a stiff upper lip, according to the British. It’s best to work on it in small sections to avoid overexertion, or hire a professional landscaper if you have health restrictions. Start with an empty area of soil that has been cleared of grass and other plants. Begin at one end of the garden and remove a strip of soil one spade length deep and one spade width wide. Put it in a wheelbarrow and use your shovel to turn the soil below it, which is usually the heaviest part of the job, and break it up. Alternatively, you can use a garden fork to break up the hard lower soil. If you need to add organic matter, do so at this point. Follow the same procedure for the second strip of soil next to the first, but turn the topsoil into the first trench and add organic matter as desired. Then loosen and amend the exposed subsurface soil. Continue filling each trench from the adjacent row and loosening the soil below. Fill the final strip with soil from the wheelbarrow.

  • If the soil is too rocky, poor, or wet for plants to grow well, build raised beds instead. Instead of trying to change these unfavorable conditions, create a great garden bed over them. In vegetable gardens, simply mound up planting rows 6 to 8 inches high and 2 to 3 feet wide. You can walk in the paths beside the planting rows without compressing the raised soil. Permanent and decorative gardens can be set up in attractive raised bed frames made of timbers, logs, rocks, or bricks and varying from 4 inches to 4 feet high. For large building projects that require sturdy structures to last, don’t hesitate to seek professional assistance.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of your soil! Follow the advice in this article to make the most of your soil and create the garden you’ve always desired.

    Interested in more gardening suggestions? Check out:

    • Gardening Tips: Learn helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
    • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
    • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
    • Gardening: Discover how to garden.


    1. What kind of soil is best for a vegetable garden?

    The best soil for a vegetable garden is a loamy soil that is well-drained and rich in organic matter. Loamy soil has a balanced mix of sand, silt, and clay particles, which makes it ideal for plant growth. It is important to avoid soil that is too sandy or too clayey, as these types of soil can be difficult for plants to grow in. Adding compost or other organic matter to the soil can improve its structure and fertility, which will help your vegetables thrive.

    2. How often should I water my garden soil?

    The frequency with which you should water your garden soil depends on a variety of factors, including the type of soil, the weather conditions, and the plants you are growing. As a general rule, it is better to water your garden deeply and infrequently, rather than giving it frequent shallow waterings. This allows the water to penetrate deeply into the soil, encouraging deeper root growth and making your plants more drought-resistant. You should aim to keep the soil consistently moist, but not waterlogged, throughout the growing season.

    3. Can I reuse soil from last year’s garden?

    Yes, you can reuse soil from last year’s garden, but it is important to amend it with fresh compost or other organic matter to replenish its nutrients. Reusing soil can save you money and reduce waste, but it can also increase the risk of soil-borne diseases and pests. To minimize this risk, it is a good idea to rotate your crops each year, and to avoid planting the same vegetables in the same spot for consecutive years.

    4. How can I improve the drainage in my garden soil?

    If your garden soil is too wet and poorly drained, you can improve its drainage by adding organic matter, such as compost or leaf mold, and by creating raised beds or mounds. Raised beds and mounds allow excess water to drain away from the plant roots, and they also provide better aeration and soil structure. Another option is to install drainage tiles or French drains, which can help to channel excess water away from your garden area.

    5. What is the best way to test my garden soil?

    The best way to test your garden soil is to have it analyzed by a professional soil testing service. Soil tests can provide valuable information about the pH level, nutrient content, and texture of your soil, which can help you determine which plants are best suited for your garden and how to fertilize your soil effectively. You can also purchase at-home soil testing kits, but these may not be as accurate as a professional analysis.

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