That was the first word that crossed my mind when I set out to work on my new kitchen garden this year.
It’s right under my laundry room window, and is the perfect spot, considering it gets plenty of southern sunlight and is right next to our new porch.
However, the soil leaves a
little lot to be desired. In fact, I think it probably deserves to just be called ‘dirt’, not soil.
Most of the topsoil there was removed in our house remodel project last year. There was actually a 12 foot hole right there this time last year, and the soil that was used to fill that hole is rather disappointing. It’s heavy with clay, packs down hard when it gets wet, and there’s not a worm in sight.
Quite a difference from the spongy, fluffy, worm-filled soil in my main veggie garden. Then again, I suppose I’ve been spoiled by my deep mulch.
But of course, there’s no way I was just going to leave the sad little patch of clay just sitting there. Nope. It needed to be loved and nurtured and tended so it could blossom into its full potential. And so I could have herbs I could pick in my bare feet while supper was on the stove. That’s high priority, ya know.
Before we tilled it (I almost sold our tiller last year, since we don’t need it for our main garden anymore… But I’m glad I didn’t!), Prairie Husband dumped several loads of composted manure on top of the patch, and I spread it around.
This compost is just plain gorgeous. It’s crumbly and rich, I just want to go roll around it in. But I don’t, because that would be weird.
Anyway, after tilling the composted manure into the dirt, I raked the top to remove as many stones and pebbles as possible, and then planted my raspberries, strawberries, and herbs.
I then mulched the plants with wood chips (since it’s right next to our house, I opted for the prettier chips, versus hay mulch).
I’ll continue to top-dress with more compost as needed, and also use some compost tea and other amendments as needed as the summer progresses. It will be a gradual process to get the soil where it needs to be, but I’m hopeful. And the plants seem to be happy so far.
Because I’ve had soil on the brain lately, here’s a list of 7 ways you can improve garden soil if you’re dealing with a less-than-ideal growing situation like I am.
7 Simple Strategies to Improve Garden Soil
Turn your kitchen and yard waste (leaves, grass clippings, etc.) into a fantastic soil amendment with very little effort. Compost adds both nutrients and organic matter to soil, and it also helps with water retention. You can buy it at the garden store, however, it’s free to make your own. And even if you aren’t ready to create a full compost pile, adding some of the most common kitchen waste to (like coffee grounds and egg shells) to specific plants in your garden and boost plant and soil health impressively well.
I call our composted animal poop ‘black gold’. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing, my friends. Adding animal manure to your garden provides nutrients, builds organic matter, and adds microbial action.
Fresh manure can be too hot for plants and may burn them, so it’s best to use composted or aged manure. If you are using fresh manure, just be sure to add it in the fall and let it sit all winter. (Don’t apply most fresh manures to growing plants)
- Chicken Manure: Highest in nitrogen, but also one of the “hotter” options. Definitely let it compost and age well before applying.
- Horse Manure: Easy to find, but may contain the most weed seeds (although if the compost pile reaches a high enough temperature, this can reduce the weed seeds). We use a lot of composted horse manure in our garden, since we have two horses, and they poop. A LOT.
- Cow Manure: A great all-purpose manure that doesn’t burn plants as easily, due to a lower nitrogen content. Generally less weed seeds than horse manure.
- Goat/Sheep Manure: A drier manure that is less smelly and gentle to plants (won’t burn as easily). The little pellets make it easy to apply, too.
- Rabbit Manure: This is considered a “cold” manure, so you can add it directly to plants, with no worry of it burning plants. Just grab some of the “pellets” and sprinkle away! They will disintegrate slowly over time and release their nutrients into the soil as they break down.
**Important Note** If you are using horse, cattle, goat, or sheep manure, be sure to ONLY use manure from animals who have NOT been grazing or eating hay from fields sprayed with herbicides. There are several types of herbicides that can survive an animals gastrointestinal tract and come through the manure to wreak havoc on your gardens.
I’ve been singing the praises of deep much for several years now, so I bet you’re not surprised to see this one on this list. Not only does mulch hold moisture in the soil, but as it breaks down, it will gradually add organic matter to your soil as well. I cannot believe how many worms I have in my main garden after 2+ years of mulch. I have a bunch of mulching posts already, so get the full mulching story in the following links:
**IMPORTANT: If you are planning on using deep mulch, please make sure you are ONLY using hay or straw that has NOT been sprayed with herbicides of any kind! Read my sad story about herbicide contamination here.**
4. Cover Crops
Cover crops are a fantastic way to remedy soil problems with minimal work. Not only can cover crops provide nutrients to the soil, they can also improve both drainage and aeration, smother unwanted plants (like quackgrass), attract beneficial soil organisms, and act as an overwintering mulch. The negative side of cover crops is having to wait a season before you can use that particular garden spot for growing other plants. You can also use various cover crops to break up hard soil. Ryegrass and Daikon radishes are good examples of cover crops with strong root systems that will help break up and aerate your soil.
This article has more in-depth info on cover crops if you think they’d be a fit for your garden.
Putting worms to work is another natural way you can improve garden soil. There are a few different ways to make this happen:
- Add them to your compost pile to help speed decomposition and add even more nutrients to your compost.
- Grow/farm worms in a separate compost bin and save their worm castings. Purchasing worm castings is super expensive, so it’s much more cost-effective to create your own, which can then be added to the soil to give it a nutrient-boost.
- Add worms directly to your poor garden soil. Give them some compost and mulch, and the worms will help aerate your soil and put their castings directly into the troublesome area.
6. Natural Amendments
Sometimes the best thing you can do for your soil is to test in order to find out what specific nutrients are missing from your soil.
There are a couple of ways to test your soil:
- A home soil test (I found this one on Amazon (affiliate link))
- Get your soil tested from a garden lab (many Universities have these, check with your local Cooperative Extension Office, or talk to local Master Gardeners for more information on this)
Once you know what nutrients are missing from your soil, you can add natural amendments such as:
- For low nitrogen: add fish emulsion, blood meal, or legume cover crops
- For low phosphorus: add rock phosphate for long term results and bone meal for a quick fix
- For low potassium: add wood ash and compost rich in banana peels
- For low calcium: add lime (either calcium carbonate lime or dolomitic lime), gysum, or clam/oyster shells
- For low magnesium: add epsom salts or dolomitic lime
7. Raised Beds
If you’ve been working in improving your garden soil, and still aren’t getting the results you want, it might be time to consider raised beds. Raised beds are an easy way to fix poor garden soil problems, as you can fully control what goes into the boxes. Plus, they can look pretty spiffy and they don’t have to be expensive. Check out these raised bed designs for some inspiration.
Happy soil improving my friends!
🙂 great post, we were very supprised by the the mulch effect on our soil here in north ga, churt is a better name, but after 3 years of leaves, straw, hay and manure no more tilling required. Best of all the ” you cant do that, till, row sythetic fertilizer crowd” is complimenting the soil. i know youll say hay has seed in it, yes it does but we have found that an application of 3in of compacted, basically unroll it will stop that issue. I trade pigglets for access to that much hay. Three 6ft rolls have been added to the garden, about 500 sq feet this spring. I have 6 more rolls on stand by. The best cover crops iv had have been buck wheat and mammoth red clover. Warning though buckwheat comes back like a weed. I embrace it because its a nitigen fixer. Unfortunantly most any wheat grass you can get your hands on has been modified, from producing 6ft root systems to 6in. So sad, althought it takes years to reach that depth it would be a lovely option for future garden spots. Sorry to ramble but these days people only want to talk about the election and the “news”,
I have to unload somewhere.
Jill Winger says
That is awesome, Dean! And it’s a great feeling when the “conventional crowd” complements your organic efforts, too. 😉
Gina Vilius says
Jill, when you say planting cover crops means that you cannot use that plot next season, are you saying no use all year? We plant cover crop after summer harvest and til it into soil in spring before planting. Thoughts?
Also, I love your ideas of straw, grass, compost and mulch for th garden, but I struggle with understanding how to come up with enough of these things without spending a fortune (I know you’re like “grass is free”!?), but I don’t have any way to collect a reasonable amount. Last hay bail I bought was $11 so not looking to our CCT are a ton for my 2,000 sq ft plot…same with compost. I spent about $40 on a yard of compost, but could probably use 5 yards?????
Jackie Riffice says
Every time we dig a hole, we fill it with some home blended compost. We support almost all of your 7 strategies (cover crops never work the way we planned them!).
Jill Winger says
Yes– I love throwing compost in my hole too! Magical stuff!
John Duffy says
Another great soil amendment is molasses. For small garden plots, I use 1/2 cup black strap molasses per 5 gallons water after working-in some composted manure. The sugar just seems to jump-start the garden plants.
Jill Winger says
Neat idea John! Thanks for sharing.
C D Downs says
While molasses has a bunch of good stuff in it, iron, minerals, etc. it is also a nitrogen gobbler. It will take up all your nitrogen till it breaks down. I learned the hard way. Doing research on my problem with a failing garden I discovered the culprit; molasses I had used! I added some nitrogen for my hungry plants and the started growing like a boss!
Not everyone soil is the same all kinds of different issues ,the molasses worked for him and not yours!
Thanks everybody for sharing all of your ideas !
I love them !
I read where to help add more calcium to soil ,take egg shells bake on low in the oven,about 30 mins.,let cool crush up and put around the soil of your fruit trees
I have heard of people putting molasses on their soil. When I first heard it, my first thought was “ants”! If you don’t have fire ants in your area, then it might work. It wouldn’t work here in the deep south. We would have SO many ants right in the middle of our garden!! Yikes!
I am in Tn and i have ants all over including in my garden. I cannot see that they do any harm to the garden but the bite sure is not pleasant.
Baxter Abel says
I appreciate your tip to add bananas and wood ash to topsoil in order to treat the soil for low potassium! Do the topsoil testing kits come with how much of each mineral you ought to have in your topsoil, or how can we learn what the optimum potassium levels are? Thanks for the tips! I’ll have to buy a topsoil testing kit soon in order to test my soil.
I used cardboard, from a furniture store, then layered peat Moss, compose dirt, continued layering until I ran out then put mulch. I did this in the fall and in the spring…the worms had done their thing and the soil was great
Lee Hoy says
thanks Jill and Cris! Great post! I had the same problem with really bad soil. We rent and the owners dumped a bunch of construction soil right where I had started a garden several years later. The first few years I bought alot of garden soil. Then 2 years ago my yield was so poor that gave up. Then thru research I found an answer. Straw bale gardening. Wow! This made all the difference! Not only was my yield over the top but the now composted bales have enriched the soil under them! Doing bales again this year too. It can only get better! Love your site,Jill. I look forward to alot more from you. Thanks!
Jill Winger says
Thanks for the comment Lee– thrilled to have you as a reader!
Ingrid McCord says
I am wondering about the log based garden you talked about a year or so ago. I had to take down three of my silver maples this year due to crown rot and I have set up a garden space to use that technique in my vegetable garden. My son worked with a arborist in tagging trees to be removed along highways from the San Andreas Ca forest fire burn a couple of years ago. He talked about how rivers of water were still coming from the cut trees a year later. So I have made a log based garden in my vegetable patch but have not planted it yet. Wondered how yours did.
Also for city folks ask any tree service for chips. I always hit them up when they are in my neighborhood. Over the years I have build a really nice top soil over the clay base.
Greetings from Australia!
Thank you, great post!
Daryle in VT says
You mention that the soil is “heavy with clay.” Clay can be a good thing, if there is not too much of it. It can keep soil nutrients from washing away when it rains.
A soil test might probably test on the higher side for magnesium, particularly if the soil tightens up as it dries out after a good soaking.
If that is the case, adding gypsum – calcium sulfate (dihydrate) – would loosen up the soil, and might even free up a little phosphorus to sweeten the carrots.
Ann Macnaughton says
Greetings from rainy Ireland. Great post as I also have heavy clay soil.
I also make lots of compost and this, together with winter mulching with straw (I’m in horse country) has greatly improved my soil. Regards Ann Mac
Harper Campbell says
It’s good to know that one way to help improve our garden’s soil one thing that we can do is by adding mulch to it. I like that you elaborated that this will help hold the moisture in. This will be really helpful for us in our area since we live in a very warm climate area.
Joseph Nsamba says
Thanks Jill for sharing your gardening especially soil compost making, am learning from you to have a garden in my small back yard.Joseph from Uganda East Africa.
Joseph Nsamba says
Thank you for sharing
God bless you
I’m afraid I goofed last fall.. I added tons of our fall leaves to my garden, ran the tiller over it. Now the snow is melting and there are still a lot of leaves laying in there. Not sure I can plant seeds in a bunch of old leaves!! May have to dig way deep to bring up more soil! ??
Add news paper over it let it break down it will draw worms the wet moist ,if you let nature break down what you add no till it will surprise you
It the forest it produces plants that only God takes care of by resin etc.the leaves fall and and add food worms every where rich rich soil
Lewis Groome says
You can always plant sweet potatoes in a lot of leaves or any potatoes or root crops. It is also easy harvesting them as well.
Lewis Groome Pleasant Garden, NC
Next time, pile them up and run the lawn mower over them several times. This will chop them up into tiny pieces, allowing them to break down more quickly. We dump them in the garden and run over them about 4 or 5 times, then run the tiller over the first few inches of soil to turn them under a little. We don’t have a problem with large pieces being in the way of planting.
Judy Stewart says
I live in town and have allergies to many animals. Over the last 5 years, I mulch my garden after the plants pop up. I lay down a layer on newspaper and put purchased mulch about 1 1/2-2″ all over it. I don’t have a place to compost. What can I do to help my soul to be richer to produce more?? I’m going to do a little with straw bales this year to experiment. Thanks!!
I’ve been composting for over 20 years and the worm population is incredible. After cleaning my garden in the fall, I mulch with shredded leaves. In the spring I add a layer of compost which I mix with the mulch and top layer of soil before planting seeds and transplants. I had a lot of clay when I started but now most of that is gone.
Sandra Haney says
I am going to suggest that commenters add the first 3 numbers of their zip/
code to their name “Sandra 909”. It would let the reader know what area
of the country their comments apply to and help to know if it would apply
to their own garden.
Sandra 909 That is the Inland Empire of Southern CA Zone 9B
Kathy Thomsen says
I am hoping to get some advice about having pigs on the garden (for tilling) and then planting. Do I need to wait several months before planting? I’m concerned about pathogens but don’t know know long they are active in the soil. Thanks!
Ridley Fitzgerald says
It’s good to learn more about soil. I like how you said that using compost can really help soil health. We want our garden to actually grow things this year, so I’ll have to try some of these tips.
Shelley Hatfield says
Ive been reading about your raised beds. Do you can what you grow in your garden? Do you have green beans in your raised beds?
Isabelle Velez says
It’s difficult to find educated people for this subject,
however, you seem like you know what you’re talking about!
Thanks. Here is my article … best corded electric lawnmower #agreenhand
Sometimes, I add mulch to provide nutrients for the soil. I will apply other methods to enhance my garden soil quality.
Steven Richard says
Well, Explained. I want my garden to grow crops, so I’ll have to try some of these tips surely.
Thanks for sharing with us.
Thanks for all the tips. We are on a mission to improve our soil and are already using some tips like these in you article. Great article.