We all know that the overall success of your garden depends upon the health of the soil you plant in. But, if you’re anything like me. You don’t have much in the way of soil when starting out a new garden. More along the lines of yucky, clay-like dirt-resembling matter.
That’s not gonna grow plants very well, y’all.
Luckily, there are tons of ways you can improve the health of your dirt and turn it into nutrient rich, loamy soil of your garden dreams.
Even better? Most of them are free. And they’re all really easy.
How to Improve Your Garden Soil
Do a Home Soil Test
The first thing you want to do, is a home soil test. Now, an easy way to accomplish this would be to get a sample and take it to your local extension office. They’ll be able to tell you everything you need to know about your soil.
However, you can get a test on amazon like this and accomplish the same goal.
Knowing what’s in your soil and what it lacks is a great first step to improving it. You don’t know what you don’t know and you can’t improve it if you don’t know what needs improving. Soil tests are super easy and save you tons of time and money. So, do one of those first.
If the test shows you need to add phosphorus you can add bone meal.
If the test shows you need to add nitrogen you can add blood meal or fish emulsion.
If your soil is lacking in potassium add in some wood ash.
If your soil is low in magnesium you can add Epsom salts.
If the test shows low calcium you can add eggshells (lots of eggshells) or lime.
Compost is like gardener’s gold. It’s rich, full of nutrients and an easy, amazing way to amend your soil. It will help your soil drain better and add that rich, loamy feel that gardeners dream of growing in.
Composting is easy. You can try vermicomposting or make a traditional compost pile. It helps get rid of yard waste and animal manure and turn it into something amazing for your garden.
Hay or Straw
Make sure the hay or straw you’re using has not been treated with herbicides or pesticides. It can kill your garden!
Mulching your garden with hay (my personal favorite) or straw is a great way to not only help with watering and weeds, but also add nutrients as it breaks down.
Hay and straw can be purchased fresh, but using old bales is better. It’s also cheaper as many farmers are getting rid of bales that aren’t good enough to feed to their livestock. It also means it’s overwintered and not full of seeds that can potentially cause weeds to sprout all over the garden.
A year or two of hay or straw used as your top mulch layer and you’ll have an amazing layer of rich, loamy soil on top of your garden to work with! And if you did it right… it was completely free (or super cheap).
Coffee grounds are one of my favorite ways to amend soil. They’re readily available and don’t serve much purpose once they’re spent. But, add them to the soil and you’re adding a nitrogen rich amendment to your soil for something you would ordinarily throw away.
While you probably won’t have enough to do much damage, do not just dump the grounds onto your garden. Instead, sprinkle them. Otherwise, you’ll get mold and no one wants mold in their garden, right?
Don’t drink coffee? That’s okay, too! You can typically find local Starbucks or coffee houses that are more than happy to let you take their spent grounds off of their hands!
Have you ever noticed the way nature naturally breaks down organic material? Pretty awesome, isn’t it? Well, you can do that right on top of your garden plot.
Sheet mulching is a no till gardening method all its own. All you do is layer cardboard with organic materials. The cardboard attracts worms and smothers out the weeds while the organic materials help add nutrients to the soil.
To sheet mulch, you cover the area with cardboard. Then, pile organic material (leaves, yard clippings, green food scraps etc). The organic material can be piled pretty high. It will break down over time and not be near as tall. On the very top, place organic compost.
In order for sheet mulching to work, you need to plan ahead. It should sit for a minimum of two weeks before you plant and ideally three months. But, it works, and you don’t have to till your garden. It will make for some amazing soil.
Also a planning maneuver. But, gardening requires planning, right? Cover crops are an excellent way to amend soil and don’t require much work.
Cover crops can improve soil drainage, aeration, and smother out a bunch of weeds. Which is awesome to me. The only real downside to cover crops is having to wait in order to use the garden plot.
In the summer, buckwheat is a great option for a cover crop.
In early fall oats are a great option.
All you do is cover the garden area with the seeds you want to use as your cover crop and let them work their magic. You can simply take a scythe and cut them off at soil level when you’re done and leave the greens to break down on top of your garden. Easy peasy.
Make sure the animal whose manure you’re using didn’t eat hay treated with pesticides or herbicides! They can survive and wind up killing your garden!
If you’re like most homesteaders, you’re not in short supply of manure. If you’re in an urban area and don’t have chickens, rabbits, goats, or the like to supply you with manure. Just find a local homesteader. I can guarantee they have plenty of manure to share.
Please note, you don’t want to add most manures straight to your garden unless you’re adding it in the fall to overwinter. Manure is hot and will typically kill your plants, so it needs to be composted first.
- Rabbit manure can be added directly to your garden. So, it’s an exception to the rule I just stated. You can just take it and put it directly around your garden with plants already in. No waiting.
- Goat manure can also be applied directly, but it is best to compost it first.
- Chicken manure is one of the hottest options, so it needs to be well composted before adding it to the garden. But, it is also one of the most nutrient dense options there is!
Amending your soil doesn’t have to be difficult. Time consuming, sure, the waiting game is insane. But no matter what you’re working with, you can improve your garden’s soil so you can grow a bountiful garden no matter what it seems like right now.
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