Planning Your 2017 Garden, Part 4 – How to Create Good Soil for Your Garden

How to Create Good Soil For Your Garden
How to Create Good Soil For Your Garden

Good soil is foundational to gardening. With good soil, your crops will thrive. Without it, your crops will be weak, and prone to disease and insect attacks. Good soil is not just a hit or miss proposition–it can be made, and each year, your soil can get richer and better. Follow this post to create good soil for your garden.

3 types of soil:

There are basically 3 types of soil: clay, sand and silt. Clay is very heavy, sticks together and doesn’t allow water to percolate through. Sand is very loose, granular and allows water to flow through readily. It doesn’t hold water, and will allow any fertilizer you add to be readily flushed out. Silt is in between the other two types. It is composed of fine material and holds water well.

How to test soil types:

To determine precisely what type of soil you have, and what to do to make it better, you should contact your county extension agent to get a soil test. This costs money but it is the most precise way to determine your soil needs.

If you just want an “in the ballpark,” “quick and dirty” idea of your soil, get a quart jar. Fill it about 1/2 full with soil, and the other 1/2 with water; leave about 1″ of air in the jar. Screw on the lid and shake well, so the soil is all mixed in with the water. Set it aside for a day until everything settles out into distinct layers. You can then look at the jar to see what percentages of the 3 soil types are in your garden area. The bottom layer will be sand; the middle layer will be silt, and the top layer will be clay. Good soil is about evenly split between all 3 types of soil.

Remedies for soil types:

If your jar is mostly clay, you need to add organic matter to it. Add compost, Cocopeat* (a renewable alternative to peat moss), Sphagnum Moss, or Gypsum. This will break up the soil, and allow it to retain moisture.

If your jar is mostly sand, you need to add peat and vermiculite, as well as compost to it. These amendments will retain the water that normally drains out of the sand.

If your jar is mostly silt, you are pretty much good to go. Just add compost to add nutrients and make it richer.

How to test soil pH:

It is important to know soil pH because each plant type grows best in a narrow pH range. pH is a measure of how acid or alkaline your soil is. Your extension agent test will tell you this number, but a quick test for acid or alkaline soil is: Take 2 clean jars and put a handful of soil in each jar. To one jar, add 1/2 cup baking soda and 1/2 cup water. If this mixture bubbles, you have acidic soil. To the other jar, add 1/2 cup vinegar. If this mixture bubbles, you have alkaline soil. If nothing much happens in each jar, you have a neutral pH. This test won’t tell you the precise pH, but it will give you an indication.

Remedies for soil pH:

If your soil tests acidic, add sulfur or pine needles to lower the acidity. If your soil tests alkaline, add wood ash or lime to boost the acidity.

Mel Bartholomew’s SFG soil:

If you follow Square Foot Gardening, Mel Bartholomew suggests a mix of 1/3 compost, 1/3 vermiculite and 1/3 peat moss. The compost adds nutrients; the peat moss adds bulk and allows air penetration; the vermiculite holds water and releases it slowly. If you are making this soil, be sure to wet the sphagnum peat moss thoroughly.

Core gardening:

I have posted before about hugelkulture in the garden. Core gardening is a variation of that, using grass, straw or hay instead of wood. The steps are the same: dig a trench, fill with the material, then cover with soil. The trick to get this going s fast as possible is to soak the straw material well, so that it absorbs as much water as possible before you cover it over with soil. If you omit this step, it will take some time before the core is charged with water from rainfall or your watering efforts, and the benefits show up in your garden crops.

As I was writing this post, I went outside with a moisture meter to check my beds. The regular beds registered “moist,” while the center hugelkulture portions registered “dry.” This tells me that the portions of the beds with the wood/straw were not yet wet enough. I will need to open these beds up and water very thoroughly before planting in the spring.

Adding manure:

If you live in or near a rural area, you can get manure from local farmers to add to your soil. Try to get aged manure, rather than fresh. The fresh manure is still to “hot” and will burn your plants. The aged manure has begun breaking down, and is in a form that your plants can more readily use. Till it in with your soil.

So there you have it. How to Create Good Soil for your Garden is the last in my 4-part series for getting your 2017 garden ready to go. You can read Part 1, The Site Plan; Part 2, What and How Much to Grow; and Part 3, The Pros and Cons of 4 Garden Types. Let me know how this helped you plan your 2017 garden in the comments below!

* Disclaimer: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. You don’t have to purchase them through my links, but if you do, you will help support StraightWay, Inc., a non-profit rehabilitation program that works with whole families as well as single moms and dads, and single guys and gals.

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