Your soil’s health is essential for growing strong veggie plants; Spending a bit of time to amend your soil and provide your plants the perfect living space will be worthwhile in the long run. Having perfect soil makes work around the garden a lot easier. and your plants will also thank you by producing more.
What are the best methods to improve soil quality? Work organic materials into the soil to improve the soil’s structure, texture, and drainage. Consider adjusting soil pH and adding Compost or Fertilizer to ensure adequate nutrient levels. Mulch can help to improve the porosity of the soil and ensure a steady release of nutrients.
To reap the best results it’s important to implement as many different strategies as possible. There are a lot of factors affecting soil health and some often get overlooked when tending to the soil. Let’s get right to the good stuff, here are 10 (free) methods to improve your soil and make it just perfect.
Table of Contents
How to create the perfect soil
Clean up your Soil
It’s important to keep your soil free of weeds and diseased dead plant matter. Some Pathogens and Insects live in your soil and will feast on anything you plant in it.
First, start by removing grass, weeds, and other plants on top of your future or current garden bed. I usually use a spade to cut off the top layer, including all the roots, if possible.
In the next step, we want to remove any pests that live in your soil. The best time to prepare your garden beds is before or after your growing season. Take notice if you noticed any pests during your last growing season; this step is all the more essential if you tend to struggle with bugs.
Dig up the top 6-8 inches of your soil using a digging fork. Using a digging fork in clay-heavy soil is advisable because spades tend to be a lot more exhausting to use, and pitchforks will simply bend under pressure. In this post, I discussed the tools I currently use, take a look if you’re unsure of which tools to get.
Scan your soil thoroughly and remove any pests you can find. It’s impossible to get everything out of the soil. We only want to reduce the number of pests, so your plants have a chance to establish themselves before they get eaten completely.
Pests are an integral part of garden beds; it’s important to establish a balanced ecosystem in which both your plants can grow, and the number of bugs doesn’t get out of hand. Removing pests isn’t a long term solution but more of a quick fix before things go south.
Adding Lime/Sulfur to adjust soil ph
Soil pH plays a vital role in plant growth. Soil pH determines the availability of nutrients in the soil, affecting both plant growth and yield. Vegetable and Fruit plants tend to tolerate a certain range of acidity. Most vegetables thrive in slightly acidic soil, with some exceptions like blueberries, which prefer a pH of 4.5-5.5
The optimal soil pH level for growing vegetables is slightly acidic (around 6.5). You can increase soil pH by adding lime and decrease soil pH by adding Sulfur or Aluminum sulfate.
To optimize your soil pH, it’s essential to know your current Soil acidity level. You can use an at-home test kit to determine whether you need to increase or decrease your soil’s pH.
How much Lime / Sulfur do you need
Use this table to calculate the amount of Lime (finely grained) or elemental Sulfur you need to add to your garden. PH Adjustment takes time and won’t happen overnight. After adding the right amount of amendments check development of your soil’s pH over the course of multiple months. The full adjustment can take up to 2 years, so don’t add more if you don’t see any immediate changes.
|Increase pH by 1 (100sq feet)
|Decrease pH by 1 (100sq feet)
Add organic materials
A pretty simple and straightforward way to improve the health of your soil is to add organic matter. Organic Materials help to absorb water, improve soil structure, and fertilize soil over time.
There are a lot of different materials you can choose from: In this section, we first talk about Coconut Coir & Peat Moss. Essentially, you want to add these organic matters when your soil doesn’t have the right texture or your soil struggles with absorbing water.
How to check soil Texture
Optimal Soil should be able to form a dirtball if you compress it in your hands. However, loamy soil is also easy to break apart again. Your soil shouldn’t form tight dirtballs when compressed (too much clay). On the other hand, soil that doesn’t hold together at all is too sandy.
How to check soil Structure
The simplest way to check your soil’s structure is to water it. Soil with bad soil structure won’t be able to absorb the water. Here, the water simply runs off only penetrating the topmost 0.5″.
Soil structure essentially boils down to small Air pockets between the dirt grains of your soil. The smaller the soil’s grains (Clay), the higher the soil’s chance to compress. Adding Organic Matter helps to counteract this compression by reintroducing air pockets. Furthermore, the light & porous Material allows water to pass effortlessly into the lower layers of your soil. Poor soil structure is one of the main causes of soil erosion.
How to add organic Material
The amount of Organic Matter you need to add to your soil varies greatly depending on your soil’s current condition. It’s best to thoroughly mix 1″ of organic matter into the top 6-8″ of the soil. Afterwards, check the structure & texture of your soil and repeat if necessary.
Coconut Coir has 2 main disadvantages:
- It’s expensive if you have to buy large quantities.
- Coconut Coir is rather poor from a nutrition standpoint. It doesn’t add nutrients to your soil after it decomposes and requires additional amendments to replenish minerals.
Luckily, there is a alternative that negates both these issues.
Add Compost or Aged manure
I love working with compost! It’s easy, free, and one of the best amendments you can add to your soil. Compost works similarly to Organic Matter, as it improves both the soil’s water-holding capacities and structure.
Good compost contains a wide array of different plant species and parts. These dead plant materials are in varying decomposition stages, constantly releasing a steady stream of nutrients into the soil. The only downside is the time it takes to produce favorable compost.
How much compost should you add
Adding about an inch of compost into your soil’s top layer will lead to great improvements in soil structure and texture. Try to avoid adding large quantities of compost or manure to your soil in a short period of time. Generally, it’s advisable to add compost only once or twice a year. Too much compost can also lead to problems, most notably vigorous leaf growth, without fruit production.
Compost vs Manure
I stick to compost exclusively, mainly because I love to reuse all the plant materials I remove from my garden. Manure also tends to be higher in easily available nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus (Depending on the type of manure). It’s easier to overdo it using manure compared to compost.
If you still want to incorporate manure into your veggie-garden stick to cow or chicken manure. Manure has to compost before you use it. Here is a great explanation of how this process works and its importance.
Plants usually don’t need all nutrients in equal amounts, leading to imbalances in the soil. To fix those, we have to look at individual nutrients and readjust our soil accordingly.
Check your soil’s nutrients
The easiest way to detect nutrient deficiencies in your soil is to buy a testing kit in your local garden center or send a sample of your soil to a lab analysis.
Your plants are also decent indicators of your soil’s nutrition status. The images below show the most common deficiencies and how to fix each of them. Soil pH plays a huge role in the availability of soil nutrients. It’s important to ensure your soil has a proper pH level before fixing individual nutrients in your soil.
If there is too much nitrogen in your soil, you will find that your plant will experience a lot of growth, but your fruits will be small. Too little nitrogen in the soil will also hurt your plants and cause their leaves to turn yellow or pale green, and stunting their growth.
Amendment to increase nitrogen: Alfalfa or canola meal. Compost also provides decent amounts of nitrogen but takes a longer time to be available for your plants.
Lack of phosphorus in your soil will cause your plants’ growth to stunt, and you will notice the leaves begin to turn purple-blue, and then yellow.
Amendment to increase Phosphorus: Rock phosphate is the go-to fertilizer to increase organic phosphorus levels of the soil.
Insufficient potassium will cause your plants to scorch on the margins and will cause the leaves to turn yellow in spots. You will also see thin yellow stalks and poor bud formation.
Amendment to increase Potassium: There are lots of great sources for potassium. Blended banana peels, Wood ash, or commercial potassium fertilizer are all viable options to fight your soil’s potassium deficiency.
This deficiency will cause patchy yellowing all over the plant and some brilliant coloring around the margins of the leaves. The leaves will eventually start to die with a lack of magnesium.
Amendment to increase Magnesium: Epson salt is a great way to ensure sufficient Magnesium levels in your soil.
Without enough iron, your plants will yellow, but their veins will appear stark green. The young leaves may be white in more severe cases. This is common in areas with alkaline soil or water.
Amendment to increase Iron: Chelated iron is the go-to fix for Iron deficient soils. This Supplement is also a solution to a lack of plant-available Iron caused by higher pH-levels.
Add Mulch to your soil
Covering your soil with a Layer of Mulch provides a multitude of benefits:
- Mulch helps to reduce the impact of extreme Temperatures on your soil.
- Covering your soil with organic materials will help to retain moisture and reduce the impact of heavy rain.
- Mulch will allow beneficial soil-life to work through all soil Layers. The Topmost layer is otherwise not accessible for earthworms and insects.
- Mulch slowly degrades and, over time, will become fertile soil.
The Benefits to your soil depending on the Type of Mulch you choose. Let’s take a glance at commonly used Mulch options and their strengths.
Which Material should you use
- Straw: is a great option for Mulching. It breaks down rather quickly and starts to fertilize the soil within a couple of months. I usually get my Straw from neighboring farmers. It’s not that expensive and easy to use. Watch out for Hay & Straw that have been treated with Herbicides. These can kill the plants you want to grow.
- Grass cuttings: What’s better than cheap mulch? That’s right free mulch! Grass cutting offers everything you are looking for in organic mulch. Furthermore, it makes use of something you likely have in your garden. Grass cuttings ofter include local weeds, which can find their way into your garden bed. More regular weeding might be needed when using this Mulch.
- Woodchips: are probably the most widespread organic mulch used today. And why wouldn’t it be? You can get woodchips for free from local arborists. There are also dedicated websites to get you some free Mulching materials. This Mulch lasts a long time and will break down into very fertile and rich soil.
- Inorganic Mulch: Stones, Landscape fabrics, and Pepples also make for good Mulch. They still offer the benefits of Mulching but don’t break down over time. This Type of Mulch doesn’t release nutrients into the soil but saves you the time to replace it every year.
How to apply Mulch to your garden bed
Adding Mulch to your garden beds is an easy task. Evenly spread your mulch on top of your soil until the Layer reaches a height of 2-3″. The finer the Mulch, the less you want to add. Oxygen needs to reach your soil; otherwise, your plants might suffocate.
I advise you to secure lightweight Mulch (Straw, Hay, Grass chippings) using tree branches. Best are trees that produce long straight branches. Hazelnut is just perfect for this job.
Attract earthworms and other beneficial insects
Your soil is alive and home to many small creatures. They help to transform dirt into an amazing place for plant growth. Healthy soil will
bustle from all the organisms crawling through the top layers.
Earthworms and other beneficial soil organisms live off organic matter found in the top layer of the soil. If you follow this guide, you will already provide your soil-creatures with a suitable home. Worm population will need some time to adjust to the improvements in their life quality. Within a few months, you should see a noticeable increase in their population.
Worms help to improve your soil by breaking down organic materials. This way, nutrients are available to your soil’s microbes for further digestion. Worms also contribute to creating a healthy soil biome by introducing essential microorganisms. Additionally, worms create small tunnels throughout the soil. Helping to aerate your soil and preserving optimal airflow.
To speed up the process, you can also use fresh (homemade) Worm castings. Usually, this step isn’t necessary. Just give Nature some time to adjust and keep your soil thriving, and the rest will happen automatically.
Worms and other soil creatures live in a slightly deeper layer of the soil (~10-12″). Avoid digging into these deeper layers, otherwise, you might destroy their home.
How to attract beneficial soil organisms:
- Provide plenty of organic material in your soil as feed for soil creatures
- Add kitchen scraps to your soil (beware of rodents!)
- Mulch your soil to give worm excess to the topmost soil layer
- Keep your soil moist but not drenched
- Worms thrive in neutral and slightly acidic pH.
- Don’t cook your worms; they like it cool
- Keep Chickens away (they will dig up beneficial critters)
- Avoid using pesticides
- Don’t dig into the deeper layers of the soil
Here’s a great way to help out our fellow garden friends: After heavy rain, take a walk outside and rescue any worm you can find on the pavement, in puddles, etc. Bring them all home and introduce them to their new home. It’s a win-win! You saved several drowning worms, and your soil just got a few new tenants.
Use Cover crops and Green manure
Cover Crops are another great addition to help your soil thrive. This practice is almost unused in hobby gardening but offers quite a range of benefits. Let’s take a look at the why & how’s of cover crops.
Benefits of cover crops & green manure
- Organic Matter/Soil Structure: Cover crops provide the soil with lots of organic matter. Organic Materials play an essential role in soil health, as mentioned prior. All the plant materials will break down throughout the season and help with porosity and airflow.
- Nitrogen: Leguminous crops have the amazing ability to absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere and store it in their roots. These crops help to supplement nitrogen into your soil without fertilizers. Heavy Feeding crops will benefit greatly from succeeding leguminous cover crops.
- Nutrients: Cover crops help binding other important nutrients like phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. Which will be available again after the Green manure starts to break down. Incorporating cover crops into the soil will also produce organic acids. Organic Acids help to release minerals stored in small stones within the topmost soil layer.
- Soil Microbials: Microorganisms are a vital part of healthy soil. They feed on organic matter and help to break down plant materials in your soil. Incorporating cover crops into the soil will skyrocket your Microbial population.
- Water Conservation: Cover crops help to stabilize water levels during the off-season. They absorb excess water during rainfall and retain moisture as Mulch or Green Manure.
- Reducing Weeds: Cover crops grow extremely fast and compete with weeds for nutrients & water. Slowing down or even halting weed invasion completely.
- Reducing Pests: Increased diversity in your garden helps to reduce the dangers of serious pest outbreaks. Cover crops offer protection for small preditors in your garden & host beneficial microbes.
Which crop should you choose
- Crimson Clover: is the gold-standard for cover crops in southeastern states. Crimson Clover grows rapidly and helps fix nitrogen to the soil but isn’t adapted to harsh winters. Crimson Clover is hardy to Zone 6.
- Austrian winter peas: is a great alternative to Crimson Clover. This cover crop is also nitrogen-fixing and fast-growing. Austrian winter peas are also semi winter-hardy and survive until hardiness Zone 6.
- Winter Rye: is a great option for frigid climates or late sowing. Winter Rye is fast-growing and suppresses the growth of near-by weeds, making it a perfect candidate for late fall cover crops.
How to plant cover crops
Come fall remove all visible weeds from your garden bed. Afterward, loosen up the topmost soil layer using a rake. Evenly spread the cover crop seeds of your choice and cover them up—plant bigger seeds in rows with 8″ between the trenches and 4″ between the plants.
Only work dry soil
Working with soil can prove to be quite a challenge. Working only semi-dry soil is common knowledge for gardeners, but why is that?
It all boils down to Soil structure. First, we have to consider the role of soil type when it comes to digging. This rule doesn’t apply to sand soil, and silty soil is only partially affected. The advice to avoid digging wet soil is mostly preserved for clay soil.
Digging soil puts lots of pressure onto its surface. This can cause the soil to compact, reducing airflow in the process. Clay soil particles are microscopic; this makes them vulnerable to tighten up.
How can we fix the issue? All the tips in this article help you to build healthy soil. The same goes here, digging wet soil won’t be much of an issue once enough organic materials are present. Healthy soil can easily be moved aside using little tools or just your hands.
For now, avoid working on wet soil. Heavy machinery can cause damages that will take years to regenerate. I advise waiting until the soil is damp to work it.
There is an easy test you can do to check if your soil is dry enough to work. Take a handful of soil and roll it into a ball. Flick the ball: If the ball crumbles and falls apart, it is dry enough to be worked. If it remains intact with nothing but a dent, wait about a week before digging.
Give your soil a good stir
Dead, dry soil sometimes needs a good stir to be revived again. This trick doesn’t fix the underlying issue, which is usually a lack of organic matter. But it can help to replenish the soil enough to start fixing the underlying issue or, in some cases, actually grow veggies.
All we need to do is adding water throughout the top 2-5″ of our soil. Get yourself a digging fork and a watering can. First, we are going to loosen up and till through the soil. Next, we’ll water the soil. Repeat this process until your soil is evenly wet but stop before it gets muddy.
Here’s a great video to see this process in action.
Step by Step guide for the perfect Soil
- Remove the topmost Layer of grass & weeds.
- Break up the top 6-8 inches of soil using a digging fork. Remove all pests you can find. Only do this step if you had problems with pests in your garden.
- Add a Layer of Compost (1 in.), worm castings (homemade), and organic matter (Coconut Coir) on top of your soil.
- According to your soil’s needs: Add a good mixture of Amendments (Rock Dust, Epsom Salt, Alfalfa Meal, Rock Phosphate, Chelated iron, etc.).
- Add Lime to increase and sulfur to decrease Soil pH.
- Mix all Amendments into the top 6-8 inches of your garden soil and spread it out evenly.
- Cover your Garden bed with Mulch (Wood Chips, Straw). Secure Mulch if necessary
Common Mistakes when improving soil
Improving soil has its tricks & secrets. Over time we learn from small mistakes we make and avoid them in the future. These mistakes prevent our soil from reaching its full potential. Here are some of the things I did wrong in the past to save you some hardship and time.
Too little soil is improved
I’m defiantly guilty of this one. A few seasons ago, I tried to build in-soil containers for my vegetable plants (see picture above). I can’t complain about the results necessarily, but I noticed a crucial issue after digging up the dead plants. All the roots spread perfectly even throughout the good soil but slowed down dramatically after hitting the hardened clay soil layer.
This isn’t a big issue if you water every day but might prove challenging if you want to follow deep watering practices. In short, you shouldn’t try to cut corners when improving soil you’ll continue to use in the future. However, it might be worth doing this to save a bit of money (or time) in temporary gardens.
Too much compost or manure
I recently wrote a whole article about this topic. This issue can easily be avoided: don’t add more then 1″ of compost to your garden and you should be save.
Not testing before fixing your soil
Guilty again. Testing your soil before actually trying to fix it will save you lots of headaches in the long run. There are so many contributing factors to healthy soil; getting a general picture is essential. Especially when it comes to deficiencies, it often tends to be an issue with pH and not lacking minerals.
A soil testing kit is a worthwhile investment and can save you money in the long run.
There is a time where tilling is necessary
This is true for more established gardens with lots of mulching. Clay soil sometimes compacts underneath the layer of humus. This mostly happens when the initial soil quality is low, and lots of organic material is added on top without working it into the soil. Often, beneficial soil organisms can’t work their way through the hardened clay layers. Together with a no-till approach, a tough layer might form.
I am a huge fan of a (mostly) no-till method, but it’s important to work lots of organic material into the Topsoil layer in the initial improvement process.
Soil critters and plant roots will mix the soil once a healthy top layer is established. Now, mulch will also work its way into the soil without tilling.
Don’t leave your soil bare
Bare soil is extremely vulnerable to the weather. Mulching is a great way to reduce the impact of rain or wind, preventing erosion and mineral leaching.
Employing cover crops in the off-season can also reduce the impact of weather on your soil. The only place where you can leave your soil bare is in a sheltered greenhouse. Otherwise, always try to cover the Top layer with something.
When to amend your soil
We took a close look at how to improve your soil. Let’s discuss when you should improve it next.
When should you amend your soil
Usually, there are two times in a year where the soil is amended. Either in spring a few weeks before you start planting or in late fall after the season ended.
I advise using the fall season to take care of your growing beds. This gives them some time to start breaking down all the new materials you’ll add. Furthermore, you still have some time left in spring should you struggle to prepare everything before winter comes.
It’s mostly a preference thing. Preparing your growing beds in spring is also a viable option, so don’t shy away from doing then.
Please don’t try to make major changes to your soil in summer or winter. I’ve worked soils in summer, and in a pinch, it’s an option. It’s just a lot harder to work with bone dry clay soil and takes some good equipment.
Extreme temperatures will kill off lots of organisms that take shelter in your soil. Lack of water will further impair the decomposition of organic matter. Making Summer & winter unfavorable to work your soil.
Don’t try to work frozen soil, you’ll only hurt yourself or break your tools.
The role of Weather
It’s best to wait until the rain period before/after the season passed. Now you have damp workable soil if you -like me- fight with mostly clay soil.
You don’t want to work wet soil, wait for a few days up to a week until your soil feels moist but is easy to break apart by hand.
Sandy soil is a lot easier to work; feel free to go for it as soon as your plants stop producing. You don’t really need to wait for rain to incorporate organic matter or other methods.
The role Soil Types play
Most soils you come across are a good mixture of the following 3 soil types. Every type can reap benefits from following the earlier mentioned methods.
Clay soil consists of tiny particles (>0.002mm) densely packed together, making it far heavier than the other Types. Clay can easily be distinguished by its consistency. When damp, it is sticky and can be molded into different shapes without cracking. Once the soil dries, it will form a hard top layer, often cracking up in the process. I already did a more inclusive article on Clay Soil.
How to Improve Clay Soil:
- Mulching/Cover Crops
- Adjust pH level
- Adding Gypsum
Adding lots of organic material like Compost, Manure, Peat moss, and straw will be necessary to improve Clay soil’s drainage and structure.
The second of the 3 Main Types of Soils is Sand. Sandy soil can be described as the opposite of clay soil in almost all attributes. This soil can also easily be Identified by feeling, has a rough, gritty structure and doesn’t hold together.
How to Improve Sand Soil: To improve sandy soil, focus on its weak points. Adding organic matter in the form of compost will increase its ability to remain moist and increase its nutrient density. Fertility is often the main issue when dealing with sand soil. Consider adding a well-mixed package of nutrients (or lots of compost) to your soil.
Silty Soil is lesser-known, not as common as clay/sandy soil, and part of the 3 fundamental Soil Types. Silt consists of particles between the size of clay and sand, making it smooth to touch with a soapy or plastic-like feeling when wet.
It leaves behind a bit of residue when rubbed between your fingers. Silt is mostly found close to rivers, lakes, and other water bodies, combining sand and clay properties.
How to Improve Silty Soil: Silt soil provides a good base to create perfect soil. Consider adding some organic material to reduce compaction and help the soil drain. Also, add compost to introduce some slow-releasing nutrients.
What makes the perfect soil
Good soil is easy to break apart and has a loamy texture. Nutrients should be abundant in healthy soil, which is indicated by a dark color. Optimal soil has a slightly acid pH of 6.5, allows water and air to flow freely but still has a high water-holding capacity.
- Structure: Healthy soil isn’t structured in layers but rather a well-mixed compound of organic and inorganic materials. Airflow plays a vital role in soil health. Small tunnels from earthworms and roots provide the soil with an optimal supply of oxygen.
- Texture: Perfect soil has a loamy texture. It forms clumps that hold together when compressed. But they break apart effortlessly with very little force. The soil is neither sticky nor completely loose, usually with a strong earthy smell.
- Drainage: Water drains fast and evenly, penetrating the soil effortlessly. However, the soil has a very high water-holding capacity throughout the top layer. Tightly compressed soil should release drops of water.
- pH: Optimal soil for unspecific growth has a slightly acid pH of 6.5. Depending on the crop, soil pH might be adjusted to suit the specific needs of the plant.
- Nutrients: Healthy soil has an abundance of all minerals and nutrients., often indicated by a dark color. Plants shouldn’t show any signs of nutrient deficiencies or overexposure.
How to avoid compacting soil?
The main cause of compacted soil is working wet earth or compression due to pressure. To avoid compacted soil, only work semi-dry soil and try to establish dedicated walking paths. You also want to avoid crawling through your garden bed to remove weeds etc.
Should you cover your garden with plastic for winter?
Covering your soil to protect it from the weather is always a good idea. Black Plastic is one option to provide said covering, but there are also many organic alternatives (Woodchips, Straw). They all offer the same benefits; choose the type of mulch that works best for you.