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How To Improve Garden Soil (A Quick And Easy Guide)

One of the most frustrating things in the world of gardening is struggling with poor quality soil right?

Luckily there are some quick fixes that can dramatically change the quality of your soil.

The good news is:

In this post I am going to show you how you can quickly and easily transform your garden!

Let me say this straight:

Good soil is the most important factor for healthy plant development. This is because plants get almost all the nutrients and moisture directly from the soil.

In addition, soil also provides plants with a stable base to anchor their roots. Growing plants in bad soil will therefore always lead to disappointing results and is why so many people want to know how to improve garden soil.

Some qualities of bad garden soil include:

  • Low nutrient content that causes stunted growth and discoloration of leaves.
  • Poor water drainage causing the soil to dry up too quickly or retain too much water.
  • Soil that is compacted too tightly or is too loose due to a disproportionate mixture of clay, loam, sand and manure. This hinders root development and causes poor aeration and drainage.
  • Extreme acidity or alkalinity.

Above – If you don’t have time to read all of this post the video above gives you a quick look at how you can improve your soil

How To Improve Garden Soil – Where To Start

Testing The Soil Quality In Your Garden

Good news:

Garden soil preparation isn’t something to worry about, in fact the most common soil problems can be easily identified after conducting one, or several, separate soil tests.

Each of these tests will check the soil for a specific quality that is crucial for healthy plant development.

Soil Consistency Test

This test is done to check if the soil has the right balance of sand, clay and loam.

Stick with me here and I’ll show you how easy it is:

  • Collect some soil from your garden and add a little water to moisten it.
  • Place the moistened soil sample on your palm and squeeze it firmly with your fingers.
  • Hold the sample for a few seconds before opening your hand.

Here’s the kicker:

Good soil will create a solid lump that crumbles when you apply pressure to it.

If the soil forms a hard and sticky lump which simply deforms instead of crumbling when pressure is applied, it contains too much clay.

If the soil sample crumbles immediately you loosen your grip, it contains too much sand.

Drainage Test

This will test the soil’s ability to hold moisture and efficiently drain excess water.

You want to see how it works right?

  • Dig a hole in the ground about a foot deep and six inches wide (The soil you dig out from this hole will be usedlater, so don’t discard it yet!).
  • Pour water into the hole and let it seep into the soil. Once all the water has been drained, fill the hole with water once more.
  • Observe how long it will take for the water to drain into the soil after you fill the hole for the second time.

Basically:

The water should drain completely after around three or four hours.

If it drains in less than three hours, the soil is too porous. If it takes more than four hours for the water to drain then the soil has poor drainage.

Worm Test

News flash:

Earthworms help to ensure proper soil aeration and drainage through the tiny channels they create as they bore through the soil.

A good worm population also indicates that the soil contains enough organic material.

Ok so here’s how it goes:

For this test, you can use the soil you dug up from the ground while conducting the drainage test above. Spread this soil on a polythene sheet and count any visible worms.

The secret is:

Good soil should have about 8 to 15 worms per cubic foot of soil.

If you find anything less than eight earthworms per square foot of soil, then the worm population in your garden is too small.

pH Test

A pH test will give you an accurate measurement of the acidity or alkalinity of your soil. Plants generally grow best on soil that is slightly acidic as opposed to alkaline soil.

To do this test you will need a litmus paper kit. This kit can be purchased from any department store.

First of all:

Collect a fistful of soil from any random spot in your garden and place it in a cup. Ensure that the soil does not occupy more than a quarter of the cup’s volume.

Add some distilled water to the cup up to the halfway mark and stir continuously until the soil mixes with the water to form a thick paste. Let the mixture sit for 30 minutes.

The soil will gradually settle at the bottom of the cup, leaving a layer of dirty water on top.

Next:

Carefully pour out a little water from the cup into another empty cup and place a piece of litmus paper in it. The litmus paper will turn into a different color to indicate the pH level of the soil sample.

Finally:

Use the pH chart that came with the litmus kit to match the color of this litmus paper to its corresponding pH value. The optimum pH for garden soil should range between 5 and 7.

A pH value lower than 5 will mean that the soil is too acidic and a value higher than 7 will mean that the soil is too alkaline to support healthy plant development.

Improving Soil Quality

One of the best qualities of soil is that no matter how poor it is, there is always something that can be done to improve it.

And the best part?

There are some simple techniques that you can use to do away with the most common soil problems:

Soil Consistency

Most garden soils contain of a mixture of loam, clay and sand in their composition.

Want to know a secret?

Crops generally grow best on soil that contains a high percentage of loam.

If a soil consistency test shows that your garden soil has too much clay or sand, you can add lots of organic material such as compost or manure to improve its texture.

So what’s the answer?

Spreading a 3 to 6-inch layer of compost over your garden will improve the texture of soil that contains too much sand or clay and also improve the soil’s fertility.

Poor Drainage

Poor soil drainage occurs in soils that have a relatively high percentage of clay.

The fine nature of clay particles causes soil to compact very easily, making it hard for water to drain into the ground.

The solution is:

You should first spread a 3-inch layer of coarse sand over your garden. Use a garden hoe to dig up the top layer of the soil to mix it with the coarse sand.

This will add some space between the soil particles and make it more porous. You can then spread a 2-inch layer of compost over the soil to add nutrients and improve its texture.

pH Imbalance

The ideal pH value for garden soil should be between 5 and 7. When the soil has a pH of between 5 and 7, plants will absorb nutrients easily.

The trick is:

If pH tests show that your soil is too acidic, you can sprinkle some lime on your garden to make it more alkaline. If your soil is too alkaline, adding sulfur will help to balance out its pH level.

Improving Soil Fertility

Crops that have been grown on infertile soil will start to show symptoms of nutrient-deficiency. Such symptoms include the yellowing of leaves and stunted growth. Don’t worry though, this is easily rectified.

Allow me to explain:

You can make your garden more fertile by adding organic material into the soil. The best organic matter for your garden are materials like compost or manure – they contain all the nutrients that plants need to grow.

Organic materials are also safer for the environment compared to chemical fertilizers.

Increasing Worm Population In The Soil

Earthworms help to break down organic matter in the soil to speed up the release of vital nutrients.

Furthermore, they improve the soil’s aeration and drainage by creating tiny channels in the ground as they move.

The bottom line:

Since earthworms feed on organic matter, you can increase their population by simply adding more compost into the soil.

USEFUL RESOURCES

Want to learn more about how to improve your soil? You can find further information here:

About The Author

Steve Mann

Steve is a one time gardening hater turned into gardening obsessive. This was all thanks to going to University where a two year stint spent transforming the previously horrific garden of the student house he lived in left him addicted to all things horticultural! Now with a new house in tow and due to some fortunate circumstances he is free to test out a whole host of gardening equipment. Find out more about Steve or drop him an email at steve@suaveyards.com.

10 Comments

  1. Laura

    Hi Steve, I have an area under my deck that has had the same plants in it for 15 years. The plants have begun to die. This post and video has helped so much. I am going to till it up and put organic matter in it. Then I will replant the area. It is the only place I do not have an abundance of earthworms. I thank you so much.

    Reply
    • Steve Mann

      Hi Laura

      You are most welcome – so glad you found this useful. I think people don’t realise the benefit of earthworms – they are pretty amazing little creatures that can make a real difference to your soil. Be sure to let me know how it works out!

      Regards

      Steve

      Reply
  2. Tim Bennett

    Hi Steve,

    I really like your website and your writing style.

    I have a small unit in The Philippines and use mostly potted plats on a balcony. It’s really nice to have some green in the city!

    I tend to buy bags of pre-prepared soil and it seems to do the trick ok.

    So I know that having worms in soil improves things.

    This may seem a strange question, but would you advise buying worms and adding them to the soil or is that going a bit too far?

    Would be interested to hear your thoughts on that!

    Tim

    Reply
    • Steve Mann

      Thanks Tim – earth worms do make a big difference to soil and they health of soil. Buying earthworms and adding them to the soil could help – although if you provide a supply of organic matter to your soil – ie leaves or glass clippings and keep an even level of moisture then earthworms should be attracted to it naturally. Hope this helps!

      Reply
  3. Emily Hii

    I really need to work on my garden soil! The ways you shared are what I needed… I think I need to do all of them! I guess I have to remove all the plants before doing those steps right? How many days you would suggest for the soil to rest for before I put the plants back into the garden bed? what is the sequences you would recommend to start? Does it matter? I am totally a newbie! I have sandy soil, with yellowish plants, and a bit of bugs floating around my garden..

    Reply
    • Steve Mann

      Hi Emily – glad you found this useful. No you don’t need to remove all of your plants – as long as you are careful you can do most of the above without disturbing whatever it is you are growing.

      Here is a great video to help you work out what to do and when to improve your soil – I hope it helps!

      Reply
  4. Cathy Cavarzan

    Great useful information and loved the video . Earthworms I seem to have plenty of in the front yard. Not so much in the back this past year especially. Most of my shrubs and tulips were in the back but most of my shrubs have slowly died off. I think after reading your insights I will till it all out and start fresh for the planting year to come. Would you have any suggestions on wether I should add to the soil mulch perhaps?

    Reply
    • Steve Mann

      Hi Cathy, thank you. No you don’t need to add soil to the mulch – just sprinkle mulch on the soil and it will improve it no end.

      Reply
  5. cass

    Hi Steve, this post could not have come at a better time for me. I am currently creating a garden in a new home and have always had great success in the past but I live very close to the ocean and you guessed it, I have a high content of sand. I was concerned about this but your post has been so helpful there is hope for me. Would you recommend a worm farm as well to guarantee a good worm supply/population? I like to make my own compost but do not want to wait. Are there some that, if I were to purchase that are better than others? Less additives and the like?

    Thanks for a great article, Cass

    Reply
    • Steve Mann

      Hi Cass, if your soil is constantly supplied with organic matter and the moisture level is keep even then earthworms should always be attracted to it. If you are buying compost it should smell good (or certainly not bad! It shouldn’t smell like ammonia). It should also look and feel like soil – rich, fluffy and dark. It should also be made up of leaves, plants, grass clippings, food scraps, etc, etc as opposed to more toxic material. Hope this helps.

      Reply

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About Me

SteveHi, my name is Steve and I am the founder and editor of Suave Yards.

Once upon a time I was a complete gardening newbie, but over the last few years I have learnt a lot about yard care – all stemming from taking over a mess of a garden when I started at university!

My team and I have put together a comprehensive series of reviews and guides to help you create the perfect garden.

So please take a look around!

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