Garden Soil Preparation: Worth the Effort!

Garden soil preparation involves getting the levels of organic matter, nutrients and pH where you want them.

Sure, it can be a lot of work.

But getting your vegetable garden soil just right will pay scrumptious dividends.

So don't worry - the efforts you put forth in improving your garden soil will be worthwhile.

First Rule of Garden Soil Preparation: Do No Harm

Just like a doctor with a patient, your first concern should be to avoid making matters worse with your soil. Do that by making certain that your soil is not too damp.

You can do a lot of long-term damage to your soil by working it while wet. That damage is called compaction.

In fact, it’s quite possible to turn a nice plot of loamy garden soil into a gummy, gumbo-ey mess by working it when it’s wet.

You won’t care much for working in soil like that. And your plants won’t care much for growing in it. So no matter how antsy you are to get started, it’s worth waiting until conditions are right. 

How to Tell if Your Soil is Too Wet

So how do you know if your soil is dry enough to work? Just use this simple squeeze test.

Overturn a shovel full of soil, grab up a handful and give it a firm squeeze. (You don’t want to use surface soil for this test because it’s not representative of the overall moisture level of the soil.)

If water comes trickling out of your hand as you put the squeeze to the dirt, then obviously it’s too wet.

If the soil remains compacted into a ball when you release pressure, it’s too wet.

If your handful of soil crumbles when you release pressure, then it’s just right – you can get to work!  

Add Organic Matter

Almost all plants love soil that contains lots of organic matter. And almost all soils can benefit from the addition of organic matter.

Why types of organic matter should you add to your soil?

Just about anything that will decompose quickly will work. Lawn clippings, partially rotted leaves, manure, compost and peat moss are often used to build up the soil’s level of organic matter.

When you’re selecting an organic material for garden soil preparation, just keep a couple of things in mind:  

Avoid Using Fresh...

If you’re using something that’s not fresh, like compost or aged manure, you can apply it to your soil shortly before you plant your garden.

But if it’s fresh (green) organic matter, something that hasn't decomposed yet, you need to work it into your soil several weeks before you plant your garden.

That’s because fresh organic matter will tie up valuable nutrients in your soil during the early stages of decomposition. And that means that the nutrients your garden plants need will be in short supply for a time.

Later, as the decomposition of the organic matter progresses, those nutrients will be available to your plants again.

By allowing a few weeks for green organic matter to decompose before planting your garden, your plants will have a rich supply of nutrients and organic humus available to them from the start. 

Be Careful of the Source...

Manure can be a wonderful source of organic material for a backyard garden. It'll build up the level of organic matter in your soil AND provide lots of nutrients for your plants.

But never use manure from a meat-eating animal.

And if you have a source of fresh manure that you want to use, you must work it into your soil long before you plant your garden.

Fresh manure applied just before planting may do more harm than good. Give it several months to decompose in the soil before planting your garden.

One other caution about using fresh manure is that it could potentially introduce lots of nasty weeds into your garden. Any weed seeds that the animal ate will be present in the manure, and will be primed to take over your garden.

You can avoid this problem by using only composted manure. The composting process will destroy any seeds present in the manure.

It will also make the manure safe to use without the waiting period that is necessary with fresh manure. (And composted manure will smell better, too!). 

Improving Your Garden Soil by Adjusting Nutrient Level and pH

The best course of action before starting garden soil preparation is to have your soil tested to see where you stand in terms of nutrient level and pH. It’s difficult to make proper adjustments to your soil without knowing its current condition.

You can send a sample of your soil off to a lab and get a thorough analysis of your soil, as well as recommendations for amendments. Your local extension service can tell you where you can have your soil tested.

(Not sure where your nearest extension office is? You can find it here.)

Another option is to invest in a soil testing kit like this, this or this.

Of course, you’ll have to interpret the results for yourself. If you’re a first time gardener, or gardening a plot of soil for the first time, I’d recommend at least one test by a lab.

That’ll get you off to a good start, and then you can use a soil test kit if you wish to make sure that nutrient levels and pH stay within the recommended ranges. 

(Click these links for more info about garden soil pH, testing soil pH , and raising or lowering the pH of your soil.) 

The Final Step in Garden Soil Preparation

Once you’ve added all of your organic matter, and adjusted your nutrient levels and pH, your garden soil preparations are nearly complete.

All you need to do now is make sure your soil is as level as possible, and free of large clods and rocks.

You’ve probably already done a fair amount of tilling or spading in completing the previous tasks, so just a bit of time and elbow grease applied to a rake will probably suffice at this stage. Just rake the soil smooth and break-up large clods. If you’re in an area with rocky soil, you’ll want to discard any large rocks that you turn up.

Working to make the soil smooth-textured and level will help with drainage and make planting a lot easier. And your plants will be happy in their well prepared home.

Enjoy your garden. You've earned it!  

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