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Garden Soil Tips

Maintain Your Garden

The location of your garden, how you till your soil, and many other factors can have a dramatic impact on your soil. These tips should help you tend to your soil the right way.

  • Don't walk on wet soils, especially clay soils. The footprints you leave are evidence of compression -- packing the soil particles tightly and squeezing out vital oxygen. This is not a desirable quality in a garden. Put walkways or stepping stones in the garden for easy access and to keep your shoes clean and dry. When planting, cover the soil with a board to kneel or stand on.

  • Till or spade a thick layer of compost into lightly moist (never wet) soil to bring it to life before planting a new garden. The going may be rough at first if you are starting with hard, compacted soil. Use a rototiller and tough it out. Go over the area, removing weed roots and other underground vegetation as you go. Then go over it again crosswise, until you break up the soil into reasonably small pieces.

  • Your well-tilled soil, like screened topsoil, may look great at first, but silt or clay soils are likely to get stiff, crusty, and hard after a few heavy downpours. The best way to keep soil loose and light is to add organic matter.

    Add a 4- to 6-inch-deep layer of compost to the soil and work it down until it's 10 to 12 inches deep. The soil will become darker, moister, and spongier -- a dramatic conversion right before your eyes. As long as the organic matter remains in the soil, the soil is likely to stay loose. But since it slowly decays, you will have to continue to add organic matter -- compost, mulch, or shredded leaves -- in order to maintain the desired texture.

  • Try spading or no-till systems to preserve the texture and organic content of thriving garden soils. Once the soil is loose, light, and rich, minimal disturbance will help preserve the levels of organic matter. Avoid repeated tilling, which breaks healthy soil clumps and speeds up decay.

  • Instead of tilling, loosen rich soil before planting by turning the surface shallowly with a shovel and breaking it apart with a smack from the shovel backside. Very loose soil can be made ready to plant by combing it with a hoe or cultivator.

  • Double-dig garden beds to make high-performance gardens for deep-rooted plants like roses, a tradition in many beautiful English gardens. The average rototiller works the soil only 8 or 10 inches deep and won't break up compacted soil below. But double-digging will.

    Double-digging requires quite a bit of physical labor, but it's a great option for high-performance gardens.
    ©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
    Double-digging requires quite a bit
    of physical labor, but it's a great option
    for high-performance gardens.

    Double-digging requires of a bit of what the British call a stiff upper lip, because it takes a lot of manual labor. Do a little at a time so you don't overdo it, or hire a professional landscaper if you have health restrictions.Start with vacant soil that is stripped of grass or other vegetation. Beginning at one end of the garden, remove a strip of soil a spade's length deep and a spade's width wide. Put it in a wheelbarrow. Use your shovel to turn the soil below it (likely to be one of the heaviest parts of the job) and break it up.Another (sometimes easier) option is to jab a garden fork (like a big pitchfork) into the hard lower soil and rock it around until the soil breaks up. If organic matter is needed, you should add it to the lower level at this point.Do the same thing to the second strip of soil next to the first row. But turn the surface topsoil into the first trench, adding organic matter as desired. Then loosen and amend the exposed subsurface soil. Continue filling each trench from the adjacent row and loosening the soil below. Fill the final strip with the soil from the wheelbarrow.
  • Build raised beds where the soil is too hard, rocky, poor, or wet for plants to grow well. Instead of struggling to change these bad conditions, construct a great garden bed over them. In vegetable gardens, simply mound up planting rows 6 to 8 inches high and 2 to 3 feet wide. (You can walk in the paths beside the planting rows without compressing the raised soil.) Permanent and decorative gardens can be set in handsome raised bed frames built of timbers, logs, rocks, or bricks and varying from 4 inches to 4 feet high. Don't hesitate to ask for professional help for big building projects, which need strong structures in order to last.

Don't take your soil for granted! Take heed of the tips outlined in this article to get the most of your soil and create the garden you've always dreamed of.

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.