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How to Improve Your Garden's Soil

kale

Each spring, I plant a garden with the best of intentions. Some years, the garden is taken over by weeds and I can't keep up. Other years, I stay on top of it and enjoy the bounty.

During winter, I start my list of what I want to grow, gather my garden tools, and plan out my year of "the greatest garden ever." This year, after a rough 2014, I'm beginning with a plan to improve my soil.

When I first started "digging" into this topic, the answer for improving my soil wasn't simple. There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution, but there is a process you can follow.

Step 1: Study Your Soil

To start, you must first test your soil and understand what might be wrong. That was the advice given to me by, Ryan Geddes, a member of the Royal Botanical Gardens and a horticultural enthusiast. A simple home pH kit is all you need to find out if your soil is acidic or alkaline. Once you know your soil's pH, Geddes says, the proper adjustments can be made.

I found a wealth of information on the Clemson Extension website about adjusting your soil pH with natural substances, and got a better understanding why the pH of your soil matters. As Geddes points out, the pH of your soil will limit what type of plants can be grown. Each plant has an optimal soil pH range.

For example, Horticultural Magazine online has a list of what can be planted if your soil tests high for alkaline. Make your 'dream list,' and then research which plants can grow best in the type of soil you have.

soil

Step 2: Plan for Drainage

Once you know what type of soil you're dealing with and what type of plants you can grow, think about drainage.

If your yard or garden floods throughout the season, that's likely your number one problem. Fortunately, drainage issues in most yards can be fixed by digging a trench and installing an in-ground drainage system. This is where you'll need to strap on your tool belt-here's a simple step-by-step plan to fix any yard's drainage from Family Handy Man, but you'll need a few tools, like a shovel, hammer and a cordless drill. The extent of this project will depend on the size of your garden and yard.

If you're overwhelmed by flooding, remember that others have it worse, and are still able to grow a garden. Geddes (our pH guru from before) has been successful growing heritage plants to use in Haitian relief efforts, where erosion and drainage are major challenges. You do not want to plant your garden anywhere with sitting water, Geddes emphasizes.

"If you have an area where water is sitting at any point during the year, a trip to the home improvement store for drainage tile and a well dug trench will be required, regardless of soil composition," he emphasizes.

Step 3: Give Something Back to the Soil

The trench is dug and you have proper drainage; now, let's naturally improve your soil so you can have that magical garden you've always dreamed of.

Brande Plotnick, with Tomato Envy, suggests vermicomposting. Plotnick describes this process as, "turning household and kitchen waste into a valuable soil conditioner that can be safely used anytime and with any type of plant."

It's easy to build an under-the-sink vermicompost bin, using a plastic tub and a power drill. Click the link for a tutorial from MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

Other suggestions for improving your garden soil include using natural fertilizers. Award-winning landscape designer and acclaimed author Julie Moir Messervy says, "The best fertilizers are manure, fish emulsion, composted leaves, diluted urine, composted food scraps, and other organic materials that will enhance both the nutritional composition and the texture of the soil. These natural fertilizers are very effective because they improve the WHOLE soil and are less likely to create nutritional imbalances."

And if you're starting a new garden over one that you've let go for a few years, consider "lasagna gardening." Lasagna gardening isn't what you're growing in your garden, but a method of gardening that requires no digging or tilling. You're simply creating layers of organic composted material on top of already existing weeds and soil to create layers, like lasagna. Materials such as coffee grounds, peat moss and food scraps can all make up layers. This type of gardening can help improve your soil from the bottom up, says Plotnick.

Regardless, of how big or small you aim for your garden to be, it is possible to improve your soil. Test the pH, do some research on what you can or cannot plant, ensure proper drainage and then naturally improve your soil quality through compost and natural fertilizers.

Sommer Poquette is a popular mom blogger, and amateur gardener, who writes on gardening and DIY for The Home Depot. Sommer's tips use a variety of hand and power tools to implement. You can view a wide variety of hand tools on the Home Depot website.


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jgwhite
4/2/2015 3:50:20 PM

Excellent article, Sommer! I love how Safer Brand puts it in their free ebook "The key to success in gardening is buried beneath your beds." http://www.saferbrand.com/resource/uploads/SaferBrand_E-pub_Gardening_Secrets_In_The_Soil.pdf