Good quality soil is essential for a healthy and abundant garden. Here are seven ways to transform ailing, lifeless soil into rich, black gold.
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Does your garden consist of lifeless or hardpan soil? While there are many ways to improve soil quality for the purpose of growing food, in this article I’ll share the methods that have been the most successful for me. Believe me, I’ve tried a lot of things!
When my first house was built in the 1950s, the developers scraped the topsoil from the yard, sowing grass directly into hard clay. Later (before I lived there), a second owner filled in the in-ground swimming pool with fill dirt (which, by definition, contains zero organic matter).
I discovered this when I started digging in the backyard to start my gardens, finding giant chunks of blue-painted concrete mixed with lifeless dirt.
It became my mission to transform my yard into a rich, abundant garden. I figured if I could do it, then others could do it too!
- Improving Soil Tilth
- 7 Ways to Improve Soil Quality
- How to Improve Garden Soil with Organic Matter
- How to work organic matter into soil
- Using compost
- Using sawdust and manure
- 8 Simple Ways to Improve Your Garden Soil for Free
- 8 Free Ways to Improve Your Garden Soil Quality
- How to improve your garden soil
- How can I improve my soil?
- 4 Ways to Improve the Soil Quality in Your Garden
- Follow these simple tips to learn how to improve soil quality in your garden!
- Success With Container Gardening
- Ways to Improve Garden Soil
- 1. Compost is Your Friend
- 2. Mulch and Your Plants Go Hand in Hand
- 3. Cover Crops Helps
- 4. Creepy Crawlies Help Your Soil
- 5. Keep Off of Your Soil
- 6. Soil Can’t Work When Wet
- 7. Put Your Farm Animals to Work
- 8. Check Your Nitrogen Levels
- 9. Fix Your Nitrogen Levels
- 10. Fix Your Phosphorous Levels
- 11. Fix Your Potassium Levels
- 12. Fix Your Calcium Levels
- 13. Fix Your Magnesium Levels
- 14. Put Your Weeds to Work
- 15. Chip Your Yard Debris
- 16. Don’t Waste Your Leaves
- 17. Coffee, Please
- 18. Don’t Flush
- 19. Moldy Hay Isn’t a Waste
- Was this article helpful?
- How can we improve it?
- We appreciate your helpul feedback!
- 7 Simple Strategies to Improve Garden Soil
- Green Manures
Improving Soil Tilth
Tilth refers to the physical condition of soil—how suitable it is for planting crops. Healthy soil with good tilth includes lots of organic matter. It is well-aerated and well-drained, yet retains enough moisture to feel like a wrung-out sponge.
To revive lifeless soil, aim to improve its tilth.
7 Ways to Improve Soil Quality
The following are the ways in which I improved my lifeless soil with the most success.
1: Create Permanent Garden Beds and Pathways
One rule that I learned early in my garden training is to never walk in garden beds. Stepping on garden soil compacts it, which destroys tilth as well as beneficial soil organisms and their habitat.
Establish permanent beds and walkways so that the beds are clearly defined.
Keep them narrow enough that you can reach all areas without stepping inside to keep foot traffic out. Beds created in this way can improve each year rather than starting each season in a compacted state from last year’s walkways.
In addition to keeping soil in the garden beds loose, permanent beds also save time and money.
Rather than applying costly amendments over a broad area, you need only apply them to permanent bed areas, skipping the pathways. Irrigation installation is easier, too, since the beds are permanent fixtures.
Permanent pathways of white clover, microclover, or wood chips attract beneficial insects and fertilize the garden.
2: Choose NOT To Till
Tilling is a mechanical method for quickly loosening and aerating soil in preparation for planting.
Although it may be useful on large farms where managing soil by hand would be impractical, a tiller is simply a quick fix in small gardens and on micro-farms, where it can have detrimental effects on soil in the long run.
In some instances, tilling can encourage the soil to blow away in the wind or wash away in the rain. Read about How to Prevent Soil Erosion in your garden. It can also destroy beneficial soil organisms.
Fortunately, growing crops on a small backyard scale doesn’t require tilling to produce loose soil for planting.
A digging fork or a broadfork are useful tools in the no-till garden because they loosen the soil without destroying microorganisms. A digging fork gently aerates and loosens the top few inches of soil before planting.
Get more tips in my article Transitioning to a No-Till Garden.
3: Create a New Garden with Sheet Mulching
Sheet mulching is a no-till method for starting a new garden or reigning in a garden that’s been overtaken by weeds. It consists of smothering existing vegetation with a layer of cardboard, and topping it with a new planting medium.
The decomposing cardboard and plant residue attracts worms and other soil organisms. The organic matter on top of the cardboard can consist of compost-approved food scraps, grass clippings, or manure (be aware of poisoned manure), that is topped with straw or shredded leaves or office paper.
The final top layer consists of compost soil, 6-18 inches in depth. As it all decomposes, the contents of the sheet mulch will shrink in size.
Allow sheet-mulched areas to sit for at least two weeks before planting, and ideally for three months, to allow it to decompose into a rich planting medium.
Here, I’m sheet mulching an area of lawn by adding a layer of horse manure over cardboard.
After applying horse manure and shredded leaves, I topped this new circle garden with a layer of compost soil for planting, and a wood-chip pathway.
4: Add Organic Matter
We often start out with soil that is not ideal for growing food. But we’re anxious to get growing, so we go ahead anyway. Now we’re asking our soil to produce nutrient-dense food from nutrient-deficient soil. This can lead to lackluster harvests or pest and disease problems.
Amending soil in the fall is important even if you start with great soil, simply because of the nutrients you’ve harvested from it throughout the season.
You see, there is reciprocity between you and the soil in organic gardening; a give and take. Fall and winter is a great time to replenish soil and let it rest if necessary.
Add organic matter in the fall to start every spring garden on a good note.
- Building a Compost Bin (5 Ways)
- How to Improve Clay Soil
- Worm Compost (make your own or buy worm castings)
Food scraps transformed into rich worm castings.
Would you like to learn more about improving the health of your soil, reducing maintenance, and increasing yield?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my award-winning book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
5: Mulch for Big Benefits
Mulching encourages healthy soil tilth by retaining moisture and nutrients. It also saves time by reducing the need for weeding, watering, and fertilizing.
How you mulch your garden beds depends on your climate.
For example, heavier mulches are beneficial in hot, dry climates where moisture evaporation is high. In contrast, lighter mulches are more appropriate in cool, rainy climates where soil benefits from the warmth of the sun, but still needs protection against erosion.
For most gardeners, a heavy mulch in the off season provides protection beneficial soil organisms against the elements and reduces soil erosion from heavy rains.
After a pest outbreak, however, discard affected plant material and do not apply mulch over the winter so as not to provide protection to overwintering pests.
There are many ways to mulch and many types of materials to use. Learn more in my article Mulching in the Permaculture Garden.
Grass clippings topped with shredded leaves makes a balanced mulch that reduces weeds and retains moisture.
6: Plant Cover Crops
Cover crops are an excellent addition to your soil improvement program. They can provide organic matter and nutrients, improve drainage and aeration, attract beneficial soil organisms, and act as an overwintering mulch.
While cover crops can be grown in rotation with other crops at any time throughout the year, they are most popularly sown in the late summer or early fall to grow over the winter.
Many are killed by the winter cold to make spring planting easy, while others are turned under before planting. Use a digging fork (or chickens!) to turn cover crops under about three weeks before planting in the spring.
Here are some cover crops that have worked well for me:
- Daikon Radish
Read more about cover crops:
- Choosing the Best Cover Crops for your Organic No-Till Vegetable System
- Cover Crops: Feeding the Soil that Feeds Me
- Homegrown Humus: Cover Crops in a No-till Garden
7: Grow Chop-and-Drop Nutrient Accumulators
Nutrient accumulators are plant species that are often integrated into permaculture gardens. The roots of ‘accumulators’ are said to collect specific nutrients from the soil.
These potentially nutrient-rich plants can be chopped back several times throughout the year in order to use the cuttings as a mulch. This may save money by reducing the number of soil amendments you need to purchase. Growing them may also improve biodiversity.
Although there hasn’t been a lot of research conducted on nutrient accumulators, comfrey is the most often-cited plant. This study suggests using comfrey as an organic, DIY fertilizer spray. Learn more about using comfrey to fertilize your garden.
Here are some herbaceous plants to ‘chop and drop’:
- Comfrey: Learn how to grow comfrey or buy comfrey root for planting
- Weeds: Learn 5 weeds you want in your garden
- Yarrow: Learn 5 reasons to grow yarrow or buy yarrow seeds
Flowering comfrey attracts beneficial insects and provides nutrient-rich mulch.
There are many ways to improve soil quality, but at the heart of each method is the goal of reducing compaction, amending soil with organic matter, and taking advantage of the off-season.
- 4 Berry Bushes that Fertilize, Too!
- 7 Reasons to Grow Calendula
- Does Comfrey Really Improve Soil?
What methods have you used to improve your garden soil?
>>> Get my free 19-page Guide to Organic Soil Amendments for more ideas:
How to Improve Garden Soil with Organic Matter
By Charlie Nardozzi, The Editors of the National Gardening Association
Organic matter is the key to amending less-than perfect garden soil. To fix mucky clay or sandy sand soil, add plenty of organic matter. You can’t change the type of soil you have, but adding organic matter makes your soil more like loam, which is perfect for plant roots. Even if you have loam, you still should add organic matter every year.
Organic matter improves garden soil in the following ways:
It helps loosen and aerate clay soil.
It improves the water- and nutrient-holding capacity of sandy soil.
It provides the once-living material that attracts microorganisms, beneficial fungi, worms, and other soil-borne critters that improve the health of your vegetables.
How to work organic matter into soil
Work some organic matter into your soil before you plant each season. If you’re using unfinished (raw) organic matter like leaves or undecomposed manure, add it to your soil at least one month before planting. That way it will break down before you plant. Add finished compost and manures just before planting.
Follow these steps to add organic matter to your garden soil:
Add a 1- to 2-inch layer of organic matter to the area where you intend to plant.
Go for the higher end (2 inches) if your garden is new or if your soil is heavy clay or very sandy. Use less if you’ve grown there for years or if your soil is loamy and fertile.
You need 3 cubic yards of compost to spread a 1-inch-thick layer over 1,000 square feet.
Work in the organic matter to a depth of at least 6 inches.
There’s nothing glamorous about spreading manure. The best way to spread organic matter is with a wheelbarrow and a shovel. Work it into the soil with a shovel, iron fork, or rototiller.
The best organic material to add to your soil is compost. Composting breaks down yard waste, agricultural waste, wood scraps, and even sludge into a crumbly soil-like material called humus.
Compost is usually clean, easy to use, and available. You can buy it in bags or have it delivered by the truckload. Most waste disposal sites make compost and sell it relatively cheap. You also can make your own compost.
Before you buy compost, ask whether the compost contains any heavy metals, such as lead, and whether the compost is safe to use in a vegetable garden. Your local health department should be able to tell you what levels of lead and heavy metals are unsafe. The folks at the waste disposal site also may even be able to give you a precise nutrient content if they’ve performed any tests on the compost.
Using sawdust and manure
Using organic materials other than compost — such as sawdust and manure — is fine, but these materials present a few problems that compost doesn’t. Here are some advantages and disadvantages:
Sawdust adds organic matter to your soil, which eventually breaks down and forms humus. However, the sawdust also robs the soil of nitrogen when it decomposes, so you have to add more fertilizer to compensate.
Livestock manure improves your soil’s nitrogen level. However, livestock diets often include lots of hay that’s full of weed seeds, which may germinate in your vegetable garden. Some manures (such as horse manure) add organic matter and some nutrients to your soil, but they’re also loaded with bedding materials (like dried hay) that cause the same problem that adding sawdust causes.
If you use manure, make sure it has been sitting around for a year or two, so it’s decomposed, and the salts have been leached out. Too much salt in the soil can be harmful to plants. Good quality compost or fully decomposed manure should have a dark brown color, earthy smell, and have little original material visible.
8 Simple Ways to Improve Your Garden Soil for Free
We all know that a healthy garden starts with healthy soil. But getting that soil in top condition can take a lot of time and effort- as well as money.
In the past I shared 9 Gardening Supplies You Can Get for Free, and guess what? You can improve your garden soil for free too!
8 Free Ways to Improve Your Garden Soil Quality
Check out my Yearly Garden Planner to plan your best garden ever!
Chopped Leaves (or Leaf Mold)
Don’t let all those fallen leaves go to waste! Leaves are full of minerals and once they are added to the garden they feed earthworms and other microbes. They can also lighten heavy clay soils and help to retain moisture in lighter sandy soils. They are a wonderful source of carbon and will increase nutrients in the soil very readily.
It’s best if you chop the leaves before adding them to the garden. The easiest way is to just mow over them a few time with a mower and then rake them up.
Place them on top of you garden beds to decompose through the winter and early spring, then you can either till them in or use them as a base of a no-till garden.
If you have access to a lot of leaves you can try making leaf mold by taking your chopped leaves and bagging them up for a year- or at least through one season. Alternately you can just rake your leaves into a big pile and wait- but that doesn’t work too well are here where winter winds just blow the leaves clear across the valley!
Leaf mold can greatly improve your soil quality and it rivals peat moss in its ability to retain moisture.
Related Reading: 20 Frugal Repurposed Seed Starting Containers
If you have been gardening long, you are sure to have heard about the Back to Eden Gardening method which uses wood chips as a top mulch for the garden.
The benefits of a garden mulched like this are the reduction of soil erosion, less weeds to compete for nutrients, and better water retention. Most other soil amendments can simply be placed on top or gently raked into the wood chips.
Wood chips will also increase the nutrients in the soil as they break down and compost on top of it.
Wood chips can usually be found for free through tree services or your local green recycling facility. Check with your local power company too, as they do a lot of chipping when the clear down trees and line and during general upkeep.
If you’ve got a fireplace or a wood-burning stove then you have a great soil amendment right in your ash box! Wood Ash contains a good amount of potassium and calcium as well as a lot of micronutrients from the trees from which the wood came.
Wood Ash will help improve the pH of your soil, making it more alkaline- which means keep it away from acid-loving plants such as blueberries.
Wood Ash can be used as a replacement for the lime usually called for on soils with low pH. It is best to spread the ash in fall, and throughout winter, but stopping a good few weeks before spring planting.
Related Reading: Soil Nutrient Deficiencies and How to Fix Them
Your Kitchen Scraps
Your kitchen is a gold mine for improving your soil quality! Your morning coffee grounds. Your daily banana peel. All those egg shells! All of these things will add something different to you soil in terms of nutrients.
How you deal with this compost is up to you- add it to your compost pile daily and apply it to your garden when it has decomposed. Dig it into your soil immediately.
Add certain scraps to the holes at planting time. Or even just throw it on top the garden and let it decompose naturally into the soil.
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Coffee grounds, when mixed into the soil or compost, will improve your soil structure, tilth, and even help to repel certain pests. The grounds are high in nitrogen, which is great for those heavy feeders in your garden. Mixing them together with your leaf mold will make the perfect mulch for your garden.
Coffee ground have long been said to be highly acidic- making them perfect for those acid loving plants. I have read recent conflicting research both dispelling this and proving it.
So, I say, go ahead and mix the grounds in around your acid loving plants- it can’t hurt either way! Just don’t dump them on. Unless you want a pile of mold hanging out around your garden.
No matter how much coffee you drink you probably won’t get enough grounds to improve your garden soil too much, luckily, if you check with your local Starbucks or other coffee houses they are probably just looking for a way to unload all those grounds!
Yes, urine. Human urine is sterile and is actually one of the best soil amendments and fertilizers around. Urine is super high in nitrogen and contains phosphorus and potassium (You know, NPK fertilizers?)
It also contains a lot of other trace nutrients, all of which are very readily available for your plants.
Now, urine can be too concentrated, so you probably don’t want to just go around peeing directly on your plants all the time. But diluting it with water or rigging a composting toilet of sorts with some saw dust in a bucket is a good way to go.
The benefits are that urine is 100% free and natural. You can save water with less flushing going on. And you might help deter pests (mammals, not insects) in your garden from the scent.
No not human manure, but manure from any farm animals you might have- or those in the community might have. Manure from all sorts of animals can be added to your garden beds and fill it with nutrients to help improve your garden soil and feed your plants.
Pay attention to which manures can be added fresh versus which manures are hot and need to compost and break down before you can plant in them.
Chickens. Goats. Cows. Alpacas. Sheep. Rabbit. Horses. All are great sources of manure. If you don’t have any of these animals yourself, check in your community.
Most large farms are looking for a way to unload the stuff after barn cleanings. All it takes is a shovel and some manual labor to go get it.
Related Reading: Get Rid of These Common Garden Pests- Naturally!
Spent Hay or Straw
Hay or straw is an easy way to add a large amount of green matter to your soil. It’s best used as a top dressing and allow it to decompose on the soil adding organic matter and nutrients as it does.
Fresh bales can be expensive, but often you can find farms giving away bales that have gone bad- have gotten wet, moldy, or spoiled in some other way. You can also visit places that sell fresh bales and offer to sweep out the truck and take all the busted bales and loose material.
You can also get wasted hay, that animals have picked through and is now on the ground getting stomped on.
If you are worried about weed seeds, just allow your hay to sit for a few months- allowing any seeds to sprout and the material to decompose a bit. Or just layer it all on in the fall as you put the garden to bed for the winter and let it rot until spring planting time comes along.
Do be careful about where you get your hay or straw from- some farmers spray their fields with a certain chemical that can harm your plants.
Do you have any other free or dirt cheap ways to improve your garden soil? Share them in the comments!
How to improve your garden soil
How can I improve my soil?
Some plants are well adapted to growing in certain types of soil, although even these plants may struggle to cope if your soil is too compacted or too light. The best way to improve any soil type is to incorporate liberal amounts of organic matter each year.
Improving clay soils
- Try not to walk on clay soils when they are wet as this damages the soil structure. If you do need to access an area, try laying down wooden boards as this will spread your weight and have less impact on the soil.
- Dig your soil in the autumn when it is relatively dry but workable. In the winter and spring clay soils are often too wet to be worked effectively and too hard to be worked in the summer.
- Don’t over-work your soil when digging. In the autumn it is a good idea to simply lift big clods of clay to the surface so they can be broken down by frost and winter weather.
- Apply liberal amounts of organic matter. This could be in the form of well-rotted manure (only use fresh manure in the autumn so it can rot down over winter), compost or recycled green waste from your local council. If the soil is workable this can be forked in, otherwise spread a 5-10cm layer of organic matter on the soil surface to be incorporated naturally by worms.
- Use organic matter as a mulch around your plants, to prevent the soil surface drying out and cracking in hot weather.
- Never add sand to a clay soil as this may make it worse. You can use gravel or coarse grit although a lot is needed to make a real difference. It’s best to just keep adding organic matter and choose suitable plants for your soil.
- Try creating raised beds to improve drainage and prevent the need to walk on the soil.
- Plant new plants in the spring as even the toughest plants may not survive a waterlogged clay soil over winter. When you do plant, make sure you break up the soil at the bottom of the planting hole first to prevent water collecting – you could even add some grit for extra drainage.
Improving silt soils
- Silt soils are at risk from compaction so it is worth digging in some organic matter annually to improve the structure. A 5-10cm layer of organic matter can be forked in or spread over the soil surface. This work should be carried out in the spring or autumn.
- As with clay soils, try not to walk on silt soils when they are wet. Use wooden boards to spread your weight so there is less impact on the soil structure.
Improving sandy soils
- The key to improving light sandy soils is the addition of lots of organic matter. This will bind the soil particles together and improve water and nutrient retention. Organic matter acts as a sponge and will prevent water and nutrients from being washed away so readily. This work is best carried out in the spring and autumn.
- Try applying a mulch around your plants, either using a thick layer of organic matter or a layer of decorative gravel, slate chips or pebbles.
- Apply mulches in early spring whilst the soil is still moist from winter rainfall. For more hints and tips about gardening in dry soil see our ‘Water saving tips’ article.
4 Ways to Improve the Soil Quality in Your Garden
One of the best ways to have a beautiful garden is to build healthy soil. Your plants rely on soil for nutrients, oxygen, water and much more. If your soil isn’t balanced and healthy, your garden won’t have much chance of success.
Follow these simple tips to learn how to improve soil quality in your garden!
Photo via Kirsty Hall /Flickr Creative Commons
Do you compost yet? If not, this is an excellent way to recycle old kitchen and yard waste into one of the finest soil amendments you can find. Not only do you save waste from the landfills, but the composted materials feed your soil with lots of beneficial microorganisms. Compost also helps reduce plant diseases, and improves your soil drainage.
And you don’t even need an expensive compost system either — you can build your own compost bin with instructions from University of Missouri Extension.
Some of my favorite things to compost are leftover vegetables and fruits, as well as shredded leaves and other yard waste. Be sure to refer to our handy list of things you can and can’t compost before getting started.
2. Build organic matter
Compost adds valuable organic matter to the soil. This organic matter improves the physical and chemical attributes of the soil in different ways, from supplying nutrients to encouraging healthy soil microorganisms and worms.
At least once a year, I like to add a couple inches of compost, aged manure and other natural soil amendments to the soil. For more information, see our post on organic matter for gardens .
Photo via Slomoz /Flickr Creative Commons
3. Practice crop rotation
Growing a diversity of crops in your garden keeps the soil healthy too. Different plants require different types of nutrients, and attract different types of pests. That’s why smart gardeners remember to rotate their food crops each year, so that plants (and family members) don’t grow in the same place more than once every three years.
For more information, see our post on crop rotation for vegetable gardens .
4. Grow cover crops
Another organic gardening tip to steal from farmers is the idea of growing cover crops. Also called “green manures,” these cover crops include plants such as barley, yellow mustard, clover and hairy vetch. Depending on what you grow, home gardeners can use these cover crops to add organic matter, suppress weeds, prevent erosion, fight plant diseases and aerate the soil. Some cover crops including barley are good for growing in fall/winter; others such as buckwheat will smother weeds in a summer garden.
For more information, see our post on how to grow a cover crop .
Photo via Marcy Leigh /Flickr Creative Commons
Composting, adding organic material, rotating crops and growing cover crops will all help improve soil quality in your garden. Even if you only practice a few of these tips you’ll go a long way toward building the type of soil where plants thrive and grow happily.
Success With Container Gardening
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Did you know that you don’t have to be content with your garden soil? What you start with is not what you have to stick with, if your soil is currently far from ideal.
Instead, you can test, cover, and add to your soil to make it better.
But what if you aren’t sure how to test your soil? What if you aren’t sure what to add to your soil or how to go about covering it?
Well, you are in the right place. I’m going to walk you through all the options you have for improving your garden soil.
Ways to Improve Garden Soil
Here is what you need to know to have amazing soil in your garden:
1. Compost is Your Friend
Compost is made up of organic matter. You can use kitchen scraps and various other household items to create compost.
Once these items have broken down, they are a great addition to your garden. They help bind the soil together in an aerated fashion.
Depending on your soil needs, you should add roughly three to four inches your first year. Add two inches of compost per year to your garden every year after.
2. Mulch and Your Plants Go Hand in Hand
via Imperfect Gardener
Mulch is another magnificent addition to your garden soil. It should be added around the base of your plants during planting.
After the mulch is applied to the base of the plant, it will help retain any moisture that is applied to the plant through rainfall or watering by hand.
It also helps to keep the soil cool around the plant, which is good for both the plant and your dirt.
3. Cover Crops Helps
When winter time comes, we tear up our gardens. The ground is left bare and exposed which often means that the soil has nutrients stripped from it because there is no protection.
If this is a concern to you, and you’ve seen adverse effects showing up in your soil the next spring, you should consider planting a cover crop.
Cover crops are plants (such as wheat) that will come in thick or sprawl out and cover the ground in which they’ve been planted. By covering the soil, they protect it from the elements.
4. Creepy Crawlies Help Your Soil
You can purchase worms or raise them yourself. You also can choose to add them directly to your garden or add them to your compost.
Either way, they’ll be helping your garden. Worms are a great addition to your soil because they can convert what you add to your soil into usable products that the soil needs like vitamins, minerals, and nutrients.
Plus, they also help to aerate the soil by moving around in it. Their excrement is a natural soil binder as well.
5. Keep Off of Your Soil
Whether you are gardening in a raised bed or a plot of earth, you need to take steps to not step on your garden soil.
Which means having walkways between the rows in your garden, or you need to make sure that you can comfortably reach across your raised bed.
Either way, by avoiding walking on your soil you help to keep the soil aerated. The weight of our feet compresses the air and takes away the aerated benefit that helps plants.
6. Soil Can’t Work When Wet
It is tempting as soon as a rainstorm moves out, to want to work in your garden. The fact is, you shouldn’t work on your soil when it is wet.
The reason is that when you work in wet soil, you compress the air out of it, which is the opposite effect you want to have.
You’ll know the soil is too wet to work in by taking a ball of soil in your hand and squeezing it. If water comes out of it, you should wait a few days to a week to test it again.
7. Put Your Farm Animals to Work
If you have access to farm animals or to where you can purchase their manure, you just struck a gold mine for your soil.
Most animal manures are a great addition to your garden. Consider using chicken, horse, cow, goat, and certainly rabbit manure to spread out over the soil.
This addition will break down and organically feed your soil. Your plants will love it!
8. Check Your Nitrogen Levels
Once you add most vitamins, nutrients, and minerals to the soil, they stick around. Nitrogen is the one that seems to escape from the soil the easiest.
You can test your soil to find out what it is deficient in, or you can wait until you grow something in the garden.
Often, you’ll notice green plants won’t be as green as needed because they lack nitrogen.
9. Fix Your Nitrogen Levels
We just discussed that it is essential to test your nitrogen levels in the soil, but what do you do if you find that your soil is deficient?
There are a few things you can add to your soil to get the nitrogen levels back up. If you grow peas in a bed, it is a good idea to till them into the garden once they’ve finished, because they’ll add nitrogen to your soil.
Also, you can add fish emulsion, blood meal, and legume cover crops to add nitrogen to your soil as well.
10. Fix Your Phosphorous Levels
If you test your soil and notice that you are low on phosphorous, know that you can fix it. You need to be aware of what to add to your soil to fix it.
You can add bone meal or rock phosphate to get the levels back to where they need to be.
If you are like me and prefer to DIY as much as you can, you’ll be happy to know that you can make bone meal fertilizer to save some money in the process of fixing your soil.
11. Fix Your Potassium Levels
Soil can have low potassium just like humans do. You’ll want to test your soil to make sure that it is in fact low.
Once you’ve confirmed it, you can easily begin fixing it. If you have a wood stove or a fireplace, be sure to save your wood ashes all winter.
When winter is over, or even as you go, toss the wood ashes out onto your garden. This will help build potassium again.
12. Fix Your Calcium Levels
Did you know that if your soil is lacking calcium it can wreak havoc on your crops? We learned this the hard way with our tomatoes for a few years before realizing we lacked calcium.
If you don’t test your soil but begin to see that your plants are suffering from blossom end rot, you can assume that you lack calcium.
Once you’ve realized this, you can add oyster shell to your soil, lime, or add powdered milk to the base of your plants to give a quick calcium boost.
13. Fix Your Magnesium Levels
Magnesium is another essential factor to your soil that can often be thrown out of balance. This balance is what determines whether your soil will be a help or a hindrance to your garden.
If you test your soil and find that the magnesium levels are off, don’t worry because it’s an easy fix.
You’ll want to add Epsom salt to your soil until you have reached a stable balance of magnesium again.
14. Put Your Weeds to Work
When we have weeds in our garden, it’s tempting to want to dispose of them as quickly as possible. Pulling them is a great idea.
However, you don’t want to toss them to the wind.
Instead, you’ll want to till them back into your garden. It will allow them to be broken down and turned into compost for your garden.
15. Chip Your Yard Debris
When pruning season rolls around, it’s tempting to want to haul the debris off to the landfill or burn it. Instead of doing that, put it to work in your garden as another form of compost.
You’ll need a wood chipper, but once you obtain the equipment, chip the debris into thin mulch material.
From there, add it to your soil and allow it to break down over the rest of the winter months. When spring comes, your soil should be ready to go.
16. Don’t Waste Your Leaves
Fall is a great time of year. It brings us cooler weather, fun around the fire pit, and lots of leaves. Leaves seem like a lot of work during the fall.
But they should be looked at as an excellent addition to your garden soil. When you rake up your leaves, run them over with a lawnmower or through a wood chipper.
Once that’s completed, toss them onto your garden as a layer of mulch. They will compost over the fall and winter months and help build up your soil.
17. Coffee, Please
I’m a huge coffee drinker. My day doesn’t start off on the right foot without it. Consequently, I have a lot of leftover coffee grounds.
Though there are many ways to recycle them, one of the best ways is to add them to your garden. You’ll want to do this especially if your soil is alkaline.
All you do is toss the coffee into your soil and work in it. It will break down and help to make your soil more acidic.
18. Don’t Flush
If you have a little boy, especially one you are trying to potty train, put them out in your garden. They’ll think it is fun to pee outdoors, and your garden soil will thank you.
Human urine is high in nitrogen. It also contains phosphorus and potassium.
Instead of wasting urine by flushing it, send the kid outside (if your garden is private) or save the urine, and toss it onto your garden to give it a boost.
19. Moldy Hay Isn’t a Waste
Until I began upcycling, I would get frustrated when I cleaned out the chicken coop or mucked out the goat stalls because I felt like the straw they used as bedding was being wasted.
However, I soon realized I could toss that used straw onto my garden, and it would break down to improve my soil quality.
Also, if you have straw or hay that was left out in the weather and became moldy, you can toss it out on your garden too. It will help your soil.
You now are in the know of 19 different methods to improving the quality of your soil. These methods will help your garden do well in the years to come because you are giving it a good foundation.
But I’d like to hear from you. Is there anything you add to your soil every year that has been a tremendous help to your garden?
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That was the first word that crossed my mind when I set out to work on my new kitchen garden this year.
It’s right under my laundry room window, and is the perfect spot, considering it gets plenty of southern sunlight and is right next to our new porch.
However, the soil leaves a little lot to be desired. In fact, I think it probably deserves to just be called ‘dirt’, not soil.
Most of the topsoil there was removed in our house remodel project last year. There was actually a 12 foot hole right there this time last year, and the soil that was used to fill that hole is rather disappointing. It’s heavy with clay, packs down hard when it gets wet, and there’s not a worm in sight.
Quite a difference from the spongy, fluffy, worm-filled soil in my main veggie garden. Then again, I suppose I’ve been spoiled by my deep mulch.
But of course, there’s no way I was just going to leave the sad little patch of clay just sitting there. Nope. It needed to be loved and nurtured and tended so it could blossom into its full potential. And so I could have herbs I could pick in my bare feet while supper was on the stove. That’s high priority, ya know.
Before we tilled it (I almost sold our tiller last year, since we don’t need it for our main garden anymore… But I’m glad I didn’t!), Prairie Husband dumped several loads of composted manure on top of the patch, and I spread it around.
This compost is just plain gorgeous. It’s crumbly and rich, I just want to go roll around it in. But I don’t, because that would be weird.
Anyway, after tilling the composted manure into the dirt, I raked the top to remove as many stones and pebbles as possible, and then planted my raspberries, strawberries, and herbs.
I then mulched the plants with wood chips (since it’s right next to our house, I opted for the prettier chips, versus hay mulch).
I’ll continue to top-dress with more compost as needed, and also use some compost tea and other amendments as needed as the summer progresses. It will be a gradual process to get the soil where it needs to be, but I’m hopeful. And the plants seem to be happy so far.
Because I’ve had soil on the brain lately, here’s a list of 7 ways you can improve garden soil if you’re dealing with a less-than-ideal growing situation like I am.
7 Simple Strategies to Improve Garden Soil
Turn your kitchen and yard waste (leaves, grass clippings, etc.) into a fantastic soil amendment with very little effort. Compost adds both nutrients and organic matter to soil, and it also helps with water retention. You can buy it at the garden store, however, it’s free to make your own. And even if you aren’t ready to create a full compost pile, adding some of the most common kitchen waste to (like coffee grounds and egg shells) to specific plants in your garden and boost plant and soil health impressively well.
I call our composted animal poop ‘black gold’. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing, my friends. Adding animal manure to your garden provides nutrients, builds organic matter, and adds microbial action.
Fresh manure can be too hot for plants and may burn them, so it’s best to use composted or aged manure. If you are using fresh manure, just be sure to add it in the fall and let it sit all winter. (Don’t apply most fresh manures to growing plants)
- Chicken Manure: Highest in nitrogen, but also one of the “hotter” options. Definitely let it compost and age well before applying.
- Horse Manure: Easy to find, but may contain the most weed seeds (although if the compost pile reaches a high enough temperature, this can reduce the weed seeds). We use a lot of composted horse manure in our garden, since we have two horses, and they poop. A LOT.
- Cow Manure: A great all-purpose manure that doesn’t burn plants as easily, due to a lower nitrogen content. Generally less weed seeds than horse manure.
- Goat/Sheep Manure: A drier manure that is less smelly and gentle to plants (won’t burn as easily). The little pellets make it easy to apply, too.
- Rabbit Manure: This is considered a “cold” manure, so you can add it directly to plants, with no worry of it burning plants. Just grab some of the “pellets” and sprinkle away! They will disintegrate slowly over time and release their nutrients into the soil as they break down.
**Important Note** If you are using horse, cattle, goat, or sheep manure, be sure to ONLY use manure from animals who have NOT been grazing or eating hay from fields sprayed with herbicides. There are several types of herbicides that can survive an animals gastrointestinal tract and come through the manure to wreak havoc on your gardens.
I’ve been singing the praises of deep much for several years now, so I bet you’re not surprised to see this one on this list. Not only does mulch hold moisture in the soil, but as it breaks down, it will gradually add organic matter to your soil as well. I cannot believe how many worms I have in my main garden after 2+ years of mulch. I have a bunch of mulching posts already, so get the full mulching story in the following links:
- How to Start Deep Mulching
- Deep Mulch FAQs
- Deep Mulch: Year Two
- Deep Mulch Video Update
**IMPORTANT: If you are planning on using deep mulch, please make sure you are ONLY using hay or straw that has NOT been sprayed with herbicides of any kind! Read my sad story about herbicide contamination here.**
4. Cover Crops
Cover crops are a fantastic way to remedy soil problems with minimal work. Not only can cover crops provide nutrients to the soil, they can also improve both drainage and aeration, smother unwanted plants (like quackgrass), attract beneficial soil organisms, and act as an overwintering mulch. The negative side of cover crops is having to wait a season before you can use that particular garden spot for growing other plants. You can also use various cover crops to break up hard soil. Ryegrass and Daikon radishes are good examples of cover crops with strong root systems that will help break up and aerate your soil.
This article has more in-depth info on cover crops if you think they’d be a fit for your garden.
Putting worms to work is another natural way you can improve garden soil. There are a few different ways to make this happen:
- Add them to your compost pile to help speed decomposition and add even more nutrients to your compost.
- Grow/farm worms in a separate compost bin and save their worm castings. Purchasing worm castings is super expensive, so it’s much more cost-effective to create your own, which can then be added to the soil to give it a nutrient-boost.
- Add worms directly to your poor garden soil. Give them some compost and mulch, and the worms will help aerate your soil and put their castings directly into the troublesome area.
6. Natural Amendments
Sometimes the best thing you can do for your soil is to test in order to find out what specific nutrients are missing from your soil.
There are a couple of ways to test your soil:
- A home soil test (I found this one on Amazon (affiliate link))
- Get your soil tested from a garden lab (many Universities have these, check with your local Cooperative Extension Office, or talk to local Master Gardeners for more information on this)
Once you know what nutrients are missing from your soil, you can add natural amendments such as:
- For low nitrogen: add fish emulsion, blood meal, or legume cover crops
- For low phosphorus: add rock phosphate for long term results and bone meal for a quick fix
- For low potassium: add wood ash and compost rich in banana peels
- For low calcium: add lime (either calcium carbonate lime or dolomitic lime), gysum, or clam/oyster shells
- For low magnesium: add epsom salts or dolomitic lime
7. Raised Beds
If you’ve been working in improving your garden soil, and still aren’t getting the results you want, it might be time to consider raised beds. Raised beds are an easy way to fix poor garden soil problems, as you can fully control what goes into the boxes. Plus, they can look pretty spiffy and they don’t have to be expensive. Check out these raised bed designs for some inspiration.
Happy soil improving my friends!
#1 Soil Builder
The earth neither grows old or wears out if it is dunged. – Columella, circa 45 A.D
If you want to improve your soil and make it more suitable for your vegetable garden, you first have to figure out what you’re dealing with. Is your soil sandy or clay-based? Is it too acidic or too alkaline? The way to answer these questions is to have your soil tested. There are do-it-yourself tests you can purchase or you can hire a private soil testing laboratory or your local cooperative extension office to test it. Not only will the professional soil tester tell you the composition of your soil, but the lab will usually be able to make recommendations on how to improve it.
In addition to measuring the pH level of your soil — how acidic or alkaline it is — tests also look at how much calcium, organic matter, magnesium, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, sulfur and trace minerals it contains.
Get your gardens off to a great start and keep them productive with premium quality soil amendments. Need advice? Our Soils Blog provides the ideas, information and practical experience you need to get the job done right. Now, let’s grow!
When it comes to the pH scale, neutral refers to soil with a pH of 7.0. Anything above a 7.0 is considered alkaline and anything below a 7.0 is considered acidic. Most plants prefer slightly acidic to neutral soil (from 6.0 to 7.0).
If your soil is too acidic, you need to add alkaline material such as oyster shell lime. For soil that is too alkaline, you need to add something that is acidic. Most gardeners use elemental sulfur. Learn how to change your soil’s pH here.
Once you’ve corrected the pH of your soil, you’ll also probably want to add organic matter. According to the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, “an ideal soil would have equal parts of sand (0.02 to 2.0 millimeters), silt (0.002 to 0.02 millimeters) and clay (0 to 0.002 millimeters) and contain about 5 percent organic matter.”
QUICK & EASY!
The Rapitest® Soil Test Kit features a “color comparator” and capsule system that’s designed for simplicity of use with accurate results. Give it a try! It’s a fast and fun way to achieve better results from your gardening efforts!
Also aerate your soil. Dig down 10 to 12 inches and turn the soil over. You can do this with a spade or a garden fork. The University of Georgia recommends digging a trench 1-foot-deep on one side of your garden. Push the soil from that trench to the outer boundary. Then dig another ditch right next to it and fill in the first ditch with the dirt from the second ditch. Proceed across the garden. You can also use a tractor-mounted plow or a Rototiller set to the deepest depth. While you’re turning over the soil, add organic matter so it gets down to the root level of the plants, so your vegetables can have access to the nutrients that you are adding.
How much organic matter you will have to add depends on your soil’s composition, the size of your garden and your climate. For example, sandy soils in warmer climates may need as much as 2,300 to 4,600 pounds per 1,000 square feet according to the University of Georgia. Heavier soils in cooler climates with less rainfall may need as little as 200 pounds per 1,000 square feet.
You’ll want to fertilize your garden plot twice if you can: once before planting and then again in the middle of your growing season. For mid-season fertilizing, it’s easiest to do what’s known as “side dressing” which means adding dry fertilizers, compost or other organic soil amendments to the side of your plants. To side dress, you dig a narrow furrow one to three inches deep at the plant’s drip line or six inches from the plant base, whichever is greater. You then sprinkle the amendment into the furrow and cover it up with soil.
Compost is a great way to add organic material to your garden and, if you make your own, reduce organic waste from your home and kitchen. Compost also attracts earthworms and other beneficial organisms. It provides nutrients to your vegetables and it will improve your soil.
You’ll want to begin the composting process using a mixture of “green” (wet, high-nitrogen) materials combined with “brown” (dry, high carbon) materials. Green items include: coffee grounds, chopped leaves or grass clippings, eggs or eggshells, fruit wastes and grains, manure, seaweed, vegetable scraps, weeds. Brown items consist of: corn cobs and corn stalks, hay, nutshells, paper, pine needles, sawdust, straw. Visit our compost ingredients page to learn more.
DO NOT COMPOST:
- Meat scraps and trash containing a lot of fat
- Colored paper
- Diseased plants
- Pet droppings
- Plants sprayed with synthetic chemicals (pesticides, herbicides)
You’ll know that the decomposition process is “done” when you can’t distinguish any of the raw materials. It should smell and feel like rich soil.
If you’re looking for a fast, convenient way to compost your kitchen throw-outs, grass clippings and organic yard waste, our compact unit is just right for you! The Compost Tumbler by Mantis quickly recycles it into nutrient-rich compost.
To build your compost pile, which should be an annual event, accumulate organic material. Your pile can be on open ground or in a bin constructed from cinder blocks, rough boards or wire. The sides of the bin should be permeable and shouldn’t be air tight or water proof. Autumn can be a great time to start composting since fallen leaves are plentiful.
Green manure is a crop that is grown and then mixed in with the soil to increase the soil’s organic matter content. Green manure crops include buckwheat, clover, soybeans or winter rye. The advantages of green manure include:
- They increase soil organic matter
- Legume cover crops replace nitrogen in the soil
- They improve soil porosity
- They help soil aeration
- The prevent erosion
- They attract and protect earthworms
- The increase “channels” for future row crop roots to follow
- They reduce compaction
- They increase nutrient recycling
- They help interrupt the cycle of soil-borne diseases that attack vegetables
Planting fall season cover crops requires more than choosing the right crop. Watch the weather. When you have a string of warmer days predicted, go ahead and plant. Prepare the area like you would for any other crop by tilling to a depth of six inches or so. Broadcast seed as recommended. Rake into the soil, water, if necessary and stand back.