Preparing Soil for Planting

Soil Fixes and Soil Amendments

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When it's nearly time to plant, you'll want to prepare your garden soil.  If your soil needs help, here are some tips on soil fixes and soil amendments.

The Soil Test

First, what type of soil do you have? Remember: Soil is more than dirt! You can't just throw down seeds and expect plants to grow.

Soil needs to be nutrient-rich, to enable your plants to absorb moisture, anchor roots, and grow up strong!

To find out your soil type, you need to test your soil. There are a few ways to do this. First, you could buy an inexpensive soil test kit at your local garden store. Or, you could contact your local cooperative extension service office for a free (or low-fee) soil test. Or, see this gardening blog about resource that provides soil types around the country.

The garden must first be prepared in the soul or else it will not flourish.
–English proverb

For most soil, you can start by simply mixing in compost. However, your soil test may indicate that your soil needs more of a helping hand.

Soil Fixes

  • If you have clay soil, add coarse sand (not beach sand), compost, and peat moss.
  • If you have sandy soil, add humus or aged manure, peat moss, or sawdust with some extra nitrogen. Heavy, clay-rich soil can also be added to improve the soil.
  • If you have silt soil, add coarse sand (not beach sand) or gravel and compost, or well-rotted horse manure mixed with fresh straw.

Soil Amendments and Benefits

  • Bark, ground: made from various tree barks. Improves soil structure.
  • Compost: excellent conditioner.
  • Leaf mold: decomposed leaves that add nutrients and structure to soil.
  • Lime: raises the pH of acid soil and helps loosen clay soil.
  • Manure: best if composted. Good conditioner.
  • Peat moss: conditioner that helps soil retain water.
  • Sand: improves drainage in clay soil.
  • Topsoil: usually used with another amendment. Replaces existing soil.

If  you are starting from scratch with a small field or large garden that is either over-spent or neglected, see our article about reclaiming your garden soil .

Don't Forget Fertilizers

The next step is to add fertilizer. Nitrogen (N) is needed for leaf growth and is responsible for making plants greener. Phosphorus (P) is associated with root growth and fruit production. Potassium (K), also known as potash, helps the plant fight off diseases and keeps it vigorous.

Fertilizers are labeled to show the percentages by weight of the fertilizer. A 100-pound bag of 10-5-10 contains 10 pounds of nitrogen, 5 pounds of phosphorus, and 10 pounds of potassium. The rest is filler, which gives it bulk and makes it easier to spread.

When is a good time to fertilize your vegetables? See our Growing Vegetables Guide.

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