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How to Improve Garden Soil

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Needs some helpful tips to improve the garden soil for your vegetable garden or flower beds? I’ve got you covered! There are a few things home gardeners can do to help revive their soil which results in healthier plants and better harvests all around. Let’s get started!

Why improve garden soil?

Soil is the life blood of a garden, flower bed, or lawn. In fact, soil is actually a living thing with millions of organisms making their home in it. And since you need healthy, rich soil to grow just about anything, taking care of soil and improving it should be an aim of all gardeners.

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Here’s a good article all about what garden soil is and why it’s important! Don’t miss out on why you’re trying to improve your soil in the first place!

If your garden soil is less than productive and needs a little help, here are some tips to get you started. Late summer is a good time to start improvement to your soil, so let’s dive in and get you prepared to improve your growing potential. (See what I did there?)

Common types of soil

  • Rocky– Rocky soil is just as it sounds, soil characterized by a presence of rocks. Rocky soil can be problematic because it is difficult for the gardener to work the soil, often lacks nutrients, and doesn’t retain water well. It can be improved, but usually requires long-term attention and hard work.
  • Clay– Clay particles are extremely small and tend to clump together. The result is a soil that has very little pore space, meaning the spaces between the soil particles. The pore space is important to hold water and air, and make it available to a plants’ root system. As a result, clay soils typically contain low amounts of air, and water drains slowly through them. The positive side of clay soil is that it erodes less quickly than sand and has a high capacity of retaining water and nutrients.
  • Sandy– Sandy soil provides good aeration and drainage, but the pore space might be too large to hold water against the force of gravity, and therefore can be prone to drought. Though it is easy to work, and warms up quickly in the spring, sandy soil does not retain water and nutrients well for the plants to utilize.
  • Loamy– Loam is a term generally used to refer to a soil with a mixture of sand, silt, and clay particles. In a good loam soil, 40- 60 percent of the soil is pore space that is filled with either air or water.

Start with soil testing

Once you’ve identified what type of soil you’re working with, then most definitely have your soil tested. There are home testing kits available, but they won’t give you the results that the lab at your state university will. Most cooperative extension offices accept samples (usually for free) and have them sent off to the state lab.

Lab testing tells you the levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in your soil, as well as the ph. These are important factors to consider when planting, since it can keep you from adding fertilizers and amendments your soil really doesn’t need. Search for your local cooperative extension office.

How to improve soil

Use mulch, etc.

Mulching around your plants with organic matter (meaning material that was once living, such as wood chips, pine straw, bark, leaves, etc.) has many benefits in improving your soil. The mulch layer helps retain moisture, regulates temperature, and deters weed growth. Another benefit is that over time the mulch decomposes and adds nutrients to the soil. That being said, it is a good idea to add a new layer of mulch annually.

You can use the organic matter from your own yard, and can usually get wood chips for free from a local arborist or county dump site. Disclaimer: Avoid dyed mulches, and many fall into the category. Here in the southeast, pinestraw is the mulch of choice for many reasons, but mainly because it’s abundant and is literally raked from the ground and placed into beds. Hear Mike McGrath’s explantion from You Bet Your Garden all about crummy mulches and how they can be harmful.

Avoid tilling and compaction 

Too much tillage can break down the natural structure of the soil, and be harmful to the beneficial microbes that live there. Will once a year tilling kill your soil? Probably not, but raised beds and no till gardening methods have been shown to be effective for growing and for soil preservation.

Compacting the soil reduces the available pore space between soil particles and causes a number of problems. Maybe you’ve experienced this trying to dig down into hard, compacted soil. How can you combat this? Try to avoid working with soil when wet, and use mulch or cover crops to protect the soil during the rainy season. (Here are some cover crop ideas!)

Add compost

Compost is a wonderful amendment to improve both the physical condition and the fertility of your soil. The organic matter in compost can bind soil particles together which makes clay soils easier to work. Other benefits are improved aeration, root penetration, and water infiltration. Compost can be made from your own kitchen scraps and yard waste which helps reduce the amount of trash going into our landfills. So learn how to compost and begin adding it to your soil to reap all the benefits!

three wooden bin compost system on green lawn

Add Vermicompost (aka worm poop)

Worm composting or worm castings is another great way to improve soil. It basically takes backyard composting to the next level by using earthworms (usually red wigglers) to help break down your kitchen scraps and newspaper and produce a “black gold” called vermicompost.

The microbes found in vermicompost can help protect seedlings and plants from disease, and make a fabulous, living soil amendment. For more info or to learn how to get started with worm composting check out this link from the NC State extension. Worm castings can also be purchased in bulk if you’d like to avoid making your own at home. No judgement!

Use Cover Crops (green manure)

As mentioned above, using a cover crop is another way to improve your soil naturally by adding organic matter. This method is easy and inexpensive because you simply plant a grass (annual ryegrass for example) or other crop in your garden after harvest time, and turn it under in early spring. If the crop grows tall, it is a good idea to mow it before you incorporate it back into the soil. (Can you imagine turning under three feet stalks?) Turn your cover crop under about 3 or 4 weeks before planting your garden in the spring.

cover crop of collards in wood raised bed garden
Our collard and arugula cover crop

Use Natural Amendments (plants that can improve soil)

Planting root crops such as longer daikon radishes or turnips can improve your soil by breaking up soil particles and creating spaces for air and water. Legumes are also great for amending soil since they fix their own nitrogen from the atmosphere. (How amazing is nature??) After your beans stop producing (or any plant in your garden for that matter) simply treat them as a green manure by cutting them into pieces and incorporating the plant back into the soil. (See my complete guide for growing beans.)

Soil FAQ’s

Can clay soil be changed/improved?

Unfortunately, no, but raised beds are a great idea. If you are determined to change your clay soil and have the patience, cover crops incorporated into the soil for several years may show some improvements. But, it might just be easier and more affordable to build some raised beds.

Can soil be tested at home?

Yes, though I prefer the lab test, but we can just reference a few sites here that have instructions: 

3 Simple DIY soil tests from the Old Farmer’s Almanac

DIY Soil Tests A Gardener’s Guide to Soil Testing (importance of testing and how to read soil testing done at the extension)

So fear not if your soil is not what you hoped it would be. There are plenty of ways to improve garden soil either by adding amendments, avoiding tilling, and planting valuable cover crops. I’d love to know if you’ve had success in improving soil and if so, share your garden wisdom in the comments below!

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