Gardening: Getting Good Soil

Good soil is the first step to a good garden. Without it, even your best attempts at gardening will fail, or at best will result in a poor crop. How do I know? I’ve dealt with this for the past several growing seasons. Ugh!
So today we’ll start learning about getting good soil in the garden. There’s a site that has four DIY home tests for determining how good your soil currently is. There’s the squeeze test, the percolation test, the worm test, and the Ph test. (Click HERE to see how to perform those tests.) If you do well in each of those tests, then garden away! You will likely have great success (assuming you remember to follow other proper garden protocol such as watering, proper sun, weeding, etc. as well)!
If, however, you find that your soil is less than ideal, you will want to start amending it in order to give your plants the best environment in which to grow. So let’s start at the beginning.

The biggest hurdle for most people in their garden is their soil type: sandy, clay, or loamy. (Find your type using ‘the squeeze test’ mentioned above.) Sandy soil drains well but the downside is that all your nutrients drain right away with the water. Clay soil maintains nutrients, but it retains water too. Most plants will rot if they stand in water for too long, not to mention the clay is generally too difficult for the roots to push through. Loamy soil is what we’re shooting for. It’s essentially a combination of sandy and clay.

If you have loamy soil, smile knowing that you have been blessed. For the rest of us, we’re going to have to work on improving what we’ve got. My personal recommendation is to build a raised garden bed* so that once you get the right type of soil, the surrounding ground areas (that are not good soil) don’t mess up your efforts. But you can amend the soil right where it is if you’d like too.

The best way to improve clay soil is by adding organic matter such as dried grass clippings (as long as the lawn was not chemically treated), dried leaves, shredded newspaper, peat moss, wood chips, compost, coarse sand (not fine sand), manures (cow, chicken, or rabbit manures are best), and other compost types of materials. Here is a great article on how to improve your clay soil: Understanding and Improving Clay Soil.

If you have sandy soil, the amending process is fairly similar to clay (add lots of organic matter), however it is an ongoing and lengthy process and will need to be repeated basically each year. For this reason, I would strongly recommend building a raised garden bed* in which you can just start fresh with some ideal soil (you’ll likely need to purchase some sort of potting mix or check with a local nursery to see what they have in terms of soil) and spare yourself a lot of extra effort and expense each growing season. However, if you enjoy the extra work ;), here is an article on improving sandy soil that may help you out: How To Improve Sandy Soils.

{*I should note that a raised bed is generally for those who are going to be maintaining a fairly small garden. If you’re looking to have an acre sized garden (or larger) a raised bed would be pretty impractical. For those looking to have a large garden area and have poor soil, your process will be a long one but the end result will be worth it. I would also recommend starting with a small side garden that you can put in a raised bed while you work on getting your large area amended. Also check out some of the Easiest Gardens HERE to see if there is another route you would prefer to go.}

Once you have amended your soil to the proper structure, you will also want to make sure you have proper nutrients in your soil. ‘The worm test’ mentioned above is a good indicator of whether or not your soil is healthy (worms are one of the best things you can find in your garden- they create their own ‘compost’ and create nutrient rich soil). If, however, you do not yet have ‘healthy’ soil, it’s time to call in the dirt doctor.  Next week we’ll talk about fertilizers and compost and getting that now-amended-garden-soil healthy!
Until next week, best wishes in the garden!

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