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How to Improve Soil Quality In Your Garden

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Want to learn how to improve soil quality to grow more food for your family?

Some areas may be blessed with healthy soil, but here in Tennessee, we sure aren’t. We have about a 3-inch layer of topsoil, if that, and then you will hit a hard red clay that is horrible “garden dirt.”

Your area may be something totally different. But the good news is no matter what kind of unhealthy dirt you have, there are easy ways to improve it for creating excellent soil quality.

Here are 9 of the best ways to improve soil health naturally.

If you are like me, when I first began gardening, I had no idea what healthy soil was, much less how to improve it. But I learned very quickly that healthy soil is necessary for successful gardening.

RELATED: Even if you’ve never gardened before, this Vegetable Gardening for Beginners Ultimate Guide is for you! Learn everything you need to know from over 60 resources, all in one place, to be a successful gardener, including improving soil, cover crops, warm and cool season crops, organic amendments, fertilizing, watering, and so much more.

So just how can you improve soil health?

How to Improve Soil Quality In Your Garden

1. Sheet Mulching or Lasagna Gardening

Sheet mulching or lasagna gardening are just different names for the same process.

raised garden bed planted with peas after amending soil quality

This is a very powerful way to improve not only soil quality but also the structure of the soil. The structure of the soil is also called tilth. Any time the tilth can be improved, the greater your harvest will be.

Sheet mulching requires no tilling and is great for starting a new garden or wrangling in one that has been taken over by weeds.

The day before you begin, mow down grass and weeds. Then soak heavily with water.

Next day, cover the area with 3-5 layers of newspaper, thick cotton fabric, or heavy cardboard to block light.

Next, toss a layer of green compost such as kitchen scraps, grass clippings, animal manure, or other nitrogen-rich material on top of it.

cardboard laid on the ground for sheet mulching to improve soil quality

And then add a layer of carbon using straw, leaves, or other additional organic approved materials. Then the last layer should be aged compost a minimum of 6 inches deep.

As you layer, thoroughly wet each layer with a water hose. This will speed up the breakdown of the organic materials and also attract “micro herds” of soil organisms, worms, beetles, and other microbes that are great for amending soil.

Lasagna gardening or sheet mulching should sit undisturbed for at least 2 weeks before planting, but longer is even better. If possible, do this in the fall and expect to plant the following spring.

2. Create Permanent Paths and Garden Beds

Soil quality or tilth is greatly affected by the sheer weight of our body. Each step you take compacts the soil and destroys beneficial soil organisms as well as their homes.

Your garden will benefit greatly from permanent garden beds and paths. Keep the paths wide enough to get a wheelbarrow through, but the beds no wider than twice your arm’s length.

This allows you the ability to work from both sides and “reach” into the center of the garden bed to harvest without stepping on the soil.

3. Plant Cover Crops

Cover crops are a really great way to improve garden soil over the winter. Their specific reason is to build and hold soil in place and smother weeds all at the same time. Cover crops can be perennial or annual, and depending on planting time, each has its best time to be used.

Learn everything you need to know from what to do with cover crops for early spring planting and more about The Best Cover Crops for Home Gardens.

Cover crops are also great for attracting pollinators to your gardens.

raised beds with cover crop planted to improve soil quality.

    4. Amend with Aged Compost

    Adding compost is probably the quickest less labor-intensive way to amend soil structure and add additional fertility.

    Compost can be purchased by the cubic yard and then spread over the soil in the spring. It also comes in bags from the garden center but can add up in cost very quickly, depending on how much you need.

    You can also make your own compost or compost tea which will help too.

    This is a great way to recycle kitchen waste, paper, leaves, and more. This publication from the University of Georgia Extension is a great place to learn how to compost at home.

    Compost should be spread on soil 4-6 weeks prior to planting or in the fall and left over the winter. It will work its way into the soil and additional soil nutrients.

    Close up of two hands holding rich, black, healthy soil.

    5. Add Organic Mulch

    Mulch is a non-living organic material that is spread on top of the soil just like compost, but it does not penetrate down into the soil.

    It is used to hold in moisture and suppress weeds, and it even helps to control temperatures in the soil.

    Some very common mulches are:

    • Straw
    • Crushed Leaves
    • Composted Wood Chips

    6. Use Aged Animal Manure

    I call aged manure “gold!” I love this stuff! Adding manure to the soil adds organic matter and nutrients and also attracts soil organisms creating microbial activity.

    I need to say, though, although animal manure is an exceptional organic fertilizer for building soil quality, it does contain nitrogen which makes it “hot” and will kill plants or destroy organisms if applied too soon.

    • Chicken Manure – Since chicken manure is high in nitrogen, it is considered the “hottest” of animal manures. It should be piled and left to decompose for 6-12 months before being applied to organic garden soil.
    • Cow Manure – the most popular animal manure in my area. Cow manure makes a great all-purpose manure fertilizer since it does not contain much nitrogen. It should be aged about 6 months before using it.
    • Horse Manure – this type of manure tends to have a lot of weed seeds in it. It can be piled and allowed to age, and if the pile gets hot enough, it can destroy many of the seeds. Horse manure should be aged 3-4 months before applying it to garden soil.
    • Goat/Sheep Manure – Both goat and sheep manure are considered relatively cool manure since they are herbivores and eat a lot of woody plants. It can be applied immediately, but for better results, it is best to allow it to decompose for 1-2 months for better soil fertility.
    • Rabbit Manure – can be applied directly from under the rabbit cage. It does contain some nitrogen, but the phosphorus and potassium levels are close enough to the nitrogen count to make it the “coolest” of animal manures. Though not necessary, if left to rot for 2-3 months, it will work more quickly in your garden beds.
    aged manure being loaded into a truck bed with a loader to put on garden to increase soil quality

    7. No-Till Gardening

    Unfortunately, modern farming is convinced that tilling soil is helpful for prepping planting soil. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Organic no-till farming, on the other hand, is an excellent way to go.

    Soil is a living system full of microorganisms, fungi, bacteria, and a whole plethora of living organisms. When gardening soil is plowed, it destroys these fungi and bacteria and their homes.

    Adopting a “no-till” garden will allow these beneficial organisms to continue to work and multiply, creating a wonderfully improved soil structure. Soil aeration and drainage are also increased from the number of worms, beetles, ants, and such that are attracted to no-till gardens.

    8. Practice Crop Rotation

    Vegetables can be divided into 11 crop families. Each family will uptake certain nutrients from the soil or will add nutrients.

    By adopting a crop rotation gardening practice, you will not only be building nutrients to the soil but also aiding in avoiding problems with weeds and helping to prevent garden pests and diseases.

    Crop rotation improves soil health and increases crop yields by adding increased soil fertility and nutrients.

    9. Build Raised Beds

    If all else fails, building raised beds will give you complete control over building soil structure. You can choose what soil amendments go into them and even what they look like. Yep, raised beds can be pretty attractive.

    Raised garden beds made from galvanized panels and wood filled with garden soil, mulch, vegetables and flowers.

    But more important than their appearance is your control over the organic matter that is added, as well as the fertilizers, compost, and natural amendments put into them.

    I have used raised beds for 4 years now and know from experience how great they are.

    So the best garden soil for plants can be easily amended to improve soil quality. Amending soil can easily be accomplished by adding organic matter. With just a bit of labor and organic amendments, you can improve productivity and create really rich soil or soil health.

    Let me know if you have any questions. Happy soil building!!

    More Gardening Tips

    spring lettuce in a raised bed with improved soil quality from compost

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