1. Test Your Soil
Know what you’re working with before you start making amendments. You can easily find soil testing kits for purchase online, or you can collect a sample and take it to your local county extension for more detailed testing in its lab. Most tests provide you with:
- The soil’s pH level (a measure of acidity and basicity).
- Readings for minerals such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and sulfur.
- Lead content.
- Amount of organic material.
- Suggestions for improving soil quality.
Based on these findings, you can add organic media or fertilizers to the soil to correct nutrient deficiencies or pH levels.
Soils change constantly and will ultimately revert back to their original composition. Perform soil testing every couple of years to check its status and determine what additional nutrients it needs. While testing is beneficial at any time of year, test in the late summer or early fall for the most accurate results.
2. Prevent Compaction
When soil becomes hard and compacted, water, air, and nutrients can’t get in, and it becomes dry and fruitless. Small roots cannot penetrate compacted soil, causing plants to ultimately die. You can prevent your soils from compacting in the first place by not stepping on them. Create paths around garden beds so you don’t compress the growing medium when you walk around watering and pulling weeds. These paths should be at least 2 feet wide to allow human, mower, and wheelbarrow traffic to pass easily.
If your property’s soil is naturally hard, dense, and claylike, you might need to dig and loosen it up manually before planting. This typically requires digging at least 12 inches into the soil and applying an organic material such as compost to keep it light and loose.
3. Add Mulch
MulchÂ is organic material made from a variety of ingredients, such as bark, leaves, pine needles, grass clippings, livestock manure, sawdust, shredded newspaper, wool, and more. Mulch boasts a wealth of benefits:
- Retains moisture.
- Deters weeds.
- Cools the soil.
- Decomposes, adding nutrient-rich organic material to the soil.
- Limits soil erosion.
- Reduces the frequency of watering, fertilizing, and weed-pulling.
As such, mulch can elevate the quality of your garden’s soil. Choose a heavy mulch that will retain moisture if you live in a hot and dry climate. Use a light mulch if you live in a cool, wet region and want to protect soil from erosion and nutrient loss.
4. Add Organic Matter
Each fall, replenish your soil’s nutrient content with organic matter. This will allow the material to break down and boost the soil’s quality come spring. Types of organic matter gardeners add to their soils include:
- Compost: This decomposed organic material can include a variety of components, including leaves, kitchen scraps, livestock manure, garden debris, and more. It helps improve soil structure, adds and retains nutrients, provides good water absorption and drainage, has a neutral pH level, protects against disease, and keeps soil loose and aerated. It also encourages beneficial organisms such as earthworms to take up residence in the soil. Plus, it’s free if you make your own.
- Coco coir: This natural coconut byproduct is made from the hull’s fibers. When added to soil, it loosens the material and improves water retention and aeration. Apply it to gardens that require a neutral pH.
- Animal manure: Horse, chicken, cow, goat, or sheep manure is usually cheap or free from local farms if you haul it off yourself. Make sure it’s already aged, or compost it until it’s crumbling and odorless so the ammonia doesn’t burn your plants.
- Peat moss: Peat moss helps loosen soil and retains moisture and nutrients. Because it’s naturally acidic, peat is a great choice if you aim to lower your soil’s pH level to benefit acid-loving plants.
- Grass clippings: When incorporated into soil, grass clippings or plant debris decompose over time, releasing valuable nutrients into the soil.
When applying organic matter, use a hoe to chop and mix it into the top 2 to 6 inches of the garden’s soil. Then apply a thin layer of mulch. If your soil is naturally sandy, the organic matter will help it retain more water. If your soil is clay, it will help loosen it so roots, water, and air can get in. All the while, the organic matter will be providing your soil with nutrients and beneficial organisms.
5. Grow Cover Crops
Cover crops are plants grown not for harvest (though some do double-duty) but for soil amendment. They can help manage or improve:
- Soil erosion.
- Soil compaction.
- Soil quality.
- Crop yield.
- Water drainage and retention.
- Pollinator populations.
- Weed and pest infestations.
- Plant diseases.
Plant a cover crop at the end of the growing season, be that late spring or late fall, and allow it to grow throughout the summer or winter off-season. Examples of good winter cover crops include broadleaf greens, clover, kale, legumes, radishes, ryegrass, and turnips. Buckwheat, phacelia, and Sudan grass make for good summer cover crops.
Come spring, till and turn the crop over (dig it into the top 6 to 12 inches of the ground) so it decomposes within the soil and improves fertility. This soil enhancement tactic is called green manure and provides similar benefits as mulch and other organic matter.
6. Sheet Mulch
Sheet mulching is essentially composting on the soil surface. It smothers and kills weeds, attracts earthworms and other beneficial organisms, and replenishes nutrients in the soil. If you plan to sheet mulch, however, know that it takes time: about three months before you plant in an existing garden and up to a year before planting a new garden. It involves a few simple steps:
- Apply a layer of cardboard to cover and kill existing weeds and vegetation.
- Place organic material atop the cardboard.
- Cover everything with 6 to 18 inches of compost to encourage worm activity.
The result will be a rich, loose soil that you can plant directly into.
Turn hard, dry, lifeless soil into black gold by following these tips for how to improve soil. The more proactive you can be when it comes to your soil’s health, the less effort you’ll have put in to keep it that way.