Best vegetable garden soil

How to Make Good Garden Soil: A Step-by-Step Guide

The energizing sunlight shining down on leaves. The nourishing water soaking into roots. The nutrient-rich fertilizer spread in garden beds. A lot goes into helping plants grow and thrive.

At the base of it all is the soil. Good soil lays the groundwork for healthy plant growth. But, more often than not, the unaltered soil you find out in your yard hasn’t quite gotten to “good” yet. Most yard soil doesn’t have quite the right texture or enough organic matter like compost or manure to effectively grow plants.

So how can you turn your current yard’s soil into a nutrient-rich plant-growing machine? Keep on reading for a step-by-step guide to creating good garden soil.

How to make good garden soil (step-by-step)

Without the right blend of soil beneath them, plants have a hard time growing. And in the worst case, they can die from a lack of key materials in the soil. Save time, money and your plants by giving them a good foundation from the start.

If you’ve never had your yard flagged for underground utilities, start there. Creating garden soil requires you to dig into your yard with a tiller or shovel, and both of those tools can damage underground pipelines. This important step will let you know if you need to rethink your planting spot.

Now, onto the steps to making good garden soil:

  1. First up, test your soil with a kit from your local county extension office, if available, or your local garden center. Soil tests are a gardener’s trusted sidekick. They provide background on the makeup of your yard’s soil, the amount of organic material the soil currently has and the soil’s pH. Knowing these things helps you pinpoint the materials you need to make the soil the best environment for your plants.
  2. Based on soil test results, decide on the organic matter you’ll use as additives for the soil. You can also start a compost pile on your own. If the soil test showed that your soil’s pH is off balance, consult with your local Extension office.
  3. Check your soil’s moisture level before getting started. Grab a handful of soil and ball your hand into a fist. If the soil crumbles through your fingers, it’s A-Okay. If it forms into a ball, it’s too drenched to work with and needs a few days to dry. Never try to work on wet soil—you’ll end up with a clogged up, compacted mess that’s no good for planting.
  4. Once the soil is ready, clear out any weeds or debris from the garden bed.
  5. Next up, it’s time to till. Start from one corner of the garden and work your electric tiller* to the other side, tilling about 10-12 inches deep. Add in the organic materials and till again to mix them in.
  6. Lastly, rake the garden bed to level it out, and water the soil thoroughly.

*A quick note: An electric tiller makes this job much easier, but if you don’t have one, handy-dandy garden tools will also do the trick. Use the double digging method to mix soil by hand if you don’t have access to these tools. More info below…

Double Digging Method (Step-By-Step)

  1. Spread some organic matter over the garden. Then, dig a hole about 10-15 inches deep, and set that pile of soil aside.
  2. Loosen up the soil in the hole with a garden fork, digging in another 10 inches or so. sprinkle in some of the organic material.
  3. Dig a second hole right next to the first, and fill the first hole with soil from the second.
  4. Loosen the soil and add organic matter to the second hole.
  5. Keep digging holes down the garden following the same process—dig, refill the previous hole, loosen and sprinkle. When you get to the last hole at the end of the garden, fill it with the soil from the first hole.
  6. Finish the job off with raking and watering

Understanding different garden soil types

Most soil looks about the same, whether it’s spread out in a vegetable garden or packed into a container plant. But, different types of soil have different uses.

  • Topsoil is simply the top layer of soil found in your yard before you mix in organic matter. It has a range of textures, from sand soil to clay soil.
  • Garden soil usually refers to topsoil that’s been enriched with organic matter.
  • Potting soil is a little misleading in that it’s actually not soil at all. The base used for container plants is a mixture of airy materials like peat moss, perlite, and bark dust.

Garden soil: additional tips and tricks

Compacted soil can cause problems as you try to establish a new garden. Here’s how to get rid of compacted soil before it becomes a huge problem.

Ready to jump into gardening? It can be daunting at first, but gardening is an incredibly rewarding hobby to get into. Our Vegetable Gardening Guide for Beginners will help you to plan and grow your tastiest vegetables ever. Find out how much food you need to grow to feed a family, top 10 vegetables for a beginner, and more tips.

Vegetable Gardening for Beginners

Why garden, you ask? If you’ve never tasted garden-fresh vegetables (lots of people haven’t!), you will be amazed by the sweet, juicy flavors and vibrant textures. There’s absolutely nothing quite like fresh veggies, especially if you grow them yourself—which you can!

In this guide, we’ll highlight the basics of vegetable gardening and planning: how to pick the right site for your garden, how to create the right size garden, and how to select which vegetables to grow.

Pick the Right Location

Picking a good location for your garden is absolutely key. A sub-par location can result in sub-par veggies! Here are a few tips for choosing a good site:

  1. Plant in a sunny location. Most vegetables need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day. The more sunlight they receive, the greater the harvest, the bigger the veggies, and the better the taste.
  2. Plant in good soil. Plants’ roots penetrate soft soil more easily, so you need nice loamy soil. Enriching your soil with compost provides needed nutrients. Proper drainage will ensure that water neither collects on top nor drains away too quickly.
  3. Plant in a stable environment. You don’t want to plant in a place that’s prone to flooding during heavy rains, or in a place that tends to dry out a lot. You also don’t want to plant somewhere where strong winds could knock over your young plants or keep pollinators from doing their job. Plant in a location that would make Goldilocks proud.

Choosing a Plot Size: Start Small!

Remember: It’s better to be proud of a small garden than be frustrated by a big one!

One of the most common errors that beginners make is planting too much too soon—way more than anybody could ever eat or want! Unless you want to have zucchini taking up residence in your attic, plan your garden with care. Start small, and only grow what you know you’ll eat.

A good-size beginner vegetable garden is about 16×10 feet (or smaller) and features crops that are easy to grow. A plot this size, based on the vegetables suggested further down this page, can feed a family of four for one summer, with a little leftover for canning and freezing (or giving away to jealous neighbors).

Make your garden 11 rows wide, with each row 10 feet long. The rows should run north and south to take full advantage of the sun.

Vegetables that may yield more than one crop per season include beans, beets, carrots, cabbage, kohlrabi, lettuce, radishes, rutabagas, spinach, and turnips.

(Note: If this garden is too large for your needs, you do not have to plant all 11 rows, or you can simply make the rows shorter.)

How to Grow the Best Vegetables

In addition to choosing the right location, here are a few tips that will help you grow your best veggies yet:

  1. Space your crops properly. For example, corn needs a lot of space and can overshadow shorter vegetables. Plants set too close together compete for sunlight, water, and nutrition; are more susceptible to disease and pests; and fail to mature. Pay attention to the spacing guidance on seed packets and plant tabs.
  2. Use high-quality seeds. Seed packets are less expensive than individual plants, but if seeds don’t germinate, your money—and time—are wasted. A few extra cents spent in spring for that year’s seeds will pay off in higher yields at harvesttime. See a list of of mail-order seed catalogs here.
  3. Water properly. Watering your plants the correct amount—neither too much nor too little—will give them the best chance at producing well-formed, mature vegetables. Learn more about watering vegetables.
  4. Plant and harvest at the right time, not too early or too late. Every vegetable has its own planting dates so be sure to check the seed packet. See the Almanac’s Best Planting Dates—a gardening calendar customized to your local frost dates.

Suggested Plants for a Beginner’s Vegetable Garden

The vegetables suggested below are common, productive plants that are relatively easy to grow. It would be wise to contact your state’s Cooperative Extension Service to find out what plants grow best in your area, and when the best time for planting them is. Think about what you like to eat as well as what’s difficult to find in a grocery store or farmers’ market.

Top Ten Vegetables
(Tip: Click on a veggie’s name to see its detailed Growing Guide.)

  1. Tomatoes
  2. Zucchini squash
  3. Peppers
  4. Cabbage
  5. Bush beans
  6. Lettuce
  7. Beets
  8. Carrots
  9. Chard
  10. Radishes
  11. (Bonus) Marigolds to discourage pests and add some color!

Make Planning Easy: Use the Almanac Garden Planner!

Create a smarter, more productive garden. Use the online Almanac Garden Planner—now the #1 Garden Planner on the planet. Check it out here:

In minutes, you can draw your garden plan on your computer. We’ve done all the research for you!

The Garden Planner automatically pulls in the frost dates for your location! Also, it shows you how many plants fit in your space so you don’t waste seed or crowd your plants!

Plus, you’ll see many free garden plans for inspiration, as well as growing guides for more than 250 vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers.

Try the Almanac Garden Planner for free here. You’ll have ample time to plan your first garden, and if you like it, you can subscribe.

Any questions? Ask us in the comments below!

Soil preparation is EVERYTHING when it comes to growing plants. You can improve your soil at any time of year, but the end of the growing season is an especially good time. Here are tips on how to identify your soil type and how to enrich your soil before you plant in the spring.

Why Does Having Good Soil Matter?

There’s a lot more to soil than just dirt and rocks! Soil is full of minerals, microbes, and other microscopic things that plants need to survive. Plants ;root into soil simply as a means to stay upright, but also soil is a plant’s primary source of nutrients and water. Having high-quality soil is critical for healthy plant growth. Compare it to the food you eat to live a healthy life!

All vegetables need soil that contains nutrients, but some soil needs a helping hand to get to an adequate point. Here are key things to keep in mind when building healthy soil:

Get a Soil Test

Before adding anything to your garden soil, test it to see what’s already there.

There are a few ways to get a soil test.

  1. First, you could buy an inexpensive soil test kit at your local garden store.
  2. Or, you could contact your local cooperative extension service office for a soil test (usually provided for free or a small fee).

For more reading, see this gardening blog about a resource that provides soil types around the country.

Why a Soil pH Matters

  • Knowing your soil’s pH helps you to decide what to grow in it. For example, particularly acidic soil is great for acid lovers like blueberries, while soil with a higher, or alkaline pH is preferred by brassicas such as cabbage.
  • Knowing whether your soil is acidic, neutral or alkaline will allow you to tailor your amendments or fertilizers based on what your soil actually needs, and prevent you from overloading it with any particular nutrient.
  • Soil pH also affects the availability of nutrients and minerals in the soil, as well as how well a plant can absorb and regulate these materials. ;A very high or very low soil pH may result in nutrient deficiency or toxicity, leading to poor plant growth—or worse!
  • While test results should reveal the soil’s pH, phosphorus, calcium, potassium, soluble salts, soil texture, it will not reveal insects, diseases, or chemical residues.

Ideal Soil pH

  • The standard pH scale ranges from 0 to 14, with 7 being “neutral,” 0 being “extremely acidic,” and 14 being “extremely alkaline” (or “basic”). Generally, soil pH doesn’t reach the upper and lower limits of the pH scale; most garden soils will fall somewhere between 5 and 9 on the scale.
  • For most plants, the ideal pH range is between 6.0 and 6.5 (slightly acidic). Microbial activity is greatest and plant roots access nutrients best when the soil pH is within this range (see chart, below). However, different plants are able to tolerate different pH ranges. Find a list of common garden plants and their pH preferences here.

Availability of Nutrients at Varying pH Values

This chart shows the availability of nutrients at different pH levels. Slightly acidic soil (6.0–6.5 pH) is best for most plants. Image by CoolKoom/Wikimedia.

Adjusting Soil pH

After testing your soil, you may find that the soil pH isn’t within the ideal range of 6.0–6.5. For example, perhaps your soil is too acidic for cabbage.You need to raise soil pH so it’s more alkaline. To get it into the ideal range, you’ll need to add “soil amendments” that raise or lower the pH. (Follow instructions on product packaging to know how much to use.)

  • To raise soil pH, add lime (pulverized limestone) or wood ash.
  • To lower soil pH, add sulfur, peat, or organic materials (such as compost).

Know Your N-P-K

Plants’ primary nutrients are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). These are available in chemical/synthetic (non-organic) fertilizers or in the organic additives suggested here. On the package of a fertilizer, you’ll see these three values separated by dashes (N-P-K); the numbers of each nutrient indicate the percentage of net weight contained.

  • Nitrogen (N) promotes strong leaf and stem growth and a dark green color, such as desired in broccoli, cabbage, greens and lettuce, and herbs. Add aged manure to the soil and apply alfalfa meal or seaweed, fish, or blood meal to increase available nitrogen.
  • Phosphorus (P) promotes root and early plant growth, including setting blossoms and developing fruit, and seed formation; it’s important for cucumbers, peppers, squash, tomatoes—any edible that develops after a flower has been pollinated. Add (fast-acting) bonemeal or (slow-release) rock phosphate to increase phosphorus.
  • Potassium (K) promotes plant root vigor, disease and stress resistance, and enhances flavor; it’s vital for carrots, radishes, turnips, and onions and garlic. Add greensand, wood ashes, gypsum, or kelp to increase potassium.

Learn more about NPK Ratio: What Do Those Numbers Mean?

Avoid applying excess chemical/synthetic fertilizer. It can damage roots and/or reduce the availability of other elements. Because organic fertilizers release their benefits more slowly, they are less likely to burn plants, although some, such as fresh manure, can do so. Once the nutrients are in the soil in an available form, plants cannot distinguish between synthetic and organic fertilizers. Organic fertilizers, however, tend to also improve soil structure and encourage earthworms and microorganisms that improve overall soil health.

When is a good time to fertilize your vegetables? See our Growing Vegetables Guide.

Soil Structure and Drainage

The structure and consistency of your soil plays a big factor in the success of your garden, too. Soil that hold too much water can promote fungal infections such as root rot, while soil that holds too little water can lead to malnourished and dehydrated plants.

Most soils tend towards one of four categories: sand, silt, clay, or loam (which has a balance of sand, silt and clay). Each soil type has its own characteristics.

  • Sandy soils consists of large particles and drains quickly. Sand does not hold onto nutrients very well but warms up quickly in spring. Root crops, onions and asparagus will all grow well in sandy soil. Or, to amend sandy soil to grow other vegetables, add humus or aged manure, peat moss, or sawdust with some extra nitrogen.
  • Silt soils have smaller particles than sandy soils, giving them a slightly slippery, floury feel. This type of soil holds onto moisture and nutrients for longer. If you have silt soil, add coarse sand (not fine beach sand), pea gravel and compost, or well-rotted horse manure mixed with fresh straw.
  • Clay (or heavy) soils consist of very fine particles. Clay soil holds its shape when rolled into a ball. It is slow both to absorb moisture and to drain, which means soils like this can bake hard in summer then become waterlogged in winter. Well-cultivated clay soils are preferred by brassicas such as cabbage, as well as beans, peas and leafy crops like salads. To amend clay soil, add coarse sand (not fine beach sand), compost, and peat moss to add texture and drainage to the soil.
  • Loam is the ideal soil type for growing fruits and vegetables. It’s fertile, drains well, is easy to work and contains plenty of organic matter that supports just about any crop.

Common Soil Amendments

Adding organic matter will generally move pH towards a level ideal for most fruits and vegetables. So, all soil types can be improved by adding organic matter to it. Organic matter can take many forms, for example leafmold made from decomposed leaves; farmyard manure that can be guaranteed to be free of all traces of herbicides; or good old-fashioned garden-made compost.

These soil amendments are commonly used to adjust the consistency and content of garden soil:

  • Bark, ground: made from various tree barks. Improves soil structure.
  • Compost: excellent soil conditioner that adds nutrients. May also lower soil pH.
  • Leaf mold: decomposed leaves that add nutrients and structure to soil.
  • Lime: raises the pH of acidic soil and helps to loosen clay soil.
  • Manure: best if composted. Good conditioner.
  • Peat moss: conditioner that helps soil retain water and can lower soil pH.
  • Sand: improves drainage in clay soil.
  • Topsoil: usually used with another amendment. Replaces existing soil.

How to Add Organic Matter

To add organic matter to your soil, pour enough on your ground in order to spread to a depth of a least two inches. Leave it on the surface over the winter. That’s it!

By the spring, worms will have done a great job of incorporating most of that organic matter into the soil.

Any remaining on the surface can always be forked in a few weeks before it’s time to sow or plant.

Now that you know the importance of high-quality soil, you’re ready to grow your best garden yet!

Got an over-spent or neglected field you want to turn into a garden? Read our article about reclaiming your garden soil.

How to Prepare Garden Soil for Planting

By Ann Whitman, Suzanne DeJohn, The National Gardening Association

The biggest mistake beginning gardeners make is using lousy or too-thin soil. Before planting anything in your yard, prepare your garden beds by digging to loosen the soil and adding organic material! This prep work can save you untold disappointment and, perhaps more than any other factor, assure a bountiful and delicious harvest.

If you’re working with a brand-new garden (or one that fell fallow and you’re bringing it back to life), you can stake it and get it ready the autumn before you plan to plant. This act gives the soil and the amendments you’ve added time to settle and meld. It also means you have less work to do next spring.

If a fall start isn’t possible or practical, go ahead and prepare the ground in spring — but don’t start too early. If the ground is still semi-frozen or soggy, digging in the soil can compact it and harm its structure. How do you tell whether it’s ready to be worked in? Grab a handful and squeeze — it should fall apart, not form a mud ball.

Follow these steps when preparing your soil:

  1. Dig deep.

    Most plants are content with 6 to 8 inches of good ground for their roots to grow in.

    If you’re planning to grow substantial root crops (potatoes, say, or carrots), go deeper still — up to a foot or more (yes, you can use a technique called hilling, where you mound up good soil around crops like potatoes, but this method doesn’t excuse your making a shallow vegetable garden).

  2. Fill ‘er up.

    Add lots and lots of organic matter! Try using compost, dehydrated cow manure, shredded leaves, well-rotted horse manure (call nearby stables), or a mixture. If your yard happens to be blessed with fertile soil, adding organic matter is less crucial, but most soils can stand the improvement. Mix it with the native soil, 50-50, or even more liberally.

Maybe your area’s soil is notoriously acidic, or very sandy, or quite obviously lousy for plant growth. The good news is that organic matter can be like a magic bullet in that it helps improve whatever you add it to. You have to replenish the organic matter at the start of every growing season or maybe even more often. (If the soil stubbornly resists improvement, resort to setting raised beds atop it and filling these bottomless boxes with excellent, organically rich soil.)

From your house to the White House a home vegetable garden is the hottest trend today

It’s official; food gardening is the hottest trend in home gardening right now, for several reasons. Obviously the economy has a lot of us looking for ways to reduce our grocery bills and growing your own can save big money compared to grocery store prices. In addition, we want to know that the food we’re putting in our bodies is as healthy as possible. And the best part is, homegrown food simply tastes better than anything you can buy at the store.

If you’re like the other 21 million people in North America who will be starting a vegetable garden this year for the first time, chances are, a few time-tested tips will come in handy to ensure success. Even seasoned veterans don’t tire of being reminded of the most essential steps to a bountiful garden.

A home vegetable garden is easy to start and doesn’t require as much effort as one might think to keep it growing strong. Following a few simple steps will ensure you’re enjoying the fruits of your labor in no time.

Location is key

Most vegetable plants do best in full sun. Find a location that gets at least six hours of it each day if possible. In order to provide the most sun exposure to all your plants, place the tallest ones, such as corn, indeterminate tomatoes or pole beans on the north or west side so they do not shade the smaller plants.

It’s all about the soil

The best soil suitable for vegetables includes lots of compost and organic matter such as composted leaves and ground or shredded, aged bark. Whatever you’re starting with, incorporate enough organic material so that the amended soil is neither sandy nor compacted.

When the mix is right, it will bind together when you squeeze it but breaks apart easily when disturbed. This soil is full of living microorganisms that help feed your plants. Water will be sufficiently retained and yet won’t saturate the soil either.

Water wisely

For most vegetable plants, one inch of water per week, which includes any natural rainfall, is adequate . The most efficient and productive way to irrigate is by using soaker hoses and drip lines. These deliver water slowly, on target allowing roots time to absorb the moisture and soil to adequately hydrate and helps keep foliage dry. Wet foliage for extended periods can promote diseases. Automatic timers are a great way to take the effort and worry out of this all important step.

Use Mulch

Add a three-inch layer of any organic mulch around your plants and over the irrigation lines if possible. Mulch will insulate the soil, helping to keep it cooler in summer and warmer in winter. It also helps retain moisture, suppress weeds and acts as a protective barrier from diseases splashing up onto the plants from the soil. And besides, mulch looks great in the garden.

Knowing the source of your mulch is as important as using it. Especially in a vegetable garden. Some mulches can contain unacceptable amounts of harmful chemicals. Although there is no such certification for bulk mulch as yet the non-profit organization, The Mulch and Soil Council, certifies bagged mulches and soils to be free of any harmful ingredients. Look for their seal on the bag or ask your bulk mulch supplier if they know the source of their mulch.

Use patience with pest control

Although pests are usually a given at some point in any vegetable garden, by exercising patience, nature will usually take care of the problem. After all, of all the insects in your garden only about 3% are actually harmful pests. As long as you practice the steps mentioned so far, you’ve already taken adequate measures to promote the growth of healthy plants which are better able to stand up to potential pest invasions.

If you must resort to insecticides, apply them responsibly! That means only late in the day or evening and then only when necessary. Never apply pesticides in the morning when pollinators and beneficial insects are most active. Otherwise, you’ll likely kill them as well. I believe it is best to not use chemicals in a food garden, of all places! Instead, focus on growing healthy plants with great soil and sunny conditions and let nature take its course. Synthetic and even many organic/natural pesticides are non-selective meaning they will kill beneficial insects too.

Don’t over fertilize

Too much fertilizer, especially nitrogen (the first number on the fertilizer package) can promote plenty of lush green growth at the expense of less fruit and a smaller harvest. Excessive fertilizer can also be harmful to your plants and the soil. Instead, add as much organic compost as possible, up to about 20% of the total soil makeup. Incorporate it into the rest of the soil and you’ll be supplying your plants with the nutrients they need to thrive naturally. In other words, feed the soil and let the soil feed the plants.

If you put into practice what I’ve suggested above, you’ll get your garden off to the right start and set it up for a fruitful season. Preparation is key with the reward being a healthier, more productive garden and fresh food that tastes better than anything you can buy in the store. What could be better than that?

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