Ideal Soil


The ideal soil depends on what type of plants you are trying to grow. Different tests can be performed to determine what kind of soil you have, its pH, nutrient content, and makeup. You can usually have your soil tested at a local university ( to find out who does these tests in your area, contact your local Agricultural Extension Service, listed in the blue pages of the phone book), or you can purchase an inexpensive soil test kit. and perform the tests yourself.

Soil is a mixture of clay, humus and sand, but these are never in the same proportions from location to location. Soil rich in clay and humus will hold water for longer periods, where sandy soil will not. Different plants like different soils; therefore, you must know what kind of soil the plants you are growing prefer, before adding treatments. In general, plants require three nutrients in soil for healthy growth: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potash (potassium or K). A good fertilizing plan can ensure your soil has these nutrients.

There are many terms used for classifying soil, but generally there are three types: sand, clay and loam. Sandy soils can be very good for gardening provided they contain plenty of humus and decaying organic matter. They dry out early in spring and are easy to work. However, sandy soils do not hold water well and tend to dry out unless watered frequently. Clay soil usually has plenty of nutrients for plants to grow in, but water drainage and air flow may be lacking. Clays are mostly red, brown, or gray; and feel slippery to the touch. Garden gypsum is a good treatment for clay soils that will not drain or aerate.

Loam soil is the best; it is the equilibrium of the different components. It has plenty of nutrients, drains well, and is easy to work. It is dark like clay, but crumbles like sand.

Regardless of what type of soil you have, there are ways to improve it. Every soil needs a certain amount of organic material returned to it yearly. Organic material will help give sandy soil more consistency and hold better. It will make clay soil more manageable and drain better. Loam soil will not stay loam forever if you do not return some of the organic material you reap from it. However, be careful how much and what organic material you add as not to disrupt the pH level of the soil too much.


Composting is one of the most important things we can do. Compost will not only save you money, but will recycle some of the garbage that would eventually end up in landfills. A compost pile will usually take two days to setup and will be ready to use in about 15-30 days. The best compost piles decompose materials quickly. Make sure you provide good airflow or your compost may be too compact and start to produce bad odors. It has been shown that the longer a compost pile sits, the less nutrients it will contain. Long sitting compost simply leaks into the ground.

To start a compost pile, it is important that you have several layers of an activator throughout the pile. An activator is a source of both nitrogen and protein that helps microorganisms and bacteria break down the compost material. A good activator is kitty litter made of 100% alfalfa meal. Sprinkle some alfalfa meal and water on the compost every time you add something to it. The use of a wire wall to contain the composting material will allow for maximum ventilation. Place hay, grass clippings, straw, and other good composting material between layers of alfalfa meal and water. In the fall, leaves are a great material for composting. To break them down quicker, shred the leaves before adding to the pile. Keep the center loose; turn the pile weekly. It should be ready to use in 15-30 days.

Below is a list of other organic matter that is excellent to work into your gardens soil.

Leaf mold – To make leaf mold, simply gather small piles of dry, crisp leaves and run them over with your lawnmower; then compost the chopped material . Of course, the best time to make leaf mold is in the fall, and add to your garden soil in the spring.

Grass Clippings – Grass clippings added to your soil is an excellent and easily obtainable source of organic matter. Make sure the clippings have not been taken from lawn that has been sprayed with a chemical pesticide or weed killer (this may introduce dangerous toxins to your garden soil). Place the clippings in a pile in some inconspicuous area.. Turn the clippings often to help dry the grass out quickly. Once the clippings have dried, they can be added to your garden beds as mulch to help hold down weeds. These clipping can be added to your garden all summer long. Work into your soil in the fall.

Straw – Use this material liberally as mulch throughout your garden. It is an excellent way to stop weeds and help your garden soil retain moisture. In the fall, till the straw into the garden soil.

Manure – Although you can buy manure in 5 pound bags, the processed material has lost a lot of its bulk and buying by the bag is usually more expensive than gathering manure. The best source is a local farm or stable where you can get cow or horse manure. You can work the fresh material into the soil, but it's best to compost it first (there's no need to add fertilizer); otherwise, it might burn the roots of young plants. You can apply the fresh manure directly to planting beds in the fall and delay planting until spring.

Pine bark – Like manure, finely shredded bark is also best if it's composted before going into the ground. However, you can use fresh bark if you also add a little cow manure to help supply the extra nitrogen it needs to decompose. You can purchase finely shredded pine bark in 5O pound bags. Large quantities may also be available through local lumber and pulp mills or from landscape contractors.

Sphagnum peat moss – This material holds up to 15 times its weight in water and is perfect for improving dry, sandy soil, but it's expensive. Most gardeners use it in combination with other additives for small jobs such as amending the planting holes for acid loving plants. This material also works great in raised beds.

Sawdust – Well rotted sawdust isn't easy to find, but occasionally gardeners track down an old mill site through garden contacts. Sawdust that has aged 10 or 15 years is best. Fresh sawdust, often available from local paper or lumber mills, should be composted for a year or two before using. (Be sure to avoid sawdust from chemically treated lumber!) If you do work fresh sawdust into the soil, you'll have to add plenty of cow manure (double the amount you would normally apply to plants growing in the amended soil). Otherwise, the decomposing sawdust will use most of the nitrogen, and the plants will yellow.

If you're working organic matter into a large area, such as a lawn site or vegetable garden, spread a layer at least 4 inches deep; then till into the soil. If the ground is hard, you may need to break it with the tiller before spreading; then till again to work in the material. In small areas, you can just mix the material into the soil a few shovels full at a time. As you work, make it a point to remove rocks and hard clods of clay. It's impossible to free the soil of these all at once, but persistence will make a difference.

For more information on garden soil or composting, visit the book page on our web site. EASY COMPOSTING and IMPROVING YOUR GARDEN SOIL are two excellent booklets on these subjects.

Happy Gardening,



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