Garden Soil Preparation
After you have planned your garden and grown or purchased your baby plants, now it’s time for garden soil preparation. You have chosen the spot in your yard where the Garden will be, or you have built your raised beds. Maybe you decided to grow your plants in containers. The one thing that might be rolling through your mind now is what is the best soil to grow vegetables, or the best soil for garden beds. I’ll help you understand what type of soil you have now and how to improve it.
How to determine what kind of soil you have
It’s the mason jar soil type test. Take a mason jar or any jar you have that has a tight-fitting lid. And a larger container maybe a bucket out to where you will put your vegetable patch. Make sure to remove the sod (grass layer), then take a soil sample that goes from the surface down to about eight inches or twenty centimeters deep. Mix the soil you removed from the hole in your large container I use a bucket for this. Remove any large rocks or roots. Now fill your jar about half way up with the mixed dirt from the large container. Add a teaspoon of non foaming detergent. Laundry or dishwasher detergent works just fine. Liquid or powder it doesn’t matter.
Next fill your jar almost to the top with water. Leave about an inch or 2-1/2 centimeters of air at the top. Shake the jar until all the contents are mixed well. Set the jar in a place where it will not be disturbed for at least 24 hours. This is how I do it but You can find much more in-depth instruction to how to do this here, estimating soil texture. The kids like to get involved when I do this too, it can be a fun project.
How to check the results
After at least 24 hours have passed I look at the jar and determine how much sand, silt, clay, and sometimes there will be some organic matter floating on top. Take a look at the picture to see what my ground looks like. You can actually get percentages of the different materials by doing the following.
- Measure the thickness of sand and divide by the total thickness of the sample. This equals the percentage of sand.
- Now check the thickness of silt and divide by the total thickness of the sample. This equals the percentage of silt.
- Measure the thickness of clay and divide by the total thickness of the sample. This equals the percentage of clay.
What does it mean
The ideal soil will be what they call a loam, or loamy soil. This will be around 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay. Now if your soil is not that, don’t worry, lots of people have great success with their gardens in less than ideal soils. The key is that the soil is capable of retaining moisture and nutrients. You should note the soils ability to absorb water and drain water but not too quickly.
The more sand the more quickly the water will drain out of the plants root zone. Sandy soils may have less fertility. The more silt the less absorption of water, and air. The more clay the slower the water will drain, the good thing about clay is that most of the time it is fairly fertile.
Would you like to know what to do to improve your soil? A lot of people believe that they cannot improve the soil they have, and then immediately turn to fertilizers as the answer to growing their garden. This is just not the case. You can improve your soil, whether it’s too sandy, too silty, or if you have too much clay. Any of these conditions will improve with the addition of organic matter. Yup add compost! Lots of it. Rotted leaves grass clippings etc.
Compost will improve soil structure in all cases. This would also include most animal manures. Consider not tilling after the initial opening of the ground. I’ve gotten to the point I don’t pull plants up by the roots anymore. I just cut them off leaving the entire network to decompose in the ground naturally. This does a few things, adds that ever important organic matter to the soil. All those openings and miniature tunnels left from the roots allow water to infiltrate the soil easier and pull air in behind. It also adds structure to more sandy soils. This allows those nutrients and that moisture to hang out longer.
So if your question was what soil to use for vegetable garden. The answer is your soil. You may just need to start emending it with organic matter. Even if you see you have perfect soil. You still want to add compost and manure every year to keep it in good shape and continue to add nutrients to the soil.
Thoughts on tilling your soil for garden bed
Tilling destroys the soil structure, as much as I hate to say, it is the truth. But I still feel that it is warranted at times. I will use a tiller to break new garden ground although I’m experimenting with wood chip gardening now. You don’t ever want to till a garden covered in wood chips. I do till the garden once to open it up and rake out a lot of the grass and roots before covering it up with the wood chips.
Don’t make the same mistake I did
A long time ago I chipped up a bunch of brush I had in my yard. I put the wood chips on one of my garden beds and grew some tomatoes through it. They grew pretty well all summer, then in the fall I tilled the wood chips in along with everything else like I normally would. Nothing grew in the bed with the wood chips the next year, or the year after that. I did get some mushrooms that started popping up but I had no idea what they were. Probably a wood composting fungi of some type.
Finally I did some reading and found that the process of the wood decaying in the ground had basically locked up all the nitrogen. After a couple of years it became available again and stuff besides mushrooms started to grow. It’s important remember if you try to use wood chips for mulch gardening. You must make sure the plants roots are below the wood chips and in the soil.
Having your soil tested
Especially if this garden of yours is new I encourage you to have your soil tested. Oh and if you have had this garden of yours for a while now I encourage you to test it as well. It will give you a good baseline for what to do next. They will measure Soil PH, Nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and most will give you magnesium, and calcium as well. To find a location to send your sample near you follow this link to the Partners and extension map for the USDA. Or get one of these soil test kits and test it yourself. Don’t skip this step or you may not have those big plants and veggies you are dreaming of, don’t chance it!
Once you have your test results you will know what needs to be added to your soil.
Soil amendments For
- Nitrogen deficiency add compost, or manures.
- phosphorous deficiency add Bone meal or rock Phosphate.
- potassium deficiency add wood ashes, kelp meal, crushed granite.
- magnesium deficiency add Compost, Manure, and if you are really worried about it Epsom salts but don’t over apply.
- calcium deficiency add ground lime stone, gypsum, egg shells.
- PH up add ground lime stone
- PH down add Sulfur
One more soil amendment to consider would be Biochar. This is a newer discovery of stuff I think we (human kind) forgot about a long time ago. I have been making and using my own for a few years now. This stuff has the capacity to hold nutrients usually lost over time and it holds moisture.
Biochar works so I will continue to add it to my garden. It does take time to for nutrients to build up in the biochar if you make it yourself, but then it just keeps getting better every year. I suggest getting some of the pre-made stuff that has additional nutrients added for best results fast.
The Life in your soil
In closing I would like to just say that when you see insects in your garden they may not be bad. It’s good to learn the good bugs and the bad ones you may find in your garden. Encourage the good ones and they will help control the bad ones. When you see lots of earthworms, millipedes, nematodes, fungi and other things in and on your garden soil. These are good indications you are doing something right. Encourage more beneficial insects with lots of plant variety in your garden. You will be pleasantly surprised at all the other little beneficial critters that show up too.
I hope you found this to be helpful, don’t forget to sign up for the PermacultureFlora updates and leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.