Everyone thinks that gardening is all about the care you give your plants in the summer season – but that is not the whole truth. Preparing your garden soil is one of the biggest factors that will determine how well your plants grow.
So, how do you prepare soil for a garden? To prepare soil for a garden, you will need to loosen it up, level it out, improve the tilth (texture), add nutrients, and balance the pH. You might also want to remove weeds or grass and plant green manure to provide a better growing environment for your plants.
Of course, you’ll need to do a soil test before adding anything to your garden, just to be safe.
In this article, we’ll talk about the steps you can take to prepare your soil for a better garden this year. Hopefully, you’ll get healthier plants and a bigger harvest from all of your plants.
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How To Prepare Soil For A Garden
To prepare soil for a garden, there are several steps you might need to take:
- Remove weeds and grass
- Loosen the soil
- Level off the garden area
- Create good soil tilth (texture or physical condition)
- Add supplements (for nutrients)
- Balance pH
- Plant green manure (cover crops)
Remove Weeds and Grass
Removing grass or weeds from a part of your yard is a big chore. Unfortunately, it is necessary to provide the right conditions for your garden to grow.
According to the University of Utah Extension, it is best not to mix sod into the soil when starting a new garden.
A layer of grass under a garden bed can make it difficult for plants to establish a deep root system. A lack of strong, deep roots will stunt a plant’s growth later on.
A lack of deep roots could be a problem in hot, dry conditions during a drought. A bed of weeds can cause the same problem by preventing plants from establishing roots.
Even worse, you would be burying seeds from those weeds that could grow back later. Fortunately, there are ways to remove weeds and sod (grass, along with its roots and soil) from your yard to prepare for a garden.
If you have a bad back or knees, you might want to check out my article on how to pull weeds without bending or kneeling.
Use A Shovel To Remove Weeds and Grass
The manual way to remove sod is to use a shovel to dig out the grass, one small area at a time. This is a good workout, but you should break it into several sessions if you aren’t used to this kind of work.
You can also use a shovel to dig underneath weeds and remove the entire plant, including the roots. If you only cut off weeds above the soil, the roots will remain, and the plant can grow back (many times, in fact!)
Use A Sod Cutter (Turf Cutter) To Remove Weeds and Grass
You can buy or rent a sod cutter (turf cutter) to help remove grass. A sod cutter is a machine that removes a strip of grass with the roots and soil still attached.
One benefit of using a sod cutter is that the strips of grass will still have their roots and some soil. This means you can use the strips of grass in another part of your yard.
So, if there is an area with thin grass, you can replace it with sod from the spot where your garden is going.
If this sounds like the right method for you, then you can rent a sod cutter at many Home Depot locations.
If you plan on growing in a raised bed, you might be able to get away with building directly over the grass. However, you might want to use plastic, cardboard, or newspaper to kill the grass and weeds first.
Loosen The Soil
Now the grass and weeds are gone from the garden site. The next step is to loosen the soil.
This is especially important if the soil is compacted. Soil can become compacted when too many people walk over it too many times.
Compacted soil lacks aeration. A lack of air (oxygen) can lead to root rot in plants, since their roots need oxygen to survive.
There are two basic options for loosening up the soil at your garden site:
- Loosen The Soil With A Shovel – this is the old-fashioned way and requires a lot of muscle. It can be a good workout, but if you do this after removing grass with a shovel, you will have some seriously sore muscles.
- Loosen The Soil With A Rototiller – this way is much faster, but some rototillers are heavy. You can use either a gas or electric tiller. You have the option of buying or renting a tiller, or hiring someone to do the tilling work for you.
Level Off The Soil In The Garden Area
Now that the soil is loosened up, it’s time to level off the garden area. This step might not take much work at all, or it could be a big production.
It might be that all you need is a few buckets full of soil to fill in a few holes. However, if your yard is on a steep incline, it will take a bit more effort.
To level off an incline in your garden, you have two options:
- Move soil – push the soil from the top of the incline to the bottom of the incline to even out the height.
- Buy soil – if your soil is thin, it doesn’t hurt to have a little extra. You can order loam (a healthy mix of sand, silt, and clay), from a landscaping company or garden center. Use a rake to spread and even out the soil.
Regardless of which method you use, do not pack down the soil. Avoid walking over it too much, since this will cause compaction and a lack of air for plant roots.
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Create Good Soil Tilth
According to the University of Illinois, soil in good tilth is:
- Loose (not compacted)
- Easy to work with (you can dig holes and move soil around)
- Well aerated (since plant roots need oxygen from the air to survive)
- Well drained (doesn’t stay soggy for too long, which can lead to root rot)
- Able to hold water (doesn’t dry out too fast)
To improve your soil, the steps you take will depend on the type of soil you already have:
- Sand – sandy soil is loose and has large particles, but it drains too fast (low water retention). Adding compost or manure will increase water retention.
- Silt – silt particles are smaller than sand particles, but larger than clay particles. Most soils have a majority of either sand or clay particles.
- Clay – clay soil is dense and has small particles. It is difficult to work and drains slowly (not well drained). Adding compost or manure will help clay soil to drain better.
- Rocky – rocky soil has less space for soil, air, and water. Rocks also prevent roots from growing, and will result in misshapen root vegetables (such as carrots). You can remove large rocks by hand and small rocks by sifting soil.
According to the Penn State University Extension, the ideal soil (called “loam”) has equal parts sand, silt, and clay particles. This balance of particle sizes makes loam the ideal soil growing in your garden.
Add Supplements (Nutrients) To The Soil
As mentioned earlier, adding compost or manure to the soil will improve the tilth by providing organic material. This organic material also supports earthworms and beneficial bacteria, which further improves soil health.
In addition to improving soil tilth, compost and manure add nutrients to soil. Compost can be made from common kitchen and yard scraps, such as:
- Grass clippings
- Tea bags
- Coffee grounds
- Banana peels
You can learn more about how to make compost in my article here.
You can also add manure to your compost pile to provide extra nitrogen for your plants. An alternative is to age the manure (to get rid of pathogens) and then mix it into your garden soil.
Just remember that you should never put fresh manure on your plants for two reasons:
- Fresh manure has pathogens that can get onto the leaves or fruit of your plants (either by touching directly or by splashing up from rain or watering)
- Fresh manure has high levels of nitrogen and salts, which can burn plants.
Compost and manure are a good start if you want to add nutrients to your soil. However, it may be that you need some extra nutrients from other sources.
Here are some of the most important soil nutrients and some sources that you can use for your garden:
- Nitrogen – blood meal, feather meal, and fish are a few good sources of nitrogen. You can find more sources of nitrogen in my article here.
- Phosphorus – hair, bone meal, and burned cucumber skins are a few good sources of phosphorus. You can find more sources of phosphorus in my article here.
- Potassium – sulfate of potash magnesia (SulPoMag), kelp, and wood ash are a few good sources of potassium. You can find more sources of potassium in my article here.
- Calcium – egg shells, lime, and gypsum are a few good sources of calcium. You can find more sources of calcium in my article here.
- Magnesium – dolomitic lime, Epsom salt, and magnesium oxide are a few good sources of magnesium. You can learn more about how magnesium helps plants in my article here.
- Sulfur – Epsom salt and gypsum are a couple good sources of sulfur. You can learn more about sulfur deficiency in my article here.
You can also use fertilizers that contain a balance of the “big three” NPK nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium). The label will indicate three numbers (such as 10-10-10), which tells you the percentage by weight of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in a fertilizer.
Balance Soil pH
The correct soil pH is important for plant growth. For one thing, a plant cannot absorb as many nutrients when the pH is outside of the proper range.
A good pH range for most plants is 6.0 to 7.0 (slightly acidic). However, there are some plants that prefer more acidic soil, such as:
- Azaleas (prefer soil pH of 4.5 to 5.5)
- Blueberries (prefer soil pH of 4.5 to 5.5)
- Potatoes (prefer soil pH of 5.3 to 6.0)
- Rhododendron (prefer soil pH of 4.5 to 6.0)
The first step to ensuring the proper soil pH is to do a soil test. You can buy a home kit and do it yourself, or you can send a soil sample to a lab for analysis.
The lab analysis will be more accurate, and it will provide more information about the nutrient levels in the soil, in addition to pH. A lab at an agricultural extension office can also offer suggestions on how to improve your soil if you tell them what you are trying to grow.
You can find a list of agricultural extension offices on the USDA website.
According to the University of Maine, you should do a soil test once every 3 years. The reason is that the pH can “drift” over time as you add fertilizer to your garden.
Early spring is the best time to test your soil. If you get a poor result, it leaves some time to amend the soil before planting if necessary.
Plant Green Manure
Green manure (sometimes known as cover crops) provides several important benefits for your garden:
- Higher fertility – many legume crops (such as peas) add nitrogen compounds to the soil with the help of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots. Plants can use these nitrogen compounds for growth.
- Extra nutrients – some green manure crops (such as alfalfa) have a deep root system. These deep roots can pull nutrients from the soil that shallow-rooted plants might not be able to reach. Tilling these green manure crops into the soil will eventually provide these nutrients for your plants.
- More organic material – tilling green manure crops into the soil provides organic material for worms and beneficial bacteria to break down. They will turn this plant matter into compounds that plants can use for growth.
- Pollinators – some green manure (such as clover) produce flowers that attract bees. If bees start coming to your yard early in the season, they might stay to help pollinate your other plants later in the spring.
You can use the following cover crops as green manure:
This list is not exhaustive, and there are other plants you can use for green manure. You can learn more about green manure and its benefits in my article here.
You can plant cover crops in early spring and then sow them into the soil before planting your garden. You can also plant cover crops in the fall and let them die back in the winter, sow them into the soil before frost, or put them in your compost pile.
Either way, green manure crops will provide nutrients and organic material for your soil, which will only help your plants.
When To Prepare Soil For Planting
Spring is the best time to prepare soil for planting.
In the winter, the ground will be either frozen solid or covered with snow. This will make it difficult or impossible to work the soil to loosen level it, and add compost and other supplements.
Even after the ground thaws, it will become compacted if you dig or till when it is too wet. Your best bet is to wait until the ground dries out a bit in the spring before preparing the soil.
Now you know the steps to take to prepare soil for a garden. You also know when to start preparations to ensure a good harvest.
You might also be interested in getting some ideas for vertical herb gardening.
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