Do you want to grow a garden in your backyard?
Do you have terrible quality soil that’s full of rocks, sand, or clay?
Do you feel as if there’s no way anything is going to grow well in your yard, no matter how hard you try?
Don’t worry! You’ve come to the right place.
In this article, we’ll teach you everything you need to know in a crash course on garden soil quality. We’ll be focusing on vegetable gardening, so if you’re trying to grow something tasty in your yard, you’ll know exactly what you need to do to improve your soil’s quality and get it ready for new plants in no time.
By the time you get through reading, you’ll know how to determine the best soil for vegetables as well as how to tell what type of soil you have to work with. You’ll know how to alter the texture and quality of your own soil, and you’ll even learn how to perform a simple test that can tell you a lot about your garden.
There’s a lot to learn about soil, so what are you waiting for? Let’s get started!
5 Soil Factors to Look For
When you’re trying to choose the right kind of soil for any type of garden, there are always important factors you need to keep in mind. The best soil for a vegetable garden may differ from the right choice for flowers or other types of plants, but no matter what you’re trying to grow, the standards you should be looking for will remain the same across the board. Below is a quick list of the 5 soil factors you need to keep in mind when you’re considering whether or not your yard’s soil is ready for a healthy vegetable garden.
1. Good nutrient supply—but not too good.
Nutrients present in the soil are very important to the healthy and thriving growth of your plants, but if there are too many nutrients present, this can actually be detrimental to your vegetables. It’s the same as over-fertilizing a crop—too many nutrients will make the pH balance of the soil incorrect for plant growth and may damage the roots or inhibit the plant’s ability to soak up water.
2. Plenty of beneficial living organisms.
Living organisms in the soil help plants grow correctly. This is a normal part of nature, and so it’s important to be sure there are enough organisms present in the soil to keep your plants growing strong and naturally. This is even true of natural plant pests, to a point. However, you don’t want to choose soil that’s swarming with pests, either.
3. Good drainage.
If you plant your vegetables in soil that doesn’t drain very well, you’re not going to have vegetables for very long. A lack of good drainage in the soil keeps your plants from growing well, and eventually, it will even rot the roots of the plants and cause them to die quickly. This is the same as over-watering a plant in a pot that’s kept indoors.
4. Good depth.
You want to choose soil that’s deep enough to contain the roots of the plants you’ll be growing. Some plants have larger and deeper roots than others, so this depends largely on the type of plant you’ll be growing. Carrots, for example, are a root vegetable and will need a much deeper depth than plants that grow on vines, like cucumbers.
5. Good soil texture.
Soil texture is the proportion by weight of silt, clay, and sand in a soil sample. The texture of a soil helps decide how good that soil will be at holding and draining water, how firm it will be for root growth, and how well it will help your plants thrive. The best soil for growing vegetables will have a soil texture that supports the healthy growth of those vegetables.
Which Soil Texture is Best for Vegetables?
The basic answer to this question is that it depends on the plant—but with that said, there are some standards that tend to remain the same no matter what type of plant you want to grow. For one more obvious example, you probably know plants aren’t going to grow very well if their soil is made up almost entirely of pebbles! Below are a few tips to help you better understand the right type of soil for your garden.
- Most plants prefer loamy soil, which means the balance between sand, silt, and clay is balanced in a given soil sample. Many plants also thrive in a loamy soil that’s slightly on the sandy side.
- Too much of any of these aspects of soil will cause your plants to have to adapt if they want to keep growing.
- If your plant must adapt to suit a different type of soil, you may end up with either stunted growth or very stringy plants that aren’t strong. The vegetables they produce may not be rich and healthy, and they may not have a lot of flavor.
- When all else fails, opt for loamy soil!
Step-by-Step Soil Texture Tests
There are a few different ways you can try checking the soil texture in your yard at home. The method you choose largely depends on what you have available or what you can easily pick up to help you complete the process. Although it might sound like a complicated matter, testing the texture of your soil isn’t too difficult. It’s also a very important step in the process of creating the best soil for veggie garden use.
Below are the steps to testing your soil texture using one of the most popular at-home methods.
1. Use a shovel to remove the grass and top couple of inches of soil from the ground.
2. Dig out a straight hole a little over 6” deep.
3. Use your shovel to wedge straight down in the hole and then slice off a piece of the soil.
4. Take any noticeable twigs, grass, roots, or rocks out of the soil sample.
5. Place the soil sample in a glass jar. You can use a mason jar for this, but you may also use an old food jar as long as you rinse it out and dry it well first. Fill the jar about 1/3 with soil.
6. Fill the jar the rest of the way with water.
7. Add one teaspoon of dish detergent.
8. Close the jar tightly and shake it well for a few minutes. You want the soil to be floating in the water very well before you stop shaking the jar.
9. Set the jar on a flat surface where it can be undisturbed for a few days. Watch it carefully for 1 minute.
10. After 1 minute has passed, use a marker to mark the level at which the sand settles after 1 minute.
11. Check back in 1 day and you will see that more sediment has settled in the jar. Mark this line, too. This shows you where the silt level is.
12. On the second day, you’ll be able to mark a third and final line that shows you the clay sediment level in your soil sample.
13. Measure the depths of each level after 2 days. Divide the depth of each layer by the total depth of soil in the jar. Multiply that result by 100.
14. The resulting percentage you get will tell you what type of soil texture you have.
How to Prepare the Soil for Your Vegetable Garden
Organic vegetable garden soil preparation doesn’t have to be as difficult or complicated as it sounds! Remember that soil texture is your number one concern when choosing the right type of soil for your garden, but that there are other factors you need to keep in mind as well. In this section, we’ll walk you through the steps you’ll need to take in order to set up the perfect soil for your vegetable garden from day one. Although it may seem like a little bit of extra effort, it will be well worth, it in the end, to enjoy healthy, delicious vegetables straight from your own backyard!
- Gardening gloves
- High-quality fertilizer
- Compost (optional)
- Wheelbarrow for soil transportation (optional)
1. The first step is to aerate and loosen the soil in your garden. This is important because it will make it much easier for your plant’s roots to take hold and grow as needed for maximum plant health.
2. Use your shovel to remove the grass and top couple of inches from the soil.
3. As you’re doing this, stop periodically to remove any noticeable rocks, pebbles, grass, twigs, and roots that might be in the way. Pay special attention to the root systems of any weeds that might be present in your soil. Removing them now will be a big help later on!
4. Still using your shovel, turn over the soil repeatedly until it’s been thoroughly mixed up. Basically, you want to move the soil around rather than letting it just stay packed into place. This will allow more even aeration throughout.
5. If you notice a lot of worms in your soil, that’s a good sign and means it’s very healthy! However, be mindful of an abundance of plant pests that may also be present in the soil.
6. This is the point at which you’ll want to fertilize or compost your garden. Spread a good-quality fertilizer, compost, or both evenly throughout the tilled soil. Fertilizer packaging should give you specific directions for how much to use per area.
7. This is also the point at which you may add something to improve the texture and quality of your soil. In the following section, we’ll talk more in detail about this optional step.
8. Use your rake to even out the soil and make it very smooth. Be sure it’s raised enough that you can easily plant seeds in this garden and you won’t have to dig down any further to find a good place to plant.
9. All that’s left from this step forward is to actually plant your garden!
How to Improve Your Soil Quality
While the section above may give you all the information you need to get started if your soil quality is already good, what happens if you have a poor quality soil in your backyard? Unfortunately, many people live in places where the soil is far too sandy or too full of clay to support the healthy growth of plants. But even so, these people often make backyard gardens work beautifully by incorporating soil amendments into their garden space. In this section, we’ll give you a few tips on how to choose the best soil addition and how to add it to your garden before you plant your first seed.
- First and foremost, never remove the native soil altogether. Even if your soil is low in quality, it still has beneficial native nutrients that you don’t want to remove completely. You’re not trying to get rid of it, but just to add ingredients to it to make it better for your plants.
- Peat moss is usually not a great option for garden beds. While there is a place for peat moss, it usually belongs in potted plants that specifically require that type of soil to thrive. For the most part, when planting your backyard, it’s best to stay away from this soil.
- Compost, sugar amendments and mulch are all very beneficial ways to improve the quality of your soil.
- Compost is a great way to fertilize your vegetables. Make it yourself at home, or you can purchase a good-quality premade compost from most garden stores. If there are farms in your area, they may be willing to sell you some composting and fertilizer materials at a discount.
- Mineral additives, such as a product called azomite, can help improve your soil as well. These premade mixtures contain a combination of many different minerals and nutrients that can benefit your plants and, later on down the line, may even benefit you when you eat the vegetables they produce.
- Some gardeners use terra cane, which is a sugary substance that adds a great deal of carbon to the soil. This is good for two reasons: it increases the presence of good living organisms in your soil and chases away pests such as fire ants. Since sandy soil and fire ants often go hand in hand, this can be crucial to your garden’s health.
- Finally, a high-quality fertilizer can be an important addition to your garden as well. Although it won’t change the texture of your soil, it will improve the nutrients present in any soil that’s lacking significantly. You should only need to fertilize once or twice a year in most instances. Remember that too much fertilizer will be bad for your soil and your plants.
- When using the other amendments listed here, take care to stick to the directions listed on the packages. Each brand has its own specific requirements for the amount of soil additive per area.
- When you’ve spread out soil amendments, be sure to use your shovel to mix them well into your soil. Don’t leave them just sitting on top of the soil, or they’ll quickly be blown away by the wind or washed away by the rain.
Is the Raised Bed Process Different?
Raised vegetable garden soil preparation may differ somewhat from the preparation process of planting directly in the earth, but for the most part, the steps should remain the same. In this section, we’ll give you a quick rundown of the similarities and differences between the two processes. Just remember that, no matter which option you choose to go with, you’ll need to keep the texture of your soil in mind at all times and consider amendments that can improve the overall quality of your soil as well.
- Just like with backyard ground gardening, you’ll want to use at least some of your native soil in the raised garden bed process. The amount you use will depend on how much space you need to fill with dirt and how readily available this soil may be. Remember, however, that native soil is always beneficial when you’re growing plants in your own climate, so it pays to use it when possible.
- Once again, as with in-the-ground gardening, you’ll want to add amendments to your soil to improve the quality. Use compost and fertilizer in a raised garden bed the same way you would use these products on the ground. Twice a year should do it in most situations.
- If you’re using a special blend of gardening soil for part of your planting material, the other amendments you need to add may differ from those you’ll want to consider for ground gardening. While a little compost may go a long way, grass clippings, cornmeal, lava sand, and straw are all popular additions to the raised garden bed as well.
- Don’t be afraid to test the texture of your raised garden bed soil before you get started if you’re concerned about it. Just because your garden is in a box doesn’t mean it won’t have many of the same requirements as it would in the ground!
- In some instances, you may need to consider adding living organisms to your soil or even introducing a small amount of natural pest life, depending on the type of soil you choose for your raised garden bed. If you’re using at least some native soil, however, this likely won’t be a problem.
- Compost and mulch your raised garden bed soil for the winter. Not only will this keep your plants’ roots warmer during the colder part of the year, but also it will give your soil something to nourish it throughout the season, too. This way, by the time spring planting rolls around, your raised garden bed will be ready and waiting for a new crop of healthy, fresh veggies!
Okay, so you’ve learned a lot about how to take care of the soil in your garden. You know how to understand soil texture and even how to get a pretty accurate measurement of yours without ever having to send off a soil sample to a laboratory. You even know what the results of that sample mean and how they can affect your planting.
Not to mention, you’ve learned a little bit about preparing your backyard for planting and using soil amendments to improve the quality of your soil, whether you’re planting in the ground or using a raised garden bed. All in all, you’ve learned a great deal about garden soil, especially in relation to growing vegetables in your backyard.
But why would you want to go to all this trouble? Now that you’ve read through this, doesn’t it seem like it all might be a lot more effort than it’s really worth?
Absolutely not! There are plenty of good reasons why you should be concerned with the quality of your soil from day one, as soon as you decide it’s time to plant a vegetable garden. Choosing the right soil will mean your plants grow more quickly, which in turn means you’ll be able to harvest more vegetables from them throughout the year.
The right soil choices will also make your vegetables grow larger, healthier, and more flavorful, too. Your plants will be more durable and able to withstand inclement weather that may come your way, and all in all, you’ll save money not having to replace your vegetable crops when they die off too quickly or become easily damaged.
Although it may cost a little more money up front to prepare your garden soil to these specifications, in the long run, you simply can’t afford not to. So grab a shovel and some compost and get ready to put together the perfect backyard garden from the soil up!