How to Improve Your Garden Soil

Soil in hands

Testing your soil will allow you to determine whether your soil is ready for planting, or if you have to make any improvements. Dmytro Diedov / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Few gardens start out with good soil. Depending on your location, you could run into soil with sand, clay, rocks, or shale. If you don’t take time to test and analyze your soil, these natural elements could be detrimental to your plants. Take the time to assess your soil, and if necessary, take action in advance of this year’s plantings.

When analyzing your soil, it should be analyzed on two levels – nutrition content (determining whether plants have the nutrients they need) and drainage ability (so roots don’t dry out or rot from excess moisture). Try any one of these at home soil testing techniques to determine how you can improve your soil ahead of the planting season.

pH Testing

A pH test measures how acidic or alkaline your soil is. The results tell you what kind and how much fertilizer you need (if any) and whether you ought to acidify or make the soil more alkaline to make your plants successfully grow and absorb nutrients.

Do-it-yourself test kits are available at most county extension offices and many garden centers for $10-$20.

Drainage Testing

A drainage test lets you know about your soil texture, as well as how well it drains. A fun way to test drainage is by doing the ‘squeeze test’:

  • Take a handful of moist soil (if not moist, add a bit of water) and squeeze it together. When you open your hand, poke the soil:
    • If the soil crumbles, you are in luck! You don’t have much work to do.
    • If the soil stays together, you likely have high clay content.
    • If it falls apart in your hand before poking it, you have sandy soil.
  • When testing, you will also be able to feel the texture of your soil with your hands - sand feels gritty, clay feels sticky, and ideal soil feels velvety slick.

Hole Test

Dig a test hole about as big as one of the rootballs of the plants you plan to plant. Fill the hole with water and let it drain for 24 hours. Then fill it again and watch how many inches it drains per hour. If it’s not going down by at least one inch per hour, you have some “uncompacting” to do.

Fixing Shortcomings

If you complete any of these tests and you find your soil is less than perfect, there are ways that you can improve it. Try any of these options to adjust your soil and better your chances for a successful growing season.

If you do a pH test, and your soil is:

  • Acidic - add lime
  • Alkaline - add sulfur

If the texture of your soil is bad, add compost! You can create your own or you can purchase compost at most garden centers, nurseries, and home improvement stores. Whether sandy or full of clay, the organic matter in compost will help your soil by improving drainage and adjusting the texture of your soil. It breaks up compacted clay and subsoil and adds water-retaining organic particles to counteract the too-fast drainage of sand.

Working two to three inches of compost into the top 10 or 12 inches of loosened soil is usually enough to make a vast improvement. The addition of compost also results in slightly raised beds, creating excellent planting conditions for most plants.

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