Improving your soil
Consistent, nutrient-rich soil is every gardener’s dream. Too often we are stuck with what we have—or are we? If you find your soil is too sandy, rocky, mottled, discolored, or has too much clay, you can take steps to improve the quality of your vegetable garden soil so that your crops will produce better yields over the years.
The first step is to figure out what’s wrong with your soil. Take a look at its color, as this can be telling. Soil should be dark or brown-red, signs that it has sufficient organic matter, adequate air, and decent drainage. However, if your soil is blue-green, gray, yellow, or streaking, you should investigate draining problems. If watering and drainage is under control, here are other signs that the quality is poor:
- dry/cracked soil
- difficulty digging holes (in wet or dry soil)
- shrubs that repeatedly wilt despite watering
- plant leaves that turn yellow or have brown/dead sections on them
- rotting crops
- water that pools on the soil surface or runs off the surface. If your soil displays any of these signs, you have some options.
ADD FINISHED COMPOST
One way to improve your soil is by adding finished compost. By this, we do not mean to use your garden as a catch-all place for scraps; instead, you should add compost that has already finished the decomposition process. Finished compost should be dark and crumbly.
Add compost to your soil just before planting. Apply 3-4 inches of compost (6-8 inches if your soil is new or has excessive sand/clay). Work this layer into the soil at least 6 inches deep. Sprinkle a small layer on top of your planted crops.
ADD ORGANIC MATERIAL
The difference here is that you will be adding raw organic matter such as undecomposed manure or sawdust. Add this to your soil one month before planting crops so that it has time to break down. Follow the compost instructions above.
If you choose this method, make sure you know the ramifications of each organic matter. For example, manure will improve your soil’s nitrogen level, while sawdust will rob nitrogen from the soil. You will have to compensate accordingly.
ADJUST THE SOIL’S PH
Your soil should have a balanced pH level: the measure of acidity and alkaline contained within the soil. Excessive acidity or alkalinity will prevent plants from getting necessary nutrients. Most gardens have an ideal pH range of 6.3-6.8. You can use a home test kit or send your sample away to a local nursery or cooperative extension for testing. Once you have the results, you can follow the recommendations for adjusting the level.
MULCH OR COVER BEDS OVER THE WINTER
If your soil is finicky, consider laying straw over the entire garden bed over the winter season. Excessive precipitation can compact bare soil; mulch will help reduce erosion and may also help with weed growth.
Instead of mulch, you could also plant a cover crop. Ask a nursery which type of cover crop is appropriate for your growing region. Plant after the last harvest and till into the soil before the growing season. Here’s a good YouTube video about improving soil with cover crops.
SOIL STILL TERRIBLE? TRY THIS!
If, over time, these methods fail to work, you can always rely on the favored backup option: use a raised bed garden for your crops, where you can add your own soil to the raised bed. We particularly love this specific soil recipe. We also have tons of advice on building DIY beds.