5 Helpful Tips to Improve Your Garden Soil
While we often focus on the plants and flowers we see above the soil, it is what’s going on beneath the soil that can really determine the success of a garden. Even the most talented gardeners in the world will fail without good garden soil to work with. Good garden soil will set your garden up for success, providing flowers and plants with the necessary nutrients and space to grow properly. When your garden isn’t doing well, the root cause of the problem could be your garden soil. The good news though is that there are many things you can do to fix bad soil and improve the health of your garden. Listed below are 5 improvement tips to improve your garden soil.
Test Your Soil
Plants need certain nutrients to grow properly, and a soil test will determine exactly what is in your soil and at what concentrations. Three of the most important nutrients to consider are phosphate, potassium and magnesium and knowing these levels will allow you to buy the proper fertilizer to correct for imbalances.
Soil tests also reveal the soil’s pH level. The pH level is a scale of how acidic or alkaline the soil is, ranging from 0 to 14 with a 7 midpoint. Most plants grow well in pH ranges from 5.5 to 7.0, although some plants prefer soil environments outside this range. Once you know your soil’s pH, you can take necessary measures to correct it (for example, adding lime if the soil is too acidic, or sulfur if it is too alkaline).
Nitrogen is not part of your standard soil test because it is hard to measure and affected by a number of factors. However, nitrogen is an important nutrient for plant growth and getting it right is crucial to your gardening success. To improve nitrogen content, you can add organic matter, which stores nitrogen and releases it into the soil as it breaks down. Some good organic matter options include manure, grass clippings, compost, coffee grounds, and nitrogen fixing plants such as peas or beans.
Nitrogen is also found in fertilizers on your gardening store shelf. Fertilizers are listed in N-P-K ratio and look something like 10-10-10 with nitrogen being the first number in the group. Learn more about fertilizer ratios.
Mulch is not just an aesthetic addition to your garden. It can actually help improve your soil. Adding mulch promotes fungi and bacteria in the soil, beneficial microscopic critters that help with nutrient balance. Mulch also helps the soil retain its moisture, protects it from overheating, prevents erosion, and also feeds the soil with nutrients as it breaks down.
Compacted soil also poses a problem because when the soil is dense and hard, it does not leave proper room for the transmission of water, nutrients and air – all valuable ingredients in a healthy garden. To fix compacted soil, you should loosen to a depth of at least 12 inches for most plants or up to 2 feet for larger plants and trees. You can do this manually with shovels or rent equipment for harder areas. To prevent the soil from getting re-compacted, add compost to keep it loose. You can also create pathways in your garden to walk on, which will minimize stepping where you plant, a common cause of compaction.
By harvest time, the nutrients you added to the soil earlier in the season become depleted because they have been used to help grow the vegetables you are harvesting, leaving the soil nutrients imbalanced once again. One way to deal with this is by planting cover crops with the purpose of restoring the soil. Cover crops (also called green manures) include fall or winter rye, alfalfa, oats, buckwheat, field peas, vetch and legumes. They are planted in the late summer and early fall, then tilled under in late winter or early spring. The many benefits include restoring nutrients and organic matter, fixing nitrogen levels, lessening erosion and preventing soil compaction.
The success of your garden is tied to the quality of your soil. While you may experience any number of soil problems or deficiencies, the good news is there are many things you can do to correct bad soil. Follow these tips and you can create the optimal conditions for growing a beautiful garden.