Garden Soil Tips

Children who are scolded for running into the house in dirty shoes may come to believe dirt is a bad thing. But just the opposite is true as long as dirt remains outdoors where it belongs.

Choosing plants that thrive in your soil and your climate will help ensure a healthy garden.
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Choosing plants that thrive in
your soil
and your climate
 will help ensure a healthy
 garden. See more
pictures of garden ideas.

In the garden, dirt is transformed into soil, a complex and beautiful (at least to experienced gardeners) blend of animal, vegetable, and mineral material. Good soil is the first step to a great garden.

The loose, dark earth of fabulous gardens seen on television and in magazines doesn't usually just happen. It is created by gardeners improving their native soils. Soils can be amended with sand to make them looser and drier or with clay to make them moister and firmer. They can be given plentiful doses of organic material -- old leaves, ground-up twigs, rotted livestock manure, and old lawn clippings. Organic matter improves and nourishes any kind of soil which, in turn, encourages better plant growth.

Probably the best way to get the most out of your soil, however, is to select plants that will thrive in your soil type and your environment. The following tips will help you choose native plants.

  • Use plants adapted to the conditions right outside your door. When plants prefer your native soil and climate, no matter how difficult these conditions may be, they are likely to grow beautifully with little effort. Native plants -- shade trees, shrubs, or flowers that arise in the nearby countryside -- are good options. Or, try less common plants from faraway places with conditions similar to your own.

  • To identify suitable plants, begin by identifying your garden conditions. Have your soil tested or do your own tests to determine if you have a light and sandy soil, a moderate and productive soil, or a heavy clay soil. Watch the site to see how sunny it is, and select plants that need full sun, partial sun, or shade, accordingly.

  • Find your location on the United States Department of Agriculture hardiness zone map, which measures winter coldness. Make a note of the light levels, soil conditions, and climatic zone information you've found. Check through nursery catalogues and gardening books to find plants that thrive in every one of the elements particular to your yard. Use these plants as a shopping list for all of your future gardening projects. A little extra legwork in the beginning makes gardening much easier over the coming years.

It's hard to make the right plant choices if you're not sure what type of garden soil you're dealing with. Learn about testing your soil on the next page.

Read Your Weeds
Look for the tales weeds have to tell as they grow in your garden. Weeds are opportunists, taking advantage of any vacant soil to make their home. (Just think of how well this strategy has benefited the dandelion, a native of Eurasia that has swept through America.) Although they seem to grow everywhere, dandelions prefer fertile, often heavy soil. Likewise, other weeds favor certain kinds of soil.

For instance, acidic soil can encourage the growth of crabgrass, plantains, sheep sorrel, and horsetails. Alkaline soil (also called sweet or basic soil) is favored by chamomile and goosefoot. Fertile near-neutral soils can provide a nurturing environment for redroot pigweed, chickweed, dandelions, and wild mustard.

Even if you can't tell one weed from the other, you can find out important information by looking at them closely. If a vacant garden area has few weeds taking advantage of the opening, the soil is likely to need plenty of work.

If they are growing, but only sparsely, and have short, stunted stems and discolored leaves, the area may have a nutrient deficiency, and a soil test is in order.

If, in newly tilled soil, weeds sprout up quickly in certain areas and more slowly in others, the weedy areas are likely to be moister and better for seed germination.

Want more gardening tips? Try:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.