This is a quick guide about managing, amending and improving your soil.
There’s information below about working with existing natural soil, or importing new soil.
*NOTE – Ultimately, each soil situation is different, and soil management plans will therefore differ in terms of what specifically needs to be done in each circumstance. But, below are some of the broad principles that can help, or provide a place to start.
1. Test Your Soil
This should be one of the first things you do. There’s a range of test you can do, with some of the main ones being:
- a soil pH test
- a soil nutrients test
- test for soil type (clay, sandy, silt, loam etc.) and texture
- test for soil contaminants and hazardous materials
Test in several different locations on your land as soil can vary even on one plot of land or in one growing area.
Read more about testing your soil in this guide.
Testing your soil gives you are good idea of how to approach managing and improving your soil in the future.
For example, if you find you have heavy clay soil, your approach might be different than if you have loose sandy soil. Your approach will be different again if you find you have naturally fertile and workable loamy soil.
2. Get A Second Opinion On Your Soil & Land From A Knowledgeable Source
Once you’ve inspected and tested the soil yourself, an amateur gardener might visit a garden nursery, gardening shop or home and outdoors shop (with a soil and gardening section), and talk to a gardening professional about their results.
People with experience growing in the location you want to grow can offer first hand feedback and advice/recommendations on what might work and not work.
Another option for professionals or those looking for serious results might be to get a professional horticulture, gardening, or soil and plant life testing company in who can provide a soil amendment or management plan. This will indicate exactly what kind of improvement is necessary. A soil analysis will tell you whether the soil contains enough acid and nutrients.
3. Decide Whether To Work With/Improve Your Natural Soil, Or Import Soil
Some people choose to work with and improve the existing natural soil in their ground. You can read more about amending and working with the different soil types in this guide.
Others choose to pursue an option like building raised garden beds, and importing fertile soil to grow and garden with instead.
There’s pros and cons to both – so weigh them up beforehand.
It’s also very feasible to start growing in above ground planter beds first (in a smaller area), and then move across to your natural soil once you’re ready. You can do both – you don’t always have to choose one or the other.
4. Consider Mixing Other Soil Types In With The Existing Soil Type
Each soil type has unique characteristics and properties that make them different from one another to grow with.
For example, clay soil tend to be sticky and compact when wet (and become waterlogged), and then dry out and become solid (and sometimes crack) when they dry. Sandy soils on the other hand are loose, and don’t retain nutrients or water well as they tend to wash straight through the sand structure.
Adding different soil types together can combine the best characteristics of the different soil types, along with improving the overall soil structure.
If we look at loam type soil for example, a good loam composition might consist of 40 percent sand, 40 percent silt, and 20 percent clay.
It should be noted that adding soil types together isn’t always a quick fix – ProvidentLivingToday.com for example found that adding sand to existing clay soil only hardened it up (http://www.provident-living-today.com/Types-of-Soil.html)
5. Add A Diverse Range Of Organic Matter For Nutrients
Organic matter is needed for a range of reasons.
Organic matter breaks down over time and supplies the soil with nutrients, but it also contributes to a healthy bacteria/fungi and micro organism population.
Organic matter can be supplied to soil via:
- Manure (well rotted livestock manure can work well – but allow a few months between application and harvesting edible plant food)
- Compost – greens and grass clippings tend to work well – apply around one-quarter inch per season. Find a good explanation on composting and compost application at https://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/8-steps-to-make-better-garden-soil-zmaz07jjzsel
- Mulch – straw, dried grass clippings and deciduous leaves
- + other sources
Organic matter can take years, and even up to a decade or two, to start having a significant impact on your soil’s fertility, health and quality – so be patient, and add it consistently over time. It’s not just a quick fix.
Add it at least twice a year in a thin to moderate layer, and make sure you dig it in, spread it, and break it up.
Read more about adding organic and inorganic materials and fertilizers at http://www.provident-living-today.com/Types-of-Soil.html
6. Consider Fertilizer For Nutrients
Slow release fertilizers are good for topping up on nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.
But, make sure you test the nutrient totals in your soil beforehand so you don’t over fertilize.
Ask a gardening professional what type of fertilizer to apply, and how often to apply it (and in what quantities).
7. Add Mulch For Water Retention & Soil Structure
A layer of mulch (roughly 75mm depth) on top of soil can help with water retention (it can help prevent water evaporation), but, over time will break down and can help with soil structure too.
As mentioned above, straw, dried grass clippings and deciduous leaves can well
8. Minimise Foot Traffic, Tilling & Disturbance Of The Soil
Tilling, walking on and disturbing the soil are all ways to break up the soil structure – which is not ideal for soil fertility and health long term.
Creating permanent gardening beds and growing patches, and having dedicated footpaths and walkways, are both ways to prevent this.
9. Consider Adjusting The pH Of The Soil
Soil can be acidic (pH 6.5 and below), alkaline (pH 7.5 and above), or neutral (pH 7).
Different plants and plant life are going to grow better in different pH ranges.
The easy approach once you’ve tested soil pH with a soil pH tester kit is to grow plant life that matches the pH range of your soil (it saves you time trying to change the soil pH yourself).
But, you can also adjust the pH range of the soil. Usually your local gardening shop or nursery can tell you what to add and how much to change soil pH.
In general, adding lime and dolomite raises its pH (and makes it more alkaline). Adding iron or aluminum sulfate or sulfur to soil can lower its pH (and make it more acidic). There’s other amendments you can add to change soil pH too.
10. Choose Plant Life That Grows Well In The Soil You Have
Relating to the above point – choose plant life that thrives in the local conditions you have, and the region you are growing in.
A really easy thing you can do is head to Google and type in ‘what to grow in [insert your city name]’, or ‘[insert your city name] gardening guide’. It should come up with guides that indicate native plant life and other plant life that can be planted commonly in your area, and the seasons in which they grow in.
Pick plant life that suits your climate, but also your soil – the soil type and soil pH.
So, do a Google search of the specific plant life you want to grow, like tomatoes for example, and find out the conditions they usually need to grow.
You could also go to a local gardening nursery and ask them for advice on what grows in the area.
Another option is to check out a site like Gardenia.net that lists plant life that grows in different regions and conditions (US and Australian examples listed):
It can be easier to match the plant to your conditions than to try to change the soil for example.
11. Consider Other Options To Improve Soil Fertility, Quality & Health Long Term
- Make sure areas you grow in are watered regularly
- Make sure areas you grow in drain well, but retain moisture
- Consider planting deep root plants like stinging nettles and comfrey that can ‘mine’ minerals from deep in the ground (read more at motherearthnews.com)
- Consider applying a rock powder when you first start gardening to correct mineral deficiencies in the soil (read more at motherearthnews.com). Soils can benefit from minerals like iron, manganese, sulfur and calcium
- Allowing chickens to roam the soil – they scratch/break up organic matter, eat insects and bugs, and their droppings provide nutrients
- Consider adding beneficial fungi like Mycorrhiza (also known as fungal spores) in instances when you can’t water or feed your soil regularly enough
- Consider adding biological pest control/an integrated pest management plan, or organic/alternative pesticides, instead of spraying synthetic pesticides – this helps with minimising environmental pollution and also helps minimising the killing off of beneficial soil bacteria and organisms (one or a few pesticide applications doesn’t usually hurt – but, continued application over a longer period can)
- Use cover crops like legumes, grasses and clovers (read more at motherearthnews.com)
- Use other sustainable or organic gardening practices that minimise synthetic chemical input