Tony O’Neill, gardener and author of the popular “Composting Masterclass” and “Your First Vegetable Garden,” combines lifelong passion and expert knowledge to simplify the art of gardening. His mission? Helping you cultivate a thriving garden. More on Tony O’Neill
To grow healthy plants, you also need healthy soil. Improving soil quality is an ongoing process for a gardener. Good, rich in nutrients, and friable soil will offer the plants everything all on its own. Thus, you would need lesser fertilizers and pesticides.
Soil has four basic requirements similar to human beings – food, water, shelter, and air. As soon as you can fulfill all these requirements, you can improve your garden’s soil quality.
Since the subjects specified are vast, we will be honing on more alleged actions in the next few sections that one can do to boost further the health of the garden soils in our homes, which will ensure healthier plants and blooms.
Garden soil and how to know if it is in a healthy state
Healthy soil that is well-drained, well-aerated, friable, and neither too alkaline nor too acidic. It is also rich in minerals, organic matter, and microorganisms. And there are several quick and easy ways in which one can improve the quality of the soil.
Land is not merely soil, it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animalsAldo Leopold, Author, philosopher, scientist and conservationist
From adding organic matter such as aged manure or compost to using mulch, there are many ways to prep the soil and improve its quality before planting.
Nine Steps on How to improve garden soil
Here are some ways in which you can improve the quality of your garden soil quite easily and quickly:
1) Get a Soil Test
Before you begin, you need to get your soil tested. Soil tests are an extremely vital gardening tool. While several soil tests are available in the market, they are also quite easy to do yourself.
Conducting a soil test every few years is important as it will help you evaluate the condition of the soil and what kind of nutrients it needs.
A basic reading would help determine the pH, nutrient density, organic matter, and soil lead content.
This will give an idea of the existing soil quality, which will help you determine how to improve the soil quality. To aid you with understanding the process more, check this recent article of mine on testing the soil before planting. It covers the process of taking in a soil sample, possible test kits that you can look into, and the information one might get from the soil test itself.
When is it best to do a soil test?
The best time to carry out a soil test is spring or fall. This is the time when the soil is most stable. Moreover, it is also a great time to add amendments or organic fertilizer. This means you can take immediate action based on the results.
Actions you can do based on the soil test
Here are a few things that you can do:
|Soil test result||What can you do to amend said result|
|Low Nitrogen||You can add blood meal or fish emulsion or plant legume cover crops.|
|Low phosphorus||You can add rock phosphate. While this will be good for long-term results, bone meal can be used as a quick fix.|
|Low potassium||You can consider adding wood ash. Compost rich in banana peels can also help.|
|Low calcium||Adding gypsum, clam/oyster shells, or lime (calcium carbonate lime or dolomitic lime) can help.|
|Low magnesium||You can add Epsom salts or dolomitic lime for better results.|
Between a few years of testing, you can also add mulch to your soil, which we will discuss in the next section.
2) Use Mulch
While compost is added beneath the top layer of soil, mulches are added over the top layer. Mulch also has a slightly different purpose. It reduces soil evaporation, regulates temperature, and smothers weeds.
Mulch refers to anything laid over the soil as a covering.
Although you might see the benefits only after the mulch decomposes, it will reduce the time and effort you put into watering and fighting weeds and pests.
Types of mulch
Mulches are available majorly in two types – organic and inorganic. Organic mulches include leaves, straw, grass clippings, shredded bark, wood chips, pine needles, sawdust, and paper. Even compost can be used as mulch.
On the other hand, inorganic mulches majorly comprise black plastic and geotextiles (landscape fabrics). While both discourage weeds, it is better to use organic mulch since it also improves the soil quality as it decomposes.
Different things can bring other benefits; the same can be said for mulch. To ensure you have something to consider when choosing your mulch, read my recent article on the best garden mulches. It enumerates the different mulch types, benefits, and possible considerations, and some also cover the mulching process itself.
3) Add Compost
Compost offers soil a full spectrum of essential nutrients needed for the growth and development of plants; that is why more and more people are getting into this process. If ever you plan to get into composting, you can also check my article on composting for beginners.
This covers everything from the basics, like what goes into compost, what bins to use, and what processes happen within, and it also comes with a video if you are keen on tutorials.
Composting has many benefits for you, the plant, and the world. Not only does it lessens the build-ups in landfills, which lessens greenhouse gasses, but it also does the following for plants:
- While it helps sandy soils retain more moisture, it also helps clay and silt soil loosen up so roots can spread.
- Compost helps neutralize both acid and alkaline soils. Thus, it brings pH levels to the optimum range that helps plants thrive. Compost also protects plants from various types of common garden diseases.
- Using compost is one of the best ways to improve the health and quality of garden soil.
- Using compost, you feed the earthworms and other microbial life in the soil.
If you lack the space, time, and other factors to get into composting, you can do something as easy as the next step: avoiding soil compaction.
4) Avoid Soil Compaction
To allow the soil to soak up water and nutrients, you must ensure it is friable and loose. If the soil is hard and compacted, the pore space will decrease.
Compacted soil hinders the microbiological activity that is vital for the conversion of organic matter to nutrients.
Due to this, the roots of small plants cannot spread and search for moisture and nutrient. They eventually starve and dehydrate. Thus, it is essential to prevent soil compaction due to heavy machinery on the soil. Tillage practices, livestock trampling, or even walking around on soil can result in soil compaction.
Types of material that makes the soil more compact
Clay soil is known to compact quite easily – just with the weight of snow. One can consider adding some organic matter to help balance the soil structure over time.
Also, working with damp soil can lead to compaction. Thus, waiting until the snow melts and the water drains before prepping up the soil is better. Soil that has enough moisture should feel like a wrung-out sponge.
How to prevent compaction
To prevent compaction, you can even create permanent garden beds. Divide the area into two – growing beds and walking paths. This way, you would not have to walk around on the soil.
5) Grow Cover Crops
As the name suggests, cover crops are plants used to cover soils. They are usually not grown for trade or human consumption. Instead, they help improve soil quality, boosting yields and grazing cattle. Several benefits cover crops can offer.
Cover crops prevent soil erosion, usually caused by heavy rains, winds, and snow melt-off.
They also protect the soil, reduce soil compacting, and prevent weed growth, especially during the winter.
Plants that are cover crops
Usually, broad-lead greens, grasses, and legumes are used as cover crops. So, kale, radishes, and turnips can be good choices. Besides this, clover, legumes, ryegrass, and peas can also be used.
To ensure you know the lowdown on cover crops, read my recent article on it – the ultimate guide. It includes lists of cover crops, their types, and the full benefits they can add to your garden.
Additionally, if you choose cover crops that cannot be consumed, you can turn them under in spring as green manure. They will decompose and will help in increasing the fertility of the soil.
6) Use Animal Manure
Added aged animal manure can also help improve garden soil’s health and fertility. But there are a few things that you need to keep in mind while adding animal manure.
Fresh manure can be quite hot and can burn plants.
Moreover, it may even harbor parasites and pathogens that can harm humans. This is why one should let the manure age for a few months or even a year before using it.
Types of manures and their benefits
Manures from carnivores or pigs should not be used as they can host several pathogens and parasites.
However, cow, chicken, horse, rabbit, sheep, goat, and bat droppings are safe and can offer soil many nutrients. Chicken manure has the highest volume of nitrogen.
More detailed benefits of each manure type are covered in another article on how to best utilize manure in the garden. It covers how to use it effectively in the garden, an exception on fresh manure, and even possible testing methods to check if it will benefit the garden.
7) Give it Some Rest
Regarding soil, it is often about how much we do not do rather than how much we do. So, before you plant your garden in the spring, it is essential to keep this one thing in mind.
It would help if you let the soil dry up. As mentioned earlier, tilling, digging, and walking on wet soil can compact and damage the soil. Thus, resting your garden before working on it in the spring is essential.
You can squeeze a handful of soil to determine whether the soil is ready. If water comes out of it, the soil is too damp. You should give it around a week to dry up a little.
Consider doing these activities to a minimum to give your soil rest
For soils, it’s often better that we don’t do much work. Before planting spring gardens, the most important soil care priority is letting wet spring soils dry.
Digging, walking on, or driving a rototiller over wet soils, particularly those with clays and compacts, damage the soil structure we work so hard to build.
When this happens, we squeeze the air out of soils, leaving little space for organisms to breathe or roots to grow. Rather than using a tiller, a digging fork or broad fork can be used in the no-till garden.
These work gently will loosen up the top layer of the soil without causing any damage to the microorganisms.
One of the easiest and most natural ways to improve the quality of your garden soil is by putting worms in your compost pile. If, however, you are having trouble putting or growing the worm population in both soil and compost, you might want to check this article of mine on the increasing worm population in the garden.
It covers methods one can do to increase the population, what worms dislike you can consider and many more.
What can vermicompost do to your garden soil?
Doing this can accelerate decomposition and even bring more nutrients to the compost. The worms will pass through the soil, improving aeration and drainage.
While doing this, they also leave behind their castings which will increase the fertility of the soil.
You can even grow the worms in a separate compost bin to save their worm castings, as they can be expensive. Creating your worm castings can be affordable, and you can add this to get nutrient-rich soil.
9) Consider Building Raised Beds
We understand that improving soil quality is an ongoing process. And while some of these ways can work wonders for some, they may not offer the same results to others.
So, if you are not getting your desired results or your garden soil is taking a lot of time, you can consider building raised beds.
Raised bed gardening is an easy and quick way to fix garden soil that is poor in quality.
They offer you complete control over the soil. Moreover, raised beds give your garden a clean and tidy look and allow you to rotate crops further to maximize crop and plant varieties. My recent article on rotating crops in raised garden beds covers this in great detail.
Conclusion on how to improve garden soil quality fast
Building a garden with healthy and fertile soil is an ongoing process, but you will reap many benefits once you can improve the soil quality. We hope that at least one of these ways will help you improve the quality of your garden soil – from abundant harvests to healthy and thriving plants.
Of course, as a gardener, you will know more about the state of your garden and what may be suitable for it. Keep close attention to how your plants are faring when doing these steps, and see them bloom and thrive before your eyes. Happy gardening!
If you liked this article, subscribe to the form below to be notified about future content and releases!