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Improving Garden Soil

Healthy soil


Years ago I saw a bumper sticker that said, "Don't Treat Your Soil Like Dirt" and it struck me as such a perfect introduction to the topic of soil. What makes soil different from dirt? In a word, Life. Soil may look inert but it's teeming with activity, both visible and invisible. It contains a dynamic ecosystem that's constantly changing, and one of the keys to growing healthy plants is to understand and nurture that ecosystem.

What Is Healthy Soil?
A soil scientist might describe healthy soil as containing about 45% mineral particles (clay, sand, silt), 25% each of air and water, and about 5% organic matter. But that doesn't mean much in the real world — for example, how do you measure how much air is in the soil? I think it's easier to think first about what soil provides to plants:

  • Water: Plants contain up to 90% water, so it's vital that plant roots have a ready source of water in the soil.
  • Air: Plant roots also need air, and they absorb the oxygen they need through their roots.
  • Nutrients: Plants take up the minerals they need for healthy growth from the soil. These nutrients are dissolved in the moisture between soil particles.
  • A place to grow: Soil provides a place for roots to anchor themselves, to keep plants growing upright.

A healthy soil provides all these things to the plants growing in it.


What Type of Soil Do You Have?

The size of the mineral particles in the soil determines its texture:

  • Clay soils are made up predominantly of tiny, flat clay particles. These particles stick together when wet, forming a dense, slippery mud that drains slowly, leaving soil saturated after it's been soaked. When dry, the clay particles pack down into a hard surface (think clay pot). Clay soils contain plant nutrients, but it can be tough for plants to get those nutrients. Wet or dry, clay soils are tough on plants.
  • Sandy soils are made up of relatively large sand particles. They fit loosely together; water drains through quickly so sandy soils tend to dry out quickly. They also contain few nutrients.
  • Silty soils contain mostly silt particles that are larger than clay and smaller than sand particles. They drain better than clay soils and retain water better than sandy soil. They usually contain a good amount of nutrients. They can pack solid when dry and are prone to blowing away in wind, however.

To determine what type of soil you have, pick up a handful of moist soil. Rub a bit between your thumb and finger. If it's gritty, it contains sand. Now try to roll it into a cylinder about an inch in diameter. If it immediately falls apart, it's probably quite sandy. If it holds loosely together but crumbles when you poke it, it's likely silty. If it sticks together (like modeling clay), it contains mostly clay particles.

It's handy to know what type of soil you have in part because different plants prefer different soil types. But most important is what you can do to maximize your soil's potential.

Improving Garden Soil
The single best thing you can do for your soil is to add organic matter, and the best organic matter is compost. Compost is simply once-living matter (leaves, kitchen vegetable scraps, garden trimmings) that has decomposed into a dark, crumbly substance. Whether you make your own compost or purchase it in bags or bulk, compost is often called "garden gold" for the miracles it can work in your soil.

Organic matter helps sandy soil retain water better, and also helps clay soils drain better. It contains some plant nutrients, too. But its biggest job is to nurture the soil life in the soil. Beneficial soil organisms, including microscopic bacteria and fungi, beetles and other insects and earthworms consume the organic matter, further breaking it down the material in nutrients that plants can use. In the process, they aerate the soil so plant roots can get the oxygen they need, and they keep pest organisms in check. Organic matter also helps soil particles form small clumps (called soil aggregates) that help prevent it from compacting.

What Does Good Garden Soil Look Like?
Dark. Moist. Crumbly. I like to compare healthy soil to chocolate cake. It's moist and crumbly, with air pockets throughout. Unhealthy soil is like a cake mix — dry and packed down with no room for air. Or picture healthy soil as a wrung-out sponge — it's moist yet contains plenty of air, too.

Soil pH
Soil pH is a measure of its acidity or alkalinity and is measured on a scale of 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral. Most plants prefer a slightly acidic soil with a pH of around 6.8, but some, like blueberries, need a more acidic soil to thrive. Test your soil, and if it's too acidic (the pH is too low) add lime. If it's too alkaline (the pH is too high) add sulfur.

Maintaining Healthy Soil
Soil improvement isn't a one-time proposition; it's an ongoing task. The soil organisms break down organic matter, so you need to continually add more — feed the soil, and the soil will feed the plants.

7 thoughts on “Improving Garden Soil”

  • Robert W. De Young
    Robert W. De Young March 18, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    What commerical brand would you suggest to improve the soil for tomato plant growth, or what numbers of fertilizers would you buy to raise tomato plants? Thanks

    Bob De Young

    • Suzanne DeJohn

      I like to add lots of compost to the soil each spring -- either homemade or purchased. Because tomatoes are heavy feeders (they need lots of nutrients) I also mix in some slow-release fertilizer. I prefer to grow organically but any slow release fertilizer will do. (I use Gardener's Supply's GSC Organic Tomato Fertilizer, 5-6-5.) That provides enough nutrients to get me through the season. If you prefer to feed weekly using a soluble fertilizer, choose one for which the numbers are about equal - 10-10-10, for example. Don't use a fertilizer formulated for lawns, as you'll get lots of lush green growth but few tomatoes. Good luck with your garden!

  • Cindy Schmidt

    Hi. There's a farm down the road from me; is aged cow manure a good idea for a vegetable garden? Thanks!

    • Suzanne DeJohn

      I believe that fully composted cow manure is an excellent addition to the vegetable garden. However, the key here is "fully composted" as raw manure can contain some harmful pathogens. Composted manure is dark and crumbly and smells earthy, not, well, manure-y. Some gardeners prefer sticking to purchased manure or compost that has been sterilized. One compromise is to till manure into the garden in the autumn after you're through harvesting and let it sit over the winter. Or, add the manure to your own compost pile and allow it to finish composting there.

  • Master Gardener Cathy
    Master Gardener Cathy March 18, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    MiracleGro has a fertilizer specially formulated for tomatoes - good for beginners to use - comes in a small green box - available most everywhere. Follow directions on label exactly - don't overdo, thinking more is better.
    Don't confuse soil enhancements (as compost), with fertilizer which is labeled with N-P-K numbers for proportions of nutrients (Tomatoes want a lower N-nitrogen for leaves, and higher P-phosphorous for fruits). The pH is something you don't buy - it's a quality of your soil that can be altered as mentioned above.

  • Linda Wagner

    Can you have too many worms in your compost pile? I cannot believe the amount of them in my pile this year. It's alive!

    • Erin Morrissette
      Erin Morrissette March 29, 2011 at 10:32 am

      No, you can never have too many worms. They self-regulate their population to the confines of available space and the amount of food you give them. When your compost is ready to use, move some of the worms with it. That way they will continue to add nutrients to the soil and give you lush, healthy plants. Still think you have too many worms? Consider fishing.

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