Working with Poor Garden Soil

Yesterday, I typed about the key to having a green thumb: Knowing what kind of soil you have. Once you've followed the advice I give on do-it-yourself soil testing, what do you do with the information? If you have loamy soil with a pH of 6 or 7, you do nothing but start planting! But if your soil is less than ideal, you don't have to give up on gardening.

Solution #1: Bring it In. If you want to start gardening right now and don't want to mess with changing your natural soil, then purchasing garden soil is a good option. Although you could bring it in bag by bag, it's cheaper and easier to buy it by the yard from a gardening or landscaping center. You can build raised beds and pour the soil into them, or you can create berms, as I have in my garden (see the photo to the right). Although I wouldn't call this method cheap, it's not as expensive as you might think. Last year, I bought 5 yards for $187 plus delivery. If you have access to a truck, you can save a little by hauling the soil yourself.

Solution #2: Contain 'Em. Many fruits and vegetables grow well in containers. The trick is to make sure the containers have lots of drainage holes and are filled with good quality soil. But if you're concerned about costs, check out the price of potting soil and store bought containers first. Nonetheless, containers can not only include traditional plant pots, but also plastic storage boxes, plastic trugs, old buckets, old cans, and grow bags.

Solution #3: Have Some Lasagna. With the ingenious lasagna or no-dig method, it doesn't matter a whit what sort of soil you have. First, lay corrugated cardboard or 3 or 4 layers of newspapers over the existing soil. If weeds or grass are present, there's no need to remove them. Dampen the cardboard or paper, then add a layer of "browns" (for example, fallen, dry leaves, shredded newspaper, or peat), followed by a layer of "greens") (for example: vegetable or fruit scraps and grass clippings). The brown layer should be about 2 times as deep as the green layer. Keep layering until the layers are about 2 feet tall. Soon, the layers will decompose, leaving behind excellent gardening soil. Although autumn is the best time to start lasagna beds, you can also start in the spring or summer. To have access to the bed as soon as possible, use peat, compost, or topsoil for most of your "browns," ending with a 4 inch layer of compost or gardening soil. In a few weeks, you can plant.

Solution #4: Make Amends. Soil amendment is the traditional route, but also the slowest method.

Soil amendment is simply a method of adding organic matter to the existing soil to - ultimately - change the soil structure. If your soil is just a bit less than ideal, you can amend in the fall and have the garden ready by spring. But if your soil is very clay or very sandy, it will probably take several years before the soil is decent - and you'll need to keep amending every year to keep the soil in good condition.

First, look at the soil's pH. If you used a do-it-yourself pH kit, it will come with instructions on various things that can be added to the soil to make the dirt's level of acidity more plant friendly. If you hired someone to test the pH level of your soil, they should have provided you with similar information.

If you're trying to make clay soil better for gardening, it may be tempting to dig a hole, fill it with potting soil, and plant something in it. But this isn't a good idea. When plants grow and their roots spread, they won't respond well to the sudden change in soil type. So you'll need to amend a large area (ideally, an entire bed) at a time - and only when the soil isn't wet. Use coarse sand (also called builder's sand), readily available at home improvement centers; do not use fine sand (such as is used for sandboxes) since it can exacerbate the soil's problems. In addition, use coarse compost. Use equal parts of sand and compost throughout the bed, spreading each in a 3 or 4 inch layer. Once it's spread, work it into the soil, 6 inches deep. You can do this with a rototiller, but some gardeners argue these destroy soil structure. On the other hand, digging by hand is time honored, cheap, and good exercise. As the amendments decompose, it's a good idea to repeat your pH test.

To make sandy soil better for gardening, layer rotted (aged) manure or compost over the soil, then till it in.

For more details about choosing soil ammendments, visit the Colorado State University Extension website and the Oregon State University's website.

1 comment

  1. This is extra-ordinary blog.Natraj Industries is a popular manufacturer in the corrugated packaging industry, not only in India, but also in many other countries. Natraj Industries is dealing in packaging machinery manufacturing since 1978. Over a period of time, Natraj Industries progressed by adding more equipments for the rapidly expanding corrugated box industry. 3 Layer / 5 Layer Corrugated Board Plant