Healthy soil is the basis of healthy plants and a healthy environment. When garden soil is in good shape there is less need for fertilizers or pesticides. As author and respected gardener Frank Tozer writes, “When building soil you not only improve your plants health, but you can also improve your own.”
Organic soil is rich in humus, the end result of decaying materials such as leaves, grass clippings and compost. It holds moisture, but drains well. Good organic garden soil is loose and fluffy — filled with air that plant roots need — and it has plenty of minerals essential for vigorous plant growth. It is alive with living organisms — from earthworms to fungi and bacteria — that help maintain the quality of the soil. Proper pH is also an essential characteristic of healthy soil.
So, how do you know if your soil is healthy? And what do you do if it isn’t?
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.
- Determining Soil Health
- #1 SOIL TESTER
- Soil Texture and Type
- Improving Garden Soil
- IT’S ORGANIC!
- Soil Life
- FREE SHIPPING!
- Organic Matter
- OMRI LISTED
- Cover Crops
- RAISES PH
- Soil Texture
- LOWERS PH
- Nutrient Deficiencies
- Beginner Vegetable Gardening Made Easy
- Size Matters
- Grow What You Love
- Location, Location, Location
- Planning Your Vegetable Garden Layout
- Testing and Fixing Your Soil
- Choosing Vegetable Varieties
- Caring for Your Vegetable Garden
- Resist Pests and Diseases
- Harvesting Vegetables
- The Best Soil For Vegetable Garden Beds
- How To Prepare Soil For Planting Vegetables
- Steps For Preparing A Vegetable Garden For Planting
- Soil types
- Soil improvement
- Tilling the soil
- Row preparation
- Pick Your Plot
- Garden Tool Basics
- How to Prepare Garden Soil for Planting
- Vegetable Garden Soil Preparation
- Amending Garden Soil
- Turning Garden Soil
- Tilling Garden Soil
- Fertilizing Garden Soil
- Mulching Garden Soil
- Amendment Application Formula
- Content Disclaimer:
Determining Soil Health
Of the 17 or so elements thought to be essential for plant growth, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are the most important (see What’s in a Number?). They are known as primary or macronutrients because plants take them from the soil in the largest amounts. Fertilizers that contain all three of these nutrients are labeled complete fertilizers, but they are hardly complete in an absolute sense. Calcium, magnesium and sulfur, known as secondary nutrients, are also important to many plants. Lesser or micronutrients include boron, copper, iron manganese and zinc. Some plant micronutrients have specific functions such as cobalt, which isn’t used by most plants but helps legumes fix nitrogen. Another critical component of your soil is its acid-alkaline balance or pH reading. All these essentials — and the proper texture — makes for healthy soil.
One way to determine what minerals are lacking or abundant in your soil is to get it tested. Local Cooperative Extension Services often offer low cost soil tests. These tests usually measure levels of soil pH, magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, potassium, and sometimes nitrogen. They may also report the soil’s micronutrient content, but this isn’t essential to the gardener who adds plenty of organic matter to her soil. For a less intensive test, pick up a do-it-yourself version such as the Rapitest Soil Test Kit and do your own simple, rewarding chemistry.
#1 SOIL TESTER
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!
pH levels can be critical to your plant’s ability to absorb nutrients. Most minerals and nutrients are best available to plants in soils with a pH of between 6.5-6.8. If your soil is acidic (low pH, at or below 6.0) or alkaline (high pH, above 7.0) it doesn’t matter how rich it is in nutrients, the plants won’t be able to absorb them. pH is usually included in a soil test, or you can buy a pH Meter and determine the acid-alkaline balance of your soil on your own.
The best time to get the soil tested is in the spring or fall when it is most stable. This is also the best time to add any soil amendments or organic fertilizer should your soil fall short of minerals or nutrients.
Soil Texture and Type
In addition to uncovering your soil’s pH, macronutrient content and mineral levels you’ll want to examine its texture.
Soil texture depends on the amounts of sand, silt and clay it holds. A handy description of the three main soil components and an easy test to determine your soil type can be found at NASA’s Soil Science Education Page. Sand constitutes the biggest pieces of soil particles and feels gritty to the touch. Next in size are the silt particles which are slippery when wet and powdery when dry. The smallest pieces are clay. They are flat and tend to stack together like plates or sheets of paper. You don’t need an expert to determine soil texture. Just pick up a little and rub it between your fingers. If the soil feels gritty, it is considered sandy. If the soil feels smooth like talcum powder, it is silty. If the soil feels harsh when dry and slippery and sticky when wet, the soil is heavy clay. Most soils will fall somewhere in between.
Sandy soils tend to be nutrient-poor since water and nutrients rapidly drain through the large spaces between the particles of sand. These soils also tend to be low in beneficial microbes and organic matter that plants thrive on.
Silty soils are dense and do not drain well. They are more fertile than either sandy or clay soils.
Heavy clay soils are quite dense, do not drain well and tend to be hard and crack when dry. Because there isn’t much space between the clay particles, there usually isn’t much organic matter or microbial life in the soil. Plant roots have a hard time growing in the hard material.
Improving Garden Soil
Adding organic matter in the form of compost and aged manure, or using mulch or growing cover crops (green manures), is the best way to prepare soil for planting. Adding chemical fertilizers will replenish only certain nutrients and do nothing for maintaining good, friable soil. Organic matter will help supply everything your plants need.
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Just like humans, plants need air, both above ground for photosynthesis and in the soil as well. Air in the soil holds atmospheric nitrogen that can be converted into a usable form for plants. Soil oxygen is also crucial to the survival of soil organisms that benefit plants.
Good soil provides just the right space between its particles to hold air that plants will use. Silty and heavy clay soils have small particles that are close together. These dense soils have little air. Sandy soils have the opposite problem; their particles are too big and spaced out. The excessive amount of air in sandy soil leads to rapid decomposition of organic matter.
Adding organic matter, especially compost, will help balance the air supply (the perfect soil is about 25% air). Also, try not to step in the beds or use heavy equipment that can compact the soil. Avoid working the soil if it is very wet.
All forms of life, including plants and soil organisms, need water, but not too much or too little. Healthy soil should be about 25% water.
In soils with too much pore space (sandy soils), water quickly drains through and cannot be used by plants. In dense, silt or clay soils, the soil gets waterlogged as all the pore space is filled with water. This will suffocate plant roots and soil organisms.
The best soils have both small and large pore spaces. Adding organic matter (see below) is the best way to improve the structure of your soil through the formation of aggregates. Additionally, organic matter holds water so that plants can use it when they need it.
A healthy organism population is essential to healthy soil. These little critters make nutrients available to plants and bind soil particles into aggregates that make the soil loose and fluffy. Soil organisms include earthworms, nematodes, springtails, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, mites and many others.
Some of these organisms can be purchased and added to the soil, but unless the environment is suitable for them, they will languish. Better to create an ideal habitat by providing the food (organic matter), air and water they need and let them thrive on their own.
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Adding compost will improve almost any soil. The texture of silty and clay soils, not to mention their nutrient levels, are radically improved from initially having the compost mixed in. All soils get better with annual applications on top. Organic compost can be purchased by the bag or by the yard, or you can make it yourself at home.
Compost and other organic materials hold soil particles together in aggregates and help to retain moisture. They also absorb and store nutrients that are then available to plants, and compost is a food source for beneficial microorganisms.
Making your own compost can be as easy as piling brown layers (straw, leaves), and green layers (grass clippings, livestock manure, food waste) on top of one another. Keep the pile moist and turn it often.
If a pile is too messy, or you are concerned about rodents and other animals getting into your pile, there are all kinds of composters and bins available for purchase to contain your vegetable scraps and make turning a cinch.
Organic (straw, hay, grass clippings, shredded bark) cover the soil and insulate it from extreme heat and cold. Mulches reduce water loss through evaporation and deter the growth of weeds. They break down slowly, enriching the soil with organic matter. Visit the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service for an in-depth discussion of mulch and mulching techniques.
Inorganic mulches (pebbles, gravel, black plastic, landscape fabrics) will prevent rapid evaporation and keep weeds down just as an organic mulch does. Unlike organic mulches, they do not need to be replaced every year and will not attract insects and rodents. However, inorganic mulches do not benefit the soil by breaking down and adding organic matter which improves soil structure and nutrient content. If you’re looking to improve your soil structure, use a clean, seed-free, high-quality garden mulch.
Dry or liquid fertilizer can add nutrients to the soil that might not get there any other way. Organic garden fertilizers work a little slower than their synthetic counterparts, but they release their nutrients over a longer time frame. Additionally synthetic fertilizers are bad for the environment and can make the soil worse in the long run as beneficial microorganisms are killed off.
Organic dry fertilizers are mixed into the soil according to the directions on the label and then watered. They work more slowly than liquid fertilizers, but last longer. Fertilizer blends contain different amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The ratio is listed on the label (for example 5-10-5). Other fertilizers may contain bat guano, rock phosphate, molasses or other ingredients. There are dozens of recipes for making your own organic fertilizer. Most are variations on nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium theme with added nutrients that come from seed meals, ash, lime, greensand or other mineral dusts and additional organic materials, often kelp, leaf mold or cured manures. You can find good basic recipes here and here.
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Liquid fertilizers are sprayed directly on the plant foliage or onto the soil. Popular organic liquid fertilizers include fish emulsion and seaweed blends. Compost teas are another liquid fertilizer that is easy to make and takes advantage of the compost you have piling up in the yard.
If you are using a foliar spray, be sure to wet the underside of the leaves. This is where the stomata, the microscopic openings that take in gases, are located. As they open to let in carbon dioxide and release moisture, they will quickly absorb the fertilizer. Read the labels of the liquid fertilizer you choose as some could burn crops and should be applied only to soil.
Cover crops are a temporary planting, usually sown in the fall, that help protect the soil from wind and erosion and add valuable organic material. They also establish a dense root structure that can have a positive effect on soil texture. Cover crops also suppress weeds, deter insects and disease and help fix nitrogen. When the crops are turned into the soil, they become green manure (see Overview of Cover Crops and Green Manures). Rye and alfalfa are common cover crops.
Cover crops are planted at the end of the growing season (winter cover crops) or during part of the growing season itself (summer cover crops). Legumes such as cowpeas, soybeans, annual sweetclover or velvet beans may be grown as summer green manure crops to add nitrogen along with organic matter. Non-legumes such as sorghum-sudangrass, millet, forage sorghum, or buckwheat are grown to provide biomass, smother weeds, and improve soil tilth.
Winter cover crops are planted in late summer or fall to provide soil cover during the off season. Choose a legume crop for the added benefit of nitrogen fixation. Growers in northern states should select cover crops, such as hairy vetch and rye, with enough cold tolerance to survive hard winters. Many more winter cover crops are adapted to the southern U.S. Cool-season legumes include clovers, vetches, medics, and field peas. They are sometimes planted in a mix with winter cereal grains such as oats, rye, or wheat.
After you have harvested your summer crops, add compost and any other amendments (such as lime) that you have determined your soil needs. Disperse the cover crop seeds and rake lightly. If you grow vegetables into the fall, plant cover crops seeds in between the rows a month or less before you expect to harvest.
Don’t let your cover crops go to seed or they may prove invasive. When spring comes around, till the crop into the soil 2-3 weeks before planting. A rototiller is an easy way to incorporate cover crops into the soil.
Don’t plan on changing the pH of your soil with one dose of a wonder material. As explained at Savvy Gardener.com it should take a season or two to moderate the pH and then a little effort every year to maintain it. Whether the soil is acidic or alkaline, adding lots of organic material every year will help balance it out.
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Acidic soil can be buffered with powdered limestone added to the soil in the fall. (Autumn is the prime time to do this because it takes several months to work). Be aware that plants like azaleas and blueberries grow better in acidic soil, but most plants don’t.
To raise the pH of sandy soil by about a point, add 3-4 pounds of ground limestone per 100 square feet. For loamy soil, 7-8 pounds of limestone per 100 feet should help, and 8-10 pounds per 100 feet is appropriate for heavy clay soil. Limestone should be applied at least two to three months ahead of planting to give it time to work.
Wood ash can also raise the pH of soil, but care must be taken in its use. Applying too much wood ash may result in high pH readings and take nutrients from your soil. Spread only light amounts on top of your soil in the fall and make sure to thoroughly turn the soil in the spring. Seeds that come in contact with ash may not germinate. If using wood ash every year, keep a close eye on your soil’s ph and stop using it when the proper reading is achieved.
Alkaline soil on the other hand, needs to be made more acidic. This can be done with the addition of sulfur, sawdust, conifer needles, sawdust or oak leaves. In sandy soil you can lower pH by approximately one point by adding 1 pound of ground sulfur per 100 feet to sandy soil, 1.5-2 pounds per 100 feet in loamy soil and 2 pounds per 100 feet to heavy clay soils.
To make sandy soil less sandy, mix 3-4 inches of organic matter (like compost) into the soil. Use wood chips, leaves, hay, straw or bark to mulch around plants and add at least 2 inches of organic material each year. If possible, grow cover crops and turn them into the soil in the spring (see cover crops discussion above).
If silty soil is a problem, you can improve it by adding an inch of organic material each year. Try to avoid compacting the soil — don’t walk on it or till it unless absolutely necessary. Raised beds are a great way to use silty soil without having to intensively work it.
Heavy clay soil will be improved with the addition of 2-3 inches of organic matter worked into it. Then add another inch or more to the top each year. Raised beds will improve the drainage and keep you from walking on it, which can compact the soil. Try not to till unless necessary.
Lowers pH in alkaline soils! Yellowstone Brand® Elemental Sulfur contains 90% sulfur with 10% bentonite as a binder. Also useful as a soil amendment around acid loving plants such as blueberries, azaleas and rhododendrons. Broadcast 10 lbs. per 1,000 sq ft.
Typically, bone meal is recommended to boost phosphorous levels in the soil while blood meal is suggested for raising nitrogen levels. However, both of these are products of slaughterhouses. Fortunately, there are some alternatives.
In lieu of blood meal or fish emulsion, try alfalfa meal or alfalfa pellets (sold for rabbit food). Or grow alfalfa as a cover crop to make nitrogen available to plants. Alfalfa also adds a bit of phosphorous and potassium and works well as a compost accelerator.
Like alfalfa pellets, cottonseed meal can be purchased at your local feed store and provides nitrogen to the soil. It is pretty acidic, however, so use it in combination with lime unless you want to lower the soil pH.
As a substitute for bone meal, add soft-rock phosphate to increase phosphorous levels.
As a side note, unless you can find organic alfalfa or cottonseed meal, adding them to the soil isn’t strictly “organic.” Non-organically grown alfalfa and cotton seed may contain pesticide and herbicide residues. Organic fertilizers will add nutrients without danger from chemicals.
Beginner Vegetable Gardening Made Easy
Vegetable gardening at home is a great way to save money while you get up close and personal with nature. Planting one plant ($3 to $5), for example, can provide 10 pounds of tomatoes over the season. Growing tomatoes and other favorite vegetables or herbs from seeds can save you even more money. You’ll also find that the flavor and texture of garden-grown produce usually exceed that of standard grocery store fare. Plus tending your vegetable garden counts as exercise! Dig into our tips and tricks to grow the best vegetable garden.
If you’re a beginner, start small. It’s better to be thrilled by what you produce in a small garden than be frustrated by the time commitment a big one requires. Plus, it makes sense to learn gardening basics before investing tons of time and money in this new hobby. You’ll get a feeling for how much time gardening takes. You’ll find out if you like spending time outside planting, watering, and weeding. You’ll learn how much produce you and your family can eat over the course of a summer.
A good size for a beginner’s vegetable garden is 10×10 feet, about the size of a small bedroom. Keep it simple. Select up to five types of vegetables to grow, and plant a few of each type. You’ll get plenty of fresh produce for your summer meals, and it will be easy to keep up with the chores. If 10×10 feet seems intimidating, you can go smaller (the veggies won’t mind) or consider growing vegetables in containers. With them you don’t even need a yard; a sunny deck or balcony work fine.
Editor’s Tip: A well-tended 10×10-foot vegetable garden will usually produce more than a weed-filled or disease-ridden garden that measures 25×50-feet.
Grow What You Love
What do you like to eat? Your answer will tell you what you should plant in your vegetable garden. Before you pick up your shovel, though, consider the following:
- Productivity: Think about how much you and your family will eat and how likely you are to freeze, can, or give away excess produce. Then be realistic about how many seeds or plants you need to put into the ground. (Many beginners make the mistake of planting too much.) Vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, and squash keep providing throughout the season, so you may not need many plants to serve your needs. Other vegetables, such as carrots, radishes, and corn, can be harvested only once and then would need to be replanted.
- Successive crops: Planting both cool- and warm-weather vegetables will give you a harvest of vegetables and herbs continuously through the spring, summer, and fall. In early spring, grow lettuce, greens (such as arugula), peas, radishes, carrots, and broccoli. After you’ve harvested your cool-weather crops, plant hot-weather favorites, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and herbs. In fall, you can harvest potatoes, cabbage, and kale.
Editor’s Tip: By planting vining crops like green beans and peas, you make use of vertical space in the garden and boost yield per square foot.
Location, Location, Location
Choose your growing site thoughtfully. If you plant your garden at the back of the yard, make sure you’re willing to trek out every day or so to check for droopy plants that need water, destructive pests, and produce that’s ready to pick. If you can locate your vegetable garden closer to the house, this will make it easier to harvest fresh produce or pick a handful of herbs while cooking in the kitchen or outside on the grill.
Don’t forget to consider the movement of the sun during the course of a day. Orient your garden from north to south to get maximum sun exposure; when plants are positioned from east to west they tend to shade each other too much. No matter where you put your garden or what you decide to plant, there are three basic requirements for success: sun, water, and soil.
Plan the Right Amount of Sun
Like all plants, vegetables need the sun to kick-start photosynthesis. This process transforms light energy into glucose, which plants use to make substances such as cellulose (for building cell walls) and starch (a food source). The fastest-growing vegetables need full sun—at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight a day–without blockage from trees, shrubs, or fences. That’s why you won’t have much success if you plant sun-loving vegetables in shady spaces.
If your yard provides partial shade, plant vegetables and herbs that tolerate those conditions (lettuce, kale, chard, spinach, chives, cilantro, parsley, and thyme). Root vegetables like carrots, radishes, and beets also may work if your site gets at least 4 hours of direct sunlight a day. Or if you have a sunny patio, switch to container gardening. That way you can place sun-loving vegetables and herbs (tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, peppers, peas, beans, corn, and squash; basil, dill, and rosemary) where they’ll do well.
Provide Plenty of Water
Watering wisely is key to garden success, especially in warm, dry regions. During the first few weeks after seeds germinate or seedlings are transplanted, frequent watering keeps plants strong. Once your plants are established, it is a better idea to give your garden a long drink every few days rather than a little sprinkle every day because then the water will move deeper into the soil, which encourages roots to grow deeper, where they’re better protected and better able to access nutrients they need to stay healthy.
Factor in your weather conditions and the composition of your soil to determine when you should water. Clay soil dries out more slowly than sandy soil. Sunny, windy conditions dry out soil more quickly than cool, cloudy weather. Still not sure? Feel the soil 3 to 4 inches down from the garden/container surface. If it feels dry, it’s time to water. It’s important to do this even on rainy days, because sometimes rain water will run off rather than soak in to the soil, which does nothing for your garden.
Editor’s Tip: The closer you place your vegetable garden to a source of water, the easier it will be for you to handle this chore.
Start Plants in Rich Soil
For the best harvest, your vegetable garden needs the best soil you can give it. Rich, healthy soil is something you know when you feel it: It’s easy to dig and drains well.
If it’s not clear which type of soil you have, send a sample to a state-certified soil-testing lab for help. But you can also investigate soil type yourself by examining its texture. Pick up a trowel’s worth and put it in your hands. Does it feel gritty? Too much sand. Is it powdery? Too much silt. Is it sticky when wet? Too much clay. The combination of these three types—and in which specific proportions—determines the texture of your garden soil. That texture affects drainage and the availability of nutrients.
You want soil that is dark, crumbly, and literally full of life. Fortunately, no matter what the texture may be, all soil can be improved over time by incorporating organic matter into it. Take sandy soils, for instance. They’re made up of large soil particles, so water and nutrients run through gaps relatively quickly. Adding organic matter (typically compost) to sandy soil helps fill in the spaces between sand particles, which helps retain both moisture and nutrients for plants to use.
Clay soils are just the opposite. They contain very small, densely packed particles that hold moisture but don’t allow much air space for plant roots. Compost helps separate those tiny clay particles so water can drain more freely and plant roots can get needed oxygen.
To prepare your soil for planting, spread any needed amendments like compost and work them into the soil with a tiller or spade. Avoid stepping on freshly tilled soil or you’ll compact it and undo all your hard work. Then rake the surface smooth and water thoroughly. Allow the bed to rest several days before you plant so the soil amendments can do their work.
Planning Your Vegetable Garden Layout
Choose either row cropping or intensive cropping when you plan your vegetable garden’s layout.
Place plants single file in rows at least 18 inches apart so you can walk easily between them. This approach makes the most sense for large vegetable gardens because rows make it easier to use mechanical equipment, such as tillers, to battle weeds. The downside is that space set aside for footpaths cuts down on the number of vegetables you can plant.
Editor’s tip: Tall plants generally do well on the north side of the garden. This includes naturally tall plants like tomatoes and plants that can be grown on vertical supports, including peas, cucumbers, and planting beans. Save money by making your own A-frame trellis for growing vegetables.
Boost your garden’s productivity with intensive cropping, which means that you space two or three plants close together in a bed about 4 feet wide (aka a wide row). Seeds are sown or transplants are placed so that their leaves will barely touch at maturity. This approach, which uses almost every square inch of the prepared soil, works well for most types of vegetables, excluding the ones that vine (such as cucumbers). The downside of this method is that you have to weed by hand because the plants grow so close together.
The square-foot method, in which you subdivide a raised 4×4-foot garden bed into 1-foot squares using a physical grid (such as lattice strips), is a specialized version of intensive cropping. You’ll need 8 cubic feet of top-quality garden soil to fill such a bed with 6-inch-high sides. The planting formula is simple: 1 extra-large plant per 1×1-foot square; 4 large plants per square; 9 medium plants per square; and 16 small plants per square. Mix and match at will.
Editor’s Tip: No matter how much you hate to weed, make it a priority. Weeds compete with vegetables for water, nutrients, and light. Keep them in check, especially early in the season.
Testing and Fixing Your Soil
Without ideal soil conditions, your vegetables will suffer. Before you start planting, it is best to test your soil. No soil-testing kit on hand? You can manually test your soil in three easy steps:
1. Soak Soil and Dig
Soak the soil with a hose, wait a day, then dig up a handful of soil to test.
2. Squeeze the Soil Hard
If water streams out, you’ll probably want to add compost or organic matter to improve the drainage. Testing the soil temperature will also help in determining drainage.
3. Open Your Hand
If the soil hasn’t formed a ball or falls apart at the slightest touch, the soil too sandy. Add organic matter to improve sandy soil. If the ball breaks into crumbs when you poke it, like a chocolate cake, your soil is in ideal condition. If your soil doesn’t drain well, your best bet will probably be to install raised beds as opposed to sunken beds.
Editor’s Tip: Building raised garden beds is an easy way to fix this problem. Build the raised beds on the existing lawn by lining the bottom of frames with several layers of newspaper, then filling with soil. That way, you don’t have to dig.
Choosing Vegetable Varieties
When selecting which vegetables you want to plant, pay close attention to the description on the seed packet, tag, or label. Each variety of vegetable comes with specific benefits. Some produce diminutive plants ideal for containers or small gardens. Other varieties offer better disease resistance, improved yields, or better heat- or cold-tolerance. Utilizing our Plant Encyclopedia will help you decide. Ask greenhouse or garden-center staff if you’re still unsure.
You may want to try two or three varieties of the same vegetable. If one variety doesn’t perform well, you’ll have other varieties of the same vegetable to make up for it. Then be sure to plant the best-performing vegetables the following year, and choose other varieties to try.
Seeds vs. Transplants
Decide whether you want to start vegetables from seed or purchase young plants from a garden center. If you’ve decided on seeds (e.g., peas, beans, squash, lettuce, mesclun mix, beets, or radishes), note that most annual vegetables should be started indoors about six weeks before the last frost in your region. Some plants—such as carrots, beans, and peas—can be sown directly into the garden. Check the seed packages for directions or look here for instructions for starting seeds.
You might prefer to buy seedlings from a nursery or garden center and transplant them into the garden. This method works best for slow-growing plants such as broccoli, celery, and kale. Note that transplants will mature sooner and give you an earlier harvest than starting plants from seed. Because they’re stronger when put in the garden, transplants also do a better job of resisting pests during the growing season.
Caring for Your Vegetable Garden
After putting all that effort into planning, preparation, and planting, it would be a shame to let the garden wither away over the course of the summer. Follow these steps to keep your garden going strong.
Stop Weeds in Their Tracks
Weeds compete with your vegetables for light, water, and nutrients, so it’s important to keep them to a minimum. Use a hoe or hand fork to lightly stir, or cultivate, the top inch of soil regularly to discourage weed seedlings. A mulch of clean straw, compost, or plastic can keep weeds at bay around larger plants like tomatoes.
Feed Your Future Food
Fertilizing your vegetables helps to maximize yields. Organic gardeners often find that adding high-quality compost at planting time is all their vegetables need. Other gardeners might consider applying a packaged warm-season vegetable fertilizer according to the directions on the box or bag.
Resist Pests and Diseases
Some problems require special solutions, but in general, follow these guidelines.
Keep Animals Out
Big pests, such as deer and rabbits, can disrupt vegetable gardens of all types. It takes an 8-foot-tall fence to keep deer from jumping into the garden. A fence needs to extend 6 inches beneath the soil to stop rabbits from digging their way in.
Deter Destructive Insects
Picking off large insects and caterpillars by hand (and dropping them into a bucket of sudsy water) is a safe, effective way to deal with limited infestations. For bigger quantities of insects, try insecticidal soap sprays that you can find at most garden centers. Whichever pest-control chemicals you use, carefully follow the manufacturers’ directions.
Fight Fungal Diseases
Reduce the likelihood of fungal diseases by watering the soil, not the leaves of the plants. If you use a sprinkler, do it early in the day so the leaves will dry by nightfall. If a plant falls prey to a disease, promptly pull it and throw it in the trash; don’t add sick plants to your compost pile.
Additional disease preventatives include growing vegetable varieties listed as disease-resistant and changing the location of your plants each year. The latter idea helps stop diseases from gaining a permanent foothold in your garden.
Harvesting your vegetables is what gardening is all about. Many vegetables can be harvested at multiple times during the growing season. Leaf lettuce, for example, will continue to grow and produce after you snip some of the tender, young leaves. Summer squash (zucchini) and cucumber can be harvested when the fruit is a few inches long or larger.
The general rule: If it looks good enough to eat, it probably is. With many vegetables, the more you pick, the more the plant will produce.
- By BH&G Garden Editors
Did you know that vegetable garden soil preparation is an important first step for successfully growing your own food? Below I will show you exactly how to prepare a garden bed for planting vegetables, including details about building the best soil for garden beds, and tips for adding organic soil amendments for vegetables.
A reader recently asked:
How do I prepare soil for a vegetable garden? What do you put in the soil to enrich it?
Great question. Preparing the soil for growing vegetables is super important. A healthy and productive vegetable garden starts with the soil.
In this post, I will show you how to prepare last years garden for this year. So, if you have an existing garden bed that’s not completely overgrown with weeds or grass, then this is the post for you.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for information about preparing a garden bed that is currently covered by grass or weeds, then skip ahead to part 2.
The Best Soil For Vegetable Garden Beds
Before I dive into the details of how to prepare garden soil for planting, let’s talk a moment about vegetable garden soil. A common question I get asked by new gardeners is “is topsoil good for a garden?”. I mean, garden dirt is dirt, right?
The answer to both of those questions is no. You need high quality soil for growing vegetables, that is super important. Topsoil is some of the cheapest dirt you can buy, and is usually made out of very poor quality… well, dirt.
Vegetable garden soil needs to be rich in organic matter, and contain tons of nutrients in order for vegetables to grow. So, you want to build the best organic soil for your vegetable garden as you can.
If you don’t know how good your soil is, or you’re not sure what to add to it to prepare soil for a garden, I recommend you test the soil. Don’t worry, garden soil testing is super easy to do at home using an inexpensive soil test kit. Learn more about how to test your soil at home.
How To Prepare Soil For Planting Vegetables
When you have an existing garden plot, preparing a garden bed for planting vegetables is pretty easy. One of the community garden plots we rented last year was used before, but it was neglected until we adopted it.
The plot was pretty clean but was partially covered by a thin layer of weed seedlings, and the grass was creeping in all around the edges. Below are the steps I took to get this neglected garden plot ready for planting.
Related Post: How To Make A Raised Garden Bed Using Concrete Blocks
Before preparing soil for vegetable garden
Steps For Preparing A Vegetable Garden For Planting
Step 1. Remove as many weeds as possible: First I removed as much of the grass and weeds as I could. Most of the weeds in this garden were pretty small and easy to pull.
Tiny weeds will be taken care of in the following steps so you don’t have to remove every single tiny little weed in this step. But try to remove as many of the established weeds and grass roots as you can. Use a shovel to cut the garden edges and turn the soil to make it easier to pull the grass and weeds.
Step 2. Add edging to keep the grass out (optional): This step is optional, but it really helps keep grass and weeds from creeping in around the edges of the garden. I use the black plastic edging, and that does a great job of keeping most things from creeping in.
You could spend a little extra money and buy fancier edging, like bricks or concrete bullet edgers. Just sink them into the ground so they help keep the weeds and grass from growing underneath.
Step 3. Add soil amendments for vegetables: Once all the weeds have been removed, it’s time to add organic soil amendments. I had to amend clay soil, so compost was a definite must for this vegetable garden bed.
Compost is a natural fertilizer for your garden and a great amendment to any type of garden soil. Plus, compost is pretty inexpensive to buy in bulk. I like to add enough to my garden so that the compost is 1-2″ deep.
Our community garden plot is 10′ x 20′, and I added one yard of compost to it. You could add more if you’re working with poor quality soil (e.g.: extremely sandy, rocky or hard clay soils).
This is also the perfect time to add granular organic vegetable fertilizers to build the best garden soil you can. There are a several wonderful organic gardening fertilizer options on the market these days, and they are super easy to use.
I use, and highly recommend this organic vegetable garden fertilizer or this natural vegetable plant food in my gardens. This is also a great brand of all purpose granular fertilizer, and organic worm castings are also a fantastic soil amendment for the vegetable garden.
Adding organic soil amendments for vegetables
Step 4. Till the soil (optional): Tilling (aka cultivating the soil) is another optional step, you definitely don’t need to till your garden. Tilling mixes the soil amendments into the existing garden soil, and also helps to break it up, making it easier for plant roots to penetrate the soil.
We use a small garden cultivator to make quick work of tilling our vegetable plot. But you could just plant your vegetables directly into the top layer of compost, or turn your compost and fertilizers into the soil with a shovel or pitchfork if you prefer (or get yourself a garden claw, one of my favorite tools!).
Tilling is optional for vegetable garden soil preparation
Step 5. Add a thick layer of mulch: Mulch is the key to keeping the weeds down, and it also retains moisture in the soil so you don’t have to water your garden as often.
It also adds more nutrients to the soil as it breaks down over time, helping to build rich, fertile garden soil. Before mulching your vegetable garden, you could lay down a thick layer of newspaper to help with weed control if you want.
Mulching vegetable garden beds before planting
I mulch my vegetable gardens with straw because it’s inexpensive and readily available in my area. But you could use other types of mulch for vegetable gardens, like leaves for example.
That’s it, now your vegetable garden is ready for planting.
My vegetable garden bed is ready for planting
When it comes to preparing garden beds for planting vegetables, it’s super important to build the best garden soil that you can.
Adding compost and other organic soil amendments, tilling or turning the soil, and mulching are all fantastic for preparing soil for growing vegetables. And, once you get into the habit of taking these steps year after year, you’ll be sure to always have the best soil for growing vegetables.
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More Posts About Growing Vegetables
- How To Use Natural Fertilizer For Garden Vegetables
- How To Design A Vegetable Garden Layout
- A Beginner’s Guide To Companion Planting
Share your tips for how to prepare soil for planting vegetables in the comments below.
By: Joseph Masabni
The soil is a storehouse for all the elements plants need to grow: nutrients, organic matter, air, and water. Soil also provides support for plant roots. When properly prepared and cared for, soil can be improved each year and will continue to grow plants forever. Uncared for soil will soon become suited only for growing weeds.
Texas gardeners must work with many different soils. Some are very sandy, some are sticky clay, and others are rocky and shallow.
Sandy soils do not hold enough water; in windy areas, blowing sand can injure vegetables. Clay soils hold too much water and do not allow enough air to enter the soil.
Vegetables need a deep and well drained soil with adequate organic matter. Good garden soil with proper moisture will not form a hard ball when squeezed in the hand. It should crumble easily when forced between the fingers. It should not crack or crust over when dry (Fig. 1).
Figure 1. Good garden soil will crumble easily.
Almost all garden soils can be improved by adding organic matter to make soil more workable. Organic matter:
- Loosens tight clay
- Helps sand hold more water
- Makes soil easier to dig
- Adds nutrients
Some common organic matter additives are:
Plant materials: This includes leaves, straw, and grass clippings. Work material into the soil several months before planting to allow it time to decompose. Most gardeners do this during the winter.
Manure: Use composted manure and incorporate it into the soil well ahead of planting. Do not use fresh manure, as it can damage plants and introduce diseases. Apply 30 to 40 pounds of composted manure for every 100 square feet.
Compost: Compost consists of decayed plant materials. Work it into the soil before planting.
Sawdust: Compost this before adding it to the garden. Do not use uncomposted sawdust because it will rob the soil of nitrogen and, consequently, starve the plants of this essential nutrient.
Green manure: Plant rye or oats in the fall and plow or spade it under in the spring. These cannot be used if a fall garden is planted.
Do not add more than a 4-inch layer of organic material.
Most heavy clay soils benefit from the addition of gypsum. It adds some nutrients but, more importantly, it loosens clay soils and makes it more workable. Spread about 3 to 4 pounds of gypsum per 100 square feet over garden soil after it has been dug in the winter. Work it into the soil or allow it to be washed in by rain.
Add sand and organic matter to clay soil to make it more workable. Mix 2 inches of clean sand and 3 inches of organic matter, such as leaves, with the soil. Do this during the winter.
Tilling the soil
The soil should be tilled as deeply as possible, at least 8 to 10 inches. Deep tilling loosens soil and lets vegetable roots go deeper. Turn each shovelful of soil completely over (Fig. 2).
Figure 2. Turn over the soil to a depth of 8 to 12 inches, using a spade or rototiller.
Till soil when it is moist but not wet. Working soil when it is too wet can cause it to become rough. Spade the soil in the winter to prepare for spring planting. Winter temperatures and moisture help mellow soil. This is especially important if the soil is being worked for the first time.
Add organic matter each year during soil preparation to build and maintain the soil. Be sure all plant material is turned under the soil. If organic material is added before planting a fall garden, it should be well-rotted, such as compost.
Before planting, rake the soil clean and level it. Remove all sticks, rocks and other material.
In most Texas areas vegetables should be planted on raised beds (Fig. 3) Raised beds:
- Allow water to drain away from plant roots
- Provide furrows for irrigation
- Allow air to enter soil
- Help plants through periods of high rainfall
Figure 3. Plant vegetables on raised beds.
If the garden is large enough, make rows 36 inches apart. Where space is a problem, some vegetables can be planted in rows closer than this, but they will require more care during the growing season.
Straight beds are nice but not necessary. In small gardens worked with a hoe, rake or other hand tools, straight beds are not as important.
If the garden is large and is worked with a rototiller or garden tractor, the rows should be made as straight as possible.
Use a shovel or rake to pull the soil up into beds 8 to 10 inches high. Pack beds or allow them to settle before planting. Also level the tops of the beds and widen them to about 6 to 8 inches before planting. Plant on top of the beds (Fig. 4.)
Figure 4. Plant vegetables on top of prepared beds.
After completing the steps required to properly prepare the soil for planting, gardening might seem anything but “easy.” But with proper soil preparation, gardening will get “easier” every year.
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So, you’ve decided to plant a vegetable garden.
Congratulations! You’ve made an excellent choice with far-reaching benefits.
Not only will you have a source of inexpensive, fresh vegetables, you’ll also be in complete command of how your crops are grown – so they can be as organic and natural as you like.
You can also plant surplus amounts to can and freeze, and make your own jams, jellies, pickles, and preserves – a great way to stretch your garden’s goodness (and food budget) into the winter months.
On top of all that, working with soil and plants is an excellent stress buster. It’s one of the easiest activities to practice mindfulness, and working with the earth is a natural antidote to anxiety and worry.
Kids love the garden too! Photo by Lorna Kring.
Research even shows that children who garden eat more fruits and veggies. They also score better on science achievement tests, and significantly increase important life skills like self-understanding and the ability to work in groups – all good reasons to get the kids involved!
Clearly, there are a lot of positive benefits to the vegetable patch.
To get you off to the best possible start, in this article we’re looking at how to choose a location, the basic tools you’ll need, how to prepare your garden bed, plant selection, companion plants, successful planning, sowing, watering, weeding, fertilizing, small space gardens, and containers for veggies.
Let’s turn the sod!
Pick Your Plot
If you’re new to gardening, it’s a good idea to start small.
Preparing the soil and planting are just the first steps to a bountiful harvest. As spring and summer progress, your garden will need to be weeded, watered, and maintained – all of which take time and energy.
To prevent overwhelm, begin with a plot that’s manageable for you and your schedule. An area as little as 8 by 8 feet will provide 64 square feet to work with, which is plenty of space to produce a good yield – and maintaining it won’t take up every spare minute of your time.
A level area that receives 6-8 hours of sunlight per day is ideal. It should also be sheltered from high winds, and have easy access to a water source, like a faucet.
Garden Tool Basics
A few basic tools will do for your first efforts. As your expertise develops, you can add specialized pieces.
To get the best value, invest in well-made tools of good quality materials that are appropriate for your size and build.
You’ll need the following:
- A round-tipped shovel for digging.
- A fork for turning and loosening soil.
- A steel bow rake for cleaning and leveling.
- A hoe or cultivator for weeding.
- A hand trowel or hori hori and a hand cultivator for transplanting and weeding.
- A hose and nozzle, or watering can.
Landscaping bags are light, but tough, and perfect for collecting yard waste. Photo by Lorna Kring.
And you’ll quickly appreciate these extras:
- Garden gloves with nitrile-coated palms and fingers.
- Bypass snips for pruning and cutting.
- Sharp scissors or a garden knife for harvesting and pruning.
- A kit bag to tote your gear, seeds, and hand tools.
- A wheelbarrow for transporting sod, dirt, and compost.
- A lightweight landscaper bag for gathering leaves, weeds, and grass clippings.
- A kneeling pad, to save your knees.
- A weed torch, to save your back.
A good tote bag will carry all of your hand tools. Photo by Lorna Kring. 3.2Kshares
Photos by Lorna Kring, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Uncredited photos: .
About Lorna Kring
A writer, artist, and entrepreneur, Lorna is also a long-time gardener who got hooked on organic and natural gardening methods at an early age. These days, her vegetable garden is smaller to make room for decorative landscapes filled with color, fragrance, art, and hidden treasures. Cultivating and designing the ideal garden spot is one of her favorite activities – especially for gathering with family and friends for good times and good food (straight from the garden, of course)!
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:
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).
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.)
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.
- First, you could buy an inexpensive soil test kit at your local garden store.
- 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.
Vegetable Garden Soil Preparation
These tidy beds have a compost mulch layer protecting vegetables and a walkway protected with thick grass clippings.
Rain and snow melt make spring garden soil preparation a challenge every year, but once you can get into the garden, get into your soil! Feeding your garden soil in spring is an investment that pays off every time. Amending, turning, tilling, fertilizing, and mulching are the five practices needed to make your garden great all season! The addition of drip hoses for easy irrigation can make garden care even more effortless.
Rich soil yields better crops, so it pays to feed your soil. Adding the best amendments will ensure your soil is ready to work. Adding lots of compost will increase good yields, but be sure that your compost is good quality. Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost is a high-performing compost sure to give your garden what it needs. For areas where you intend to plant greens, go with nitrogen-rich amendments, such as Fafard Garden Manure Blend.
Turning Garden Soil
“No till” areas in the vegetable garden need different care. These include beds with perennial and winter crops, like areas with asparagus, garlic, strawberries, or hardy herbs, as well as well-amended spots that are already in good shape below ground. Still, adding extra organic matter to no-till spots will ensure better growth while allowing for the addition of needed amendments. Adding a layer of compost and lightly turning it into the surface will increase organic matter while not disrupting your plants or soil structure.
Tilling Garden Soil
Compost acts as both an amendment and protective mulch.
Many gardeners have bed areas that are tilled yearly. This has its pluses and minuses. Tilling brings the bank of weed seeds to the surface and disrupts soil structure and organisms, but it also increases tilth and allows organic matter to be worked deeply in the soil. If you plan to till, plan to double your amendment by adding a till-in layer and a mulch layer. First, put down a thick layer of compost or manure and till it deeply into the soil, then rake and berm bed spaces as needed. Finally add a second layer of compost to further enrich the soil and protect against weeds. The second step is extra important because tilling brings lots of weed seeds to the soil’s surface.
Fertilizing Garden Soil
Many vegetables require lots of food to produce good yields through the season. It’s essential to feed the garden well from the beginning with a good tomato & vegetable fertilizer. OMRI Listed fertilizers approved for organic gardening are best. Simply broadcast the fertilizer and gently work it into the top layers of soil where it’s needed most. Heavy feeders, such as tomatoes, peppers, and melons, should be fed again at planting time.
Mulching Garden Soil
In addition to adding a compost mulch layer, I protect and define walkways with leaf mulch, straw or hay, and grass clippings. These natural mulches stop weeds and make it easier to traverse the garden in wet, muddy weather. They also hold water and keep root zones cool on hot summer days. By fall’s end, they have usually broken down into accessible organic matter.
Living mulches are another option. Planting a dense summer cover crop in walkways, like white clover, will keep them tidy, cool, and mud-free while also feeding the soil. Just be sure to keep the edges trimmed and turn plants under in fall.
Amendment Application Formula
When adding amendments, determine how many inches you want to add over your garden area. Here is the simple formula needed to determine this:
( ft2 x x 0.0031 = ___ yd3).
Example: If you wanted to cover a 20 square foot area with 2 inches of compost, the result would be: 20 ft2 x 2 inches of compost x 0.0031 = 2.48 yd3.
A thick layer of straw helps hold moisture while also keeping walkways clean and weed free.
For added benefit, consider snaking a drip hose beneath mulch layers to make summer watering easier and more efficient. Below-the-surface watering keeps water at root zones while virtually stopping surface evaporation on hot days. The key is marking your drip lines from above (to keep from accidentally cutting the line with gardening tools) and securing nozzles for easy access. At watering time, just hook up your lines and let them drip for an hour or so to ensure deep watering.
Once the vegetable season takes off, your garden will be in good shape with these five steps. Sure, weeds, drought, and hot days will come, but their impacts will be minimized and your time and garden’s productivity will be maximized.
About Jessie Keith
Plants are the lens Jessie views the world through because they’re all-sustaining. (“They feed, clothe, house and heal us. They produce the air we breathe and even make us smell pretty.”) She’s a garden writer and photographer with degrees in both horticulture and plant biology from Purdue and Michigan State Universities. Her degrees were bolstered by internships at Longwood Gardens and the American Horticultural Society. She has since worked for many horticultural institutions and companies and now manages communications for Sun Gro Horticulture, the parent company of Black Gold. Her joy is sharing all things green and lovely with her two daughters.
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