8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil

Use these organic and natural methods to make healthy garden soil from common dirt.

| June/July 2007

Garden Soil

This garden needed room to grow!

Photo courtesy Walter Chandoha

Starting to build a new garden isn’t difficult. Most people begin by going out into their yards with a shovel or garden tiller, digging up the dirt and putting in a few plants. Following the organic and natural methods, add a little mulch or compost, and you’re well on your way to make good soil for your homegrown vegetables. But in the long run, the success of your garden depends on making healthy garden soil. The more you can do to keep your soil healthy, the more productive your garden will be and the higher the quality of your crops.

In the last issue, I discussed the value of soil care methods that imitate natural soil communities. These include protecting soil structure, feeding the soil with nutrients from natural and local sources, and increasing the diversity and numbers of the microbes and other organisms that live in the soil.

In this article, I’ll focus on specific ways to achieve these goals. There are many ways to do this, but they all revolve around two basic concepts: For more fertile soil, you need to increase organic matter and mineral availability, and whenever possible, you should avoid tilling the soil and leave its structure undisturbed.

Add Organic Matter

For the best soil, sources of organic matter should be as diverse as possible.

1. Add manures for nitrogen. All livestock manures can be valuable additions to soil — their nutrients are readily available to soil organisms and plants. In fact, manures make a greater contribution to soil aggregation than composts, which have already mostly decomposed.

You should apply manure with care. Although pathogens are less likely to be found in manures from homesteads and small farms than those from large confinement livestock operations, you should allow three months between application and harvest of root crops or leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach to guard against contamination. (Tall crops such as corn and trellised tomatoes shouldn’t be prone to contamination.)

9/4/2015 11:53:32 AM

it's sept 9th here, Just East of Dallas TX. I missed the correct time to plant a Fall garden, so I am considering a cover crop to till in as green manure for spring. this will be the first garden here and by the looks of the sparce growth of grass and weeds, the soil will need amending. I'll get a ph test kit to determine what to add.

5/24/2015 8:17:07 AM

My wife and I have an acre portion of our property where we have tried to grow ornamental and fruit trees. We seem to lose 1 to 2 trees after every winter. The property was farmed for many years before us so I believe the grounds nutrients are depleted. How can we improve the quality of our ground around our trees?

5/18/2015 10:53:28 AM

Here is info on how to test soil ph without a kit http://preparednessmama.com/testing-your-soil-ph-without-a-kit/. Just a bit of time and you will be rewarded.

5/13/2015 3:54:15 PM

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1/27/2015 9:29:22 AM

Hi Nina, This might help. I got it from Larry Moore's; 20 X 30 Backyard Garden book. If your soil is clay gypsum takes several seasons (or more) to correct...the only way to do it fast is by tilling in a ton of peat and organic matter. I still use the gypsum though because I agree that over time it helps change soil from clay to loam. Dig deep!

12/26/2014 11:08:44 AM

I have poor soil. Its clay and sand. I try to add stuff to it every year but it still ends up hard during the summer.

6/3/2014 5:30:18 PM

Where can you find the chemical traits of regular garden soil? You know, the stuff you dig out of your backyard. Does anybody know of any helpful resources I might take a look at? Books? Websites? Magazines? Thanks a bunch! -TheGardener

6/3/2014 5:28:26 PM

Where can you find chemical traits of regular gardening soil? You know, the stuff you dig out of your backyard. A lady that just joined my gardening club is having trouble deciding what plants she wants. She figures knowing what her soil is made of will help her. Does anybody know of any popular/informational books? websites? magazines? Thanks a bunch! -TheGardener

eric hammonds
4/26/2012 12:30:48 PM

I live in south Florida and use a hoe and hand remove the grass, a few spots grow, but with st augustine grass if you can get a bulk of the roots it's helps.

5/21/2007 7:53:25 AM

Allison, I have recently read 2 good books that would work in your situation. Larry Moore's 20 X 30 Backyard Garden, it is out of print but you can find it on Amazon or maybe your local library. and ALL NEW SQUARE FOOT GARDENING by Mel Bartholomew

5/21/2007 7:30:49 AM

My husband and I are trying to improve the soil of a 20'X 20' plot of land. We live in east central Florida and primarily have beach sand everywhere. We've added tons of compost (all we have!) and I'm constantly swiping yard waste from neighbors to dump on it as well. The problem is the grass refuses to die! No matter how deep I bury it, the grass always shoots up. We've only lived here a year and are trying to nurture the sand/soil back to health, but I'm not seeing a way around tilling. Would you recommend tilling just to get rid of the sod and after that maintain it without tilling? I'm not completely opposed to removing all the sod by hand, but I'm afraid it will grow in faster than we'd be able to remove it. Thank you for the help! Mother Responds: It sounds like you have very resilient grass. You could try putting down black plastic over the grass to kill it or you can spread newspapers on the grass and put the compost on top of that. Good luck!

5/17/2007 1:42:48 PM

Who is Harvery Ussery? My mother's maiden name was Ussery. My other question is what can I use for ridding of caterpillars that are eating my rhonedendrin? (spelling may be incorrect) Thank you, Marte

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