One of the keys to a beautiful garden is good soil. You can buy high-quality soil mix from a garden supply company or make your own for less, although you will still need to purchase some of the ingredients.
You should never use the soil “as is” from your yard. This is because it has things like the seeds from weeds and disease causing bacteria. It is also probably too heavy. For a healthy garden the soil should be light, not compacted and have good drainage. Good soil also contains high levels of nutrients that plants need in order to thrive.
When starting with the soil in your yard the first thing you should do is remove the grass and other vegetation already growing in it. You can do this either with a spade or by applying an herbicidal treatment. Care must be taken with this step because the grass and other vegetation will continue to grow if not eliminated.
A thick layer of some sort of decaying organic matter is then applied, manure or some type of compost, either home composted or store bought. Turn it into the soil to a depth of at least 12”. This can be done with a spade, fork or tiller. Make sure to break up all clumps of dirt.
Never till the soil when wet. Wet dirt will cause excess clumping. It’s best to wait as long as needed for the soil to reach barely damp before tilling. New plants will find it difficult to grow fresh roots in rocky or clumpy soil.
Topsoil, compost, manure, humus, peat moss, rotted leaves, wood chips and composted grass are some of the additives used in preparing soil. If you take the time to have your soil tested professionally you will know what your soil will need.
A balance of minerals: nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus is important for the health of your plants and the balance or unbalance of these micro-nutrients can also be determined by soil testing.
There are many soil testing kits available on the market but the best way is to take a sample to your local County Extension Office. They will send it out to be tested for a minimal fee. Results will tell you exactly what condition your soil is in, what nutrients it needs, the ph and what is needed to improve it.
The optimal condition of soil varies with the type of plants you want to grow. It also depends on whether you wish to start seeds or plants. Although it may sound convenient to alter the environment to suit your gardening wants and desires it is also very helpful and sometimes more efficient to tailor planting choices to the type of soil and conditions already in existence. For example, observe the type of light, amount of moisture retention and drainage before choosing what to plant and where to plant it. Some combination of these two approaches is probably best.
Even if you have achieved perfect soil conditions for your plants you should still supplement with a liquid fertilizer every two weeks. The plants use the nutrients from the soil and so they need to be replenished. Soil appears to be static but in actuality it is a continuously changing environment that is “alive”, from tiny bacteria and fungi to earthworms and grubs. They all do their part to make the soil habitable for plants.
Making and maintaining your own garden soil mix is a process. It may take several years to achieve truly “good soil”. Keep this in mind and have a little patience.
And finally, if you find that your soil is very hard to work with or become too frustrated to work with it you can always make your garden on top of the land. Simply apply an extra thick layer of pre-mixed top soil over the “bad soil” and plant as you wish.
Photo by Brian Chow, Creative Commons Attribution License