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Good Soil and Gardens

July 24, 2017

Do you have bad soil in your area?  Is it rocky, sandy, or full of clay?  If so, no need to worry.

The first step in good gardening is having good garden soil.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of us aren’t blessed with the perfect soil that is rich and fertile, well draining, full of nutrients, and free of foreign matter.  Some of us have rocky or sandy soil or soil with a high clay content.  The good news is, you don’t have to live with poor soil.  Garden soil can be improved with a little time, patience, and effort.

The first step in improving your garden soil is preparation.  If grass and weeds have not been removed yet, this is where you should start.  If you are working with a small area, say less than 10 square feet, you can probably get by using a sharp spade and some brute force.  However, if you’re removing grass from a larger area, you might want to consider renting a sod kicker or gas powered sod cutter for a day, as this will make the work faster and much easier.

Once the grass is gone, the next step is tilling.  The goal of tilling is to break up any large clumps of dirt and remove foreign matter that shouldn’t be there, such as sticks and stones.  Again, if you’re working with a small area, this task can be accomplished with a hoe or garden cultivator.  For larger areas, an electric or gas powered rotary tiller can be enormously helpful in this process.

Once the soil is broken up, the next step is to address what you’ve got.  The most common bad soil situations will fall into one of two categories: too much sand or too much clay.  If you pick up a handful of your soil, squeeze it together to form a ball and it simply crumbles and falls from your hand, then your soil contains too much sand.  The problem with sandy soil is that it’s too well drained; it won’t hold water or nutrients long enough for the plants to absorb them.  On the other end of the spectrum, if your soil balls up into a sticky, wet mess in your hand that won’t break apart even if you try, then you’ve got too much clay.  Garden soil with a high clay content will do just the opposite of sandy soil; it will hold water too well.  In fact, the clayey soil won’t drain at all.  It is constantly wet and sticky and it’s usually also too cold to allow plants to thrive.

The good news is that both these problems can be resolved.  For soil with too much clay, you can mix in the sand to help it drain better.  For sandy soil, clay can be added to help with water retention.  A better idea, though, might be to till in some organic matter such as peat moss or compost.  Organic matter has been described as the cure-all for any type of bad soil situation, and this is mostly true.  When added regularly over a period of several years, compost or peat moss will take sandy or clayey soil and turn it into a rich, fertile loam that’s rich in nutrients.

It’s also a good idea to incorporate some fertilizer into your garden soil, too.  While organic matter does add essential nutrients to your soil, it may not fully make up for deficiencies in the basic nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.  To be certain of exactly what nutrients your soil is lacking, you may want to have the soil tested.  For a nominal fee, many county extension offices will do soil testing if you mail them a sample.  Or, you can buy inexpensive soil testing kits from your local garden center that will allow you to test for essential nutrients and pH of your soil.  While it is recommended to test your soil before adding fertilizer, you can simply apply a basic 10-10-10 fertilizer if you don’t have the time or don’t want to test first.  A 10-10-10 fertilizer simply means that it contains 10% nitrogen, 10% phosphorus, and 10% potassium (also known as potash) by weight, with the remainder of the material being inert material.

With some time and effort, and the right materials for amending, even the poorest quality garden soil can be turned into a rich and fertile soil that will be perfect for growing all kinds of plants.  Remember that the key steps are preparation, tilling, and finally amending with organic matter and fertilizers, as needed.  With these steps, plus a good dose of patience, you can take your garden soil from bad to good, and your plants will thank you for it!

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