How to Improve Soil for Gardening

Healthy soil determines how healthy your plants and overall garden will be. When soil is in good shape and health, there is less need for extra fertilizer, and the soil is used in the most natural way possible. This is primarily why organic soil is regarded as one of the richest ways to grow your plants. It holds moisture but drains sufficiently well. Furthermore, it is loose – filled with enough air for roots to make their way deep into the surface of the ground and help the plants grow.

How to Improve Soil for Gardening
soil on a garden spade

Whether you begin your gardening process with fresh topsoil, improving it is a continued process. It ensures sustainability and ongoing nutrients that the plants require. Soil is made up of minerals, water, organic matter, air, and microorganisms. In order to improve soil health, each of these factors needs to be determined individually for overall health.

While there are numerous ways to achieve improved soil health, most processes revolve around two primary techniques; Increase organic matter avoid tilling for the soil to remain as undisturbed as possible. Read on below to find ways on how to improve soil for gardening:

Manure

All livestock manure include nutrients that are necessary and extremely beneficial to soil. Compared to compost, manure works incredibly well since the materials decompose while providing nutrients.

Manure should be applied with care. Even though pathogens are less likely to be found in home-based or small gardens, there should be a three-month gap between each application and harvest of crops such as lettuce, spinach, etc.

On the other hand, it is also important to note that manures are likely to leach into groundwater and streams from the soil where they are essentially needed. Moreover, if manures are overused, they can provide excess amounts of certain nutrients such as phosphorus. As a result, it is recommended to restrict fresh manures to fast-growing crops like corn. All additional manure can be processed by composting.

Compost

Composting is the process of recycling and reusing all organic waste. It provides nutrients and speeds up the production of soil hummus.

Applying moderate amounts of compost i.e., one-quarter inch per season provides slow-releasing nutrients that improve soil health by a significant percentage. Compost helps soil water retention and suppress any signs of disease.

From the various types of composting, one is known as “sheet composting.” This is the process by which you build tall piles in bins, alternating between fresh nitrogen-rich green materials such as grass clippings and brown materials such as dry leaves. The moist, green-rich materials are composted first, followed by the drier brown leaves to keep the bottom layer from drying out.

Another alternative is vermicomposting i.e., using earthworms to convert materials such as manure, food waste, etc. to forms that can be used by plants.

Soil Test

When you are starting a new garden, soil tests are highly recommended. If any essential nutrient is missing, the soil and plants that you grow on it will suffer. Due to this, soil tests help determine the pH levels of your soil and understand what fertilizers or nutrients need to be added.

A basic soil test gives the readings for soil pH, potassium (K), phosphorus (P), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulfur (S). It will give you a detailed analysis of the amount of organic matter and lead content for the adjustment of any of these levels.

Any of the above-mentioned nutrients can be balanced if the soil is not up to its mark. For example, alfalfa meal can add nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus into the soil. Worm castings are also a great source of nitrogen, and bone meals provide phosphorus and calcium to the soil.

Mulch

Mulch is important for a healthy garden and improved soil health. Sheet mulching, for example, is a method in which existing plants are smothered with a layer of cardboard, adding a new planting medium on top.

The cardboard decomposes and attracts worms and other soil organisms. The organic matter on top can include compost materials such as grass clippings, manure, etc. The final layer on top then consists of compost soil which is about six to eight inches in depth. As the layers decompose, the contents on the sheet mulch shrink in size and contribute to the overall nutrients present in the soil.

Mulching garden soil stimulates growing conditions, retains moisture, and keeps soil cool. High-carbon mulches are also preferred for weed control in plants.

Soil Compactness

Soil compactness prevents water and nutrients to properly soak in, resulting in more dryness and the soil to become dry. Due to this, plant roots are unable to spread out because of the lack of moisture and may end up dying. Compact soil also hinders microbiological processes that convert organic matter to nutrients for plant usage.

In the winters, clay soil tends to compact easily with the weight of snow. Adding organic matter on the soil will help to balance its pH levels and nutrient shortage. Soil that is too wet may also lead to compactness. In the spring months, you should wait until the snow melts and the garden drains entirely so the soil does not stick together during planting season.

You can also prevent soil compactness by staying off it. Simply walking over it prevents water, air, and oxygen from reaching plant roots, hindering their ability to grow. You can establish walking paths and smaller garden beds so the plants can easily be reached, without stepping on the other.

Cover Crops

While many plants benefit from the soil and use the nutrients for growth purposes, cover crops help the soil gain the nutrients it requires. You can plant cover crops during the end of the gardening season and make sure it remains in the garden till the end of winter so the soil is prepared for the upcoming planting cycle.

Cover crops prevent soil compactness and hinder unnecessary weed growth during the cold months. This way, a gardener will not be required to do extra work before the growing season begins.

Examples of useful cover crops include kale, radishes, turnips, legumes, peas, and clover. They work as good food sources and nutrient providers during the winters.

Crop Rotation

Rotating crops throughout the year prevents nutrient depletion in the soil and keeps pests and diseases away. One example of maintaining and improving soil for gardening is potato pathogens. Fungi that cause green and black patches to form on potato skins increase rapidly in the soil during one growing season. If the next year’s crop is planted in the same location as the current one, it will attract the same fungi to harm the crop. The diseases and microorganisms such as fungi that develop in one year will eventually die out if the same crop is not planted for them to feed on during the next.

A simple three-year rule helps to establish garden crops. Select plants such as no family crop that is harvested in the same place for three years. This gives ample time for pathogens in the soil to die.

Improve Soil for Gardening
garden soil

A good replacement for similar-family plants can be those that provide nutrients to the soil. Peas, for example, are a useful source of nitrogen. The soil can be replenished by planting nitrogen-producing crops after nitrogen-exhausting crops are harvested.

Steps to Improve Soil for Gardening

Tasks such as digging and raking through soil help prevent compactness and removes unnecessary debris and weed accumulated in the ground. The process by which you utilize much of the above-mentioned materials and necessary tools to improve soil is important. This way plants will be exposed to suitable soil conditions and your garden would produce the best results.

Read on to find a step-by-step method on how to improve soil for gardening:

Materials Needed

  • Soil
  • Garden spade
  • Garden fork
  • Garden rake
  • Organic matter such as compost or manure
  • Fertilizer

Step 1:

Dig the soil thoroughly for a couple of minutes to break large clumps. For soil that has never been dug, use a spade, or else a garden fork can be used to dig the soil and create space for air and water to pass through.

Step 2:

Add manure or compost to the soil. Before digging or forking, add a minimum of 5 cm layer of organic matter to the soil as they are highly beneficial.

Step 3:

Dig the soil again to ensure the organic matter mixes thoroughly. Make sure the soil is dug deep so the organic matter travels in the deep pits of the soil. For ease, a spade would be the best tool for this task.

Step 4:

Tread the area using your garden boots. If you notice soil lumps, use the garden fork to break those during this step.

Step 5:

Rake the soil to remove any unnecessary stones or pre-grown weed. This will ensure an even layer is formed for planting purposes and your crops can grow with ease.

How to Improve Soil for Gardening
A tiny plantation in soil

Identifying Soil Types

Soil texture varies from very fine particles to one that includes gravels. To understand the type of soil in your garden, simply place some in the palm of your hand and wet it faintly. Then, run the mixture between your fingers. If it feels gritty, the soil is identified as sandy, and if it feels smooth, it is filled with silt. Moreover, if the soil feels harsh when dry, or slippery when wet, it is high in clay content.

Every soil varies depending on how it was formed. Due to this, each soil has unique characteristics and its own set of properties that may or may not be beneficial to the plants you grow.

In order to understand the type of soil, a simple experiment will give you the answers you require. This way, you can easily identify the type of soils you are dealing with and understand those that are present in your garden. Follow the steps in order to continue with the soil experiment:

  1. Fill a jar with one-third topsoil and add water until the jar is filled up to three-quarters.
  2. Add the lid and shake the mixture in the jar profusely until the extra soil clumps dissolve in the water.
  3. Now leave the jar on the side and observe as the large particles begin to sit at the bottom of the container.
  4. In about a few minutes, as the sand particles completely set to the bottom, mark the level of sand on the outside of the jar.
  5. Leave the jar for several hours. The particles will continue to sit onto the sand and you will notice different colored layers, showcasing the types of particles present.
  6. Leave the jar overnight. As the layers continue to settle, the layer above the silt will be clay. Above the clay layer, will be a thin layer of organic matter that may still be floating on top. Mark the thickness of both layers. At this point, the jar should be floating with organic sediments. If not, you will need to add more organic matter to improve soil nutrients and fertility.

Once you’ve identified soil structure and types, you can now work towards improving soil quality.

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The Key Takeaway

Soil health is extremely important for the growth of your plants. Rather than purchasing new soil contents every planting season, employ the steps and methods mentioned above to understand how to improve soil for gardening. From organic matter to chemical fertilizers, there are various ways you can improve soil health depending on how big your plantation is.