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Improving Garden Soil

Category Soil
Having the proper soil texture and PH balance is a challenge to all gardeners. This page is about improving garden soil.


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By 4 found this helpful
February 1, 2010

I have always been an avid gardener without any chemicals. I was anxious to 'get started' in my large garden upon moving into a new home, but our soil was rock hard. I could balance on my spade shovel more easily than turn the soil over. I added peat moss, bone meal, compost; you name it!

Then, when teaching a three year old preschool class the merits of worms for spring. Eureka! Worms! I went to a bait shop and got many little guys and added them to all garden areas. They worked their 'underground magic' and the following spring, my soil was so soft, that a bulb planter could easily be inserted into my soil!

Mother Nature knows what she is doing. We just need to listen more. Happy gardening!

Source: My own adventures.

By laurie from Chicago

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January 20, 2015

When thinking about amending your garden, think of a water absorbing crystal as a little water filled packet or reservoir. It should sit near, or touch the plant roots. There, it holds its store of water, to be gradually released, as needed, into the soil where it can be taken up by the plant roots.


Last year, I purchased crystals from two separate companies. Each bag, with the cost of shipping included, was about $30.00. If you garden on a small scale, each bag could very well last for a few years. A little of this stuff goes a long way.

My first purchase was from a company which stated the size of the crystals. The crystals were indeed the size advertised. However, when fully hydrated, the crystals were much too large for their intended purpose. These crystals should be mixed into that soil which surrounds the plant roots. They should stay there. The larger crystals tended to migrate to the soil surface, defeating their purpose.

My second purchase was from a company which did not state the size of its crystals. These crystals, when hydrated, turned into a thick, slippery slime, making them useless as a soil amendment.

I have found the crystals in disposable diapers to be ideal for use as a soil amendment. They absorb water readily, rather than taking hours. Best of all, they are of a small, uniform size which helps them stay in place near plant roots. However, I find their use, costly. Only diapers purchased for soil amending should be used.

I read a post here in ThriftyFun suggesting the use of 'the "cleanish" ones', indicating the diapers had been previously soiled by the baby (or adult). For reasons of personal safety, please, never use a diaper which has been soiled with fecal matter, no matter how slightly.

As for diapers soiled with urine only, human urine contains about 9% urea. Urea is a main constituent of many commercial fertilizers. Does that make the use of urine soiled diapers as a soil amendment, safe? NO! Along with urea, human urine contains about 1000 other chemical compounds. Some of these other compounds are organic, meaning they are, or have been, alive.

May I suggest to you that if you home garden on a fairly large scale, find a commercial source for your water absorbing crystal needs. If you garden only 'lightly', and find a need for water absorbing crystals to be used in a few containers, then by all means, consider purchasing a pack or two of disposable diapers and use them for that purpose, only.

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By 2 found this helpful
September 21, 2010

When you put your vegetable garden to bed this fall, consider tucking it in under a cover crop. Also known as "green manure", planting a crop of legumes or cereal grains is a great way to rejuvenate garden soil and get your plants off to the best possible start next season. The basic principle behind growing cover crops is easy: sow the seed, grow the crop, and incorporate the crop back into the soil. The end result is healthy soil and happy plants.


The Advantages of Cover Crops

Choosing Which Crops to Grow

Cover crops differ in sowing times, soil preferences, growing rates, and what they ultimately return to the soil. Deciding which one is best for you isn't complicated, it just depends on what you hope to achieve. For example, Alfalfa is a hardy annual. It's also a legume (fixes nitrogen). It doesn't like wet or acidic soil and it takes a full year to reach maturity. If you want to rest a particular bed for a full season and you have the proper soil, it's a good choice.


Buckwheat, on the other hand, is a half hardy annual. It's a cereal grain. It matures in only 1-2 months and thrives in poor soils. It might be a good choice if you're looking for a crop to grow over the winter.

Here's a handy chart from the Farmer's Almanac listing U.S. Regional Cover Crops.

An even better chart is this one from The Rodale Institute. It gives a detailed guide to hardiness, seed depth, when to plant, and the main benefits of each crop.

Planting Your Crop

Preparing the bed: Before sowing the seeds of your cover crop, remove any plant debris remaining from your vegetable garden and even out the surface of the soil with a rake.


Sowing the seeds: Broadcast the seed according to directions. Legumes should be treated with an inoculant (available where you buy the seeds) to ensure the bacteria needed to fix nitrogen are present in the soil.

Protecting your crop: If the seeds of your crop start disappearing with neighborhood birds (the can be especially problematic in the fall), cover your crop with netting attached to a wooden framework that holds the netting several inches above the ground. Anchor the sides in place with stones or bricks and leave it on until the seedlings reach several inches tall.

Harvesting Your Crop

To harvest your crop, take several passes over it with your lawn mower before the stems become too woody. This will chop it up into fine pieces and speed up the rate at which is decomposes in the soil.


Digging it in (turning it under): If you have a large garden, use a roto-tiller on low speed to work the plant material into the soil. Smaller garden beds should be worked by hand to avoid disturbing the soil as much as possible. Once the crop has been turned under, cover the bed with a layer of compost to help speed up decomposition.

The no-dig approach: Another approach to harvesting cover crops is called the "no-dig" technique. Simply cut the crop and leave the plant material to decompose on the ground like grass clippings. You can then plant your garden vegetables through this layer, using the intact stems and roots like a protective mulch.

Timing Your Harvest: It's important to allow yourself plenty of time to harvest and dig in your crop before planting your garden beds. Expect to wait at least 7 to 10 days to plant after harvesting legume crops, and up to two weeks or more after harvesting grain crops. The reason for this is that large amounts of plant material will take several weeks to break down in the soil.

During that time, soil microorganisms will temporarily tie up much of the available nitrogen and the ethylene gas produced from the decomposing plant material will inhibit seed germination and retard the growth of seedlings. When you can no longer tell your cover crop from your garden soil your bed is ready to be planted.

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By 1 found this helpful
August 8, 2015

Knowing how to perfect your plant's soil is the best defense against diseases and unwanted insects. It's not to say you won't have any bugs or diseases but the soil is like a plant's immune system. The better the soil the stronger the plants growing in it.

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October 1, 20050 found this helpful

Rabbit food (alfalfa pellets) makes a wonderful, inexpensive, natural fertiliser. Simply sprinkle several handfuls around established plants and scratch into the soil, then water well. In a few minutes, it will 'melt'.

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By 1 found this helpful
June 3, 2013

I have been recycling all I can with cans. For a while we were crazy about those huge cans of cheese sauce you can buy at the store. I must have bought twenty or more before we became burnt out on the cheese sauce. I didn't want to throw them away.

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By 0 found this helpful
January 19, 2009

Start preparing the soil by digging in leaves, coffee grounds, vegetable trimmings, leftover vegetables from dinner, hay or straw and anything else you would normally put in a compost bin. It will start decomposing and enrich the soil by planting time.

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Ask a QuestionHere are the questions asked by community members. Read on to see the answers provided by the ThriftyFun community or ask a new question.

March 27, 20050 found this helpful

I love flowers and different plants but the soil at my home does not. I have part sandy soil, part hard clay soil. Some parts the water runs off, other parts I water and it runs right thru, so that the plants seem dry all the time. The area seems to like pine trees and apricot trees and apple trees that will grow and give fruit, but flowers like peonies, roses which I love do not. Does anyone have any ideas to improve the soil in my specific problem area?

Trina from WA


March 28, 20050 found this helpful

I have clay soil and done my homework. I have thousands of flowers and plants. When you buy your flower or plants buy good soil and gypsum.and plant food. Dig the hole ,add gypsum and chop up the clay with the gypsum. Add good soil, plant flower, add food, more soil and cover the top with mulch. The gypsum breaks up the clay and the mulch keeps in the moisture so u won't have to water so much. Do this every time you plant. Good Luck, Christine

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By Susan from hamilton (Guest Post)
March 28, 20050 found this helpful

Compost and add to soil each spring dig it in
All year I put all vegitable matters, lettuce, onion skins, potatoe skins, tomatoe ends, egg shells, coffee grounds no meat into a black bin, I add a little soil and mix it It composts naturally and makes nice black soil, I take from the bottom in the spring and dig into the garden.. Keeps the moisture and my plants just leap out of the soil.
put in leaves in fall and start all over again.

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By rosa (Guest Post)
March 28, 20050 found this helpful

COMPOST .COMPOST COMPOST. I have a very large compost pile, and 2 compost makers. would never be without them, also make compost tea ! The plants love a drink of " tea "

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By Lynne (Guest Post)
March 28, 20050 found this helpful

I agree with Rosa and Susan: COMPOST. It helps sandy soil retain moisture, and helps loosen clay soil. If you don't have any homemade compost, you can purchase it in bags from any reputable garden center/nursery.

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March 29, 20050 found this helpful

You can probably get a soil testing kit from your county extension office, or at some gardening supply stores. Before you go to the expense of adding a ton of organic matter (which may be what it needs anyway,) I would test the soil to find out exactly what is there. It sounds to me like you have some drainage problems, and that in some places your soil is full of clay, and in others, it absorbs the water easily. When you do a soil test, test in several areas so that you can discover how different the soil in various parts of your yard are. The recommendation of adding organic matter is undoubtedly right on, but you need to find out what kind of organic material would be most beneficial. In the future, when you fertilize, I would use one of those long acting fertilizers. It is less likely to concentrate heavy amounts of stuff in the soil all at once. And it would help a lot if you started a compost heap. You can save your kitchen scraps and throw them in it, along with some worms. It takes a while for the stuff to age and turn into true compost material, but once you start this, you will have a constant supply of the stuff, and you will save yourself a fortune in the long run. You can get specific types of garbage cans to keep in your kitchen, and these cans will hold the scraps, and start the composting process. That way, you don't have to run out to the compost heap every time you fix a meal! Good Luck! Hope this helps!

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March 29, 20050 found this helpful

I am not sure that gypsum is the answer. You need organic material and possibly sand mixed with that clay. It may take a while to get enough organic material to do the job. Depending on how much soil you need to improve, you may want to get shredded leaves by the truck load. On the other hand, peat moss is much more manageable but costs a good bit. How do you mix it in? I recommend a tiller. Rent one or hire a neighbor. Do a soil test for PH while you are at it. You have a low PH and may want to raise it with the addition of lime when you till. Different plants require different PH. Peony needs a higher PH than you have. Where I live, in Southern Maryland, holly, mountain laurel, dog wood and the like thrive in acid soil.

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March 29, 20050 found this helpful

Here is a good article on Improving Clay Soil:

http://www.taun  pages/g00012.asp

Here's a good article on Improving Sandy Soil:

http://www.umas  sandy_soils.html

It seems to me that mixing the two with some organic material might be a good way to improve them both.

Susan from ThriftyFun

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By 0 found this helpful
July 28, 2012

My veg garden is in need of some nutrients and it must be the soil. Where can I have a sample of soil analyzed to determine what I need to add to soil to enrich it?

I live in Norwood, Massachusetts, Norfolk County

By Joe Burto


July 30, 20120 found this helpful

The best and most accurate thing you can do to get your soil tested is to go to the county extension service and they can tell you where to send your soil sample into your state extension service. They might even have kits available at your county extension service. I know you have to take samples from 3 or 4 places in your yard as it can vary much. You can also buy them at Walmart and other nurseries but they are not as accurate as when the state does the testing.

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July 30, 20120 found this helpful

Contact Information

Phone: (413) 545-2311
Fax: (413) 545-1931

Mailing Address:

Soil and Plant Tissue Testing Lab
West Experiment Station
682 North Pleasant Street
University of Massachusetts
Amherst, MA 01003

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August 2, 20120 found this helpful

My local nursery has the kits, it comes in a little box preaddressed. You just gather sample and mail it in with a check for $10. Ask your nursery if they have something similar.

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By 0 found this helpful
July 17, 2011

The soil in my garden seems lifeless. What causes your garden soil to loose nutrients? Vegetables grow, but not to their potential. It just seems lifeless. I am going to test the soil and hopefully be able to add what it is lacking. Thanks for feedback.

By Diane C


July 18, 20110 found this helpful

The testing should be of help to find what you need to add to the soil. You could add compose and lime.

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July 20, 20110 found this helpful

I would do a test before adding anything. Lime will be of no help if your soil is sweet to begin with. I think Foxrun meant compost, that will not hurt it at all but I would still test your soil first.

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July 20, 20110 found this helpful

I haven't been the most diligent with getting my soil tested, other than the kits you buy at Lowe's because it takes too much time, but one thing I'd say to help is to plant different families of veggies in different places which I know isn't always easy. There are so many things that I grow that are in the cucurbit family; cucumbers, all squash (which is many), melons, and pumpkins. I try to not put them in the exact same spot. It depletes the soil of the nutrients that that particular vegetable required. To make your soil better this is what I do. If I don't have any home made compost (which is scarce) I buy a few bags of humus/manure ($1.47/bag@WalMart) and mix it with peat moss and add it to the soil when I plant, whether one plant or a row or section. Not only is it putting some raw materials back into the earth but it makes your soil more fluffy (I'm sure that's a technical word for experienced gardeners), easier for your veggies to take root, therefore take up the nutrients also. This year because of my past problems with squash bug and cucumber beetle (which destroy everything in the cucurbit family, 3/4 of what I grow) I purchased some beneficial nematodes. Wow! Don't know if it's the combination of it all but my squash plants are the most beautiful green, large leaves, producing machines than I've ever had in my 10-15 yrs of gardening. Hope that's helpful.

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By 0 found this helpful
March 13, 2010

The house I'm renting has a area for a garden. Should I change the dirt out, or will it be good?

Hardiness Zone: 9b

By Rosezena from Henderson, NV


March 14, 20100 found this helpful

Is it a raised bed garden? If so all you need to do is apply some 10-10-10 fertilizer, mix it with the soil before planting, if it needs more composted manure put it in before you add the fertilizer, info is on the bag of fertilizer, good luck.

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March 19, 20100 found this helpful

Contact your local Extension Service, they have a kit that you can buy (inexpensive), They tell you how to take several scoops of your soil and give you the container to mail off. In a few weeks you will get the results and it will tell you how to amend your soil if it needs to be amended. jjs fla.

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By 0 found this helpful
September 13, 2009

My vegetable garden is done for the season. How do I treat the soil over the winter to prepare for next year. We had lots of rain in June and the garden was not so good this year. My tomotaos were very bad.

By burt from West Islip, NY


September 14, 20090 found this helpful

You can plant all kind of greens, lettuce, onions,garlic & English (garden peas) in the fall. Sept is a good time to plant greens, plant English peas in cold weather. In Dec, call your County Extension office,ask for info on gardening. It's free & search online for your question, good luck.

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October 10, 20090 found this helpful

I opened a small store and 2 doors down were 2 plants. They needed to be save because no one was watering them. What would be good to give them a healthy treat to bring them back. They look good but just droopy.

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January 26, 20130 found this helpful

I might have posted this already, but I lost server connection so I thought I'd make sure.
I read your article about common items to use in your garden. For example coffee grounds for acidic plants, etc. My question is what if I compost several items such as banana peels, coffee grounds, eggshells, etc. to make a fertilizer to re-nourish a garden plot that has been used several times? Will that mixed compost help?

By Kelli


January 28, 20130 found this helpful

Yes. You can add anything into your compost. But, it is best to avoid adding meats (as they smell and attract animals). Also, don't add any weeds that you have cut, incase the seeds survive. Also, nothing that you sprayed for bugs or to kill.
All my kitchen scraps go into the compost, as well as my yard clippings, and the stuff from when I clean out the fish tanks.

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By 0 found this helpful
June 4, 2010

Would triple 13 fertilizer be good to use in sandy loam soil for a vegetable garden?

Hardiness Zone: 9a

By Beckie from Buna, TX


June 4, 20100 found this helpful

Some nurseries sell triple phosphate (just P). If you are not 100% organic gardener, any balanced all purpose fertilizer (10-10-10 or 13-13-13) should be fine.
As far as the plants are concerned, fertilizer is fertilizer. Organic in this case is just an environmental issue.
Wood ash is also a good source of Potash(K). K is vey stable and sticks to soil. N is water soluble and will leech out quickly unless the soil is rich in organic matter. P is semi stable.
Good luck.

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