Improving Your Soil

Ilona Erwin

Improving Soil is the Foundation of the Garden

The most important matter in creating your garden is the quality of the dirt it is rooted within. From that source springs all the rest of the dreams and plans of a beautiful landscape. So move the goal of improving your soil to the top of your priority list.

Your garden’s soil, unique to your region, still is categorized in one of three ways and their combinations: sandy, loamy, or clay. Each type has assets and drawbacks, but they all benefit from soil building amendments, and yield better healthier plants in response.

Several respected sources had this to say: “It can take 10 years or longer to build productive garden soil.

And while that may seem a discouragingly long time, the benefits are often quickly noticed, even if not fully realized in a couple short seasons.

The cardinal rule is to add “organic matter” to any and every soil type.

If there were doubts about why the fuss over making “compost”, this the explanation why. There is no better way to add organic material to your garden than to have a supply of compost. Peat moss and manures are other forms of “organic material”, and you probably will want to add all of these.

Your soil benefits, no matter what its structure.

  • If you have clay soil, the organic matter will help break up the fine particles that make clay compact into maddening clumps.
  • In sandy soils, adding amendments helps retain nutrients and moisture.
  • Loamy soils are made more fertile and given even better tilth with organic additions

Healthy Soil

Why Compost?

One reason to compost material before adding it to your garden soil is the fact that there are problems with just adding things in, and compost takes care of those problems. Manures need to be aged, or their high nitrogen content can “burn” your plants roots (translation: dead plants). Leaves, yard waste, and grass clippings all need nitrogen to ‘rot down’ and while doing that can rob your plants of their necessary nutrients. That leaves the plants weak while competing. Composting serves to soften, age and mellow the various yard waste and other amendments.Compost promotes microbiological activity and that is a good thing.

Project Compost


Organic Fertilizers, Pros and Cons

Notes on organic fertilizers
Beneficial amendments for the soil:
  • peat
  • manure
  • kitchen waste such as veggie and fruit peelings, egg shells, coffee grounds, etc
  • sawdust, if composted
  • leaves and pine needles
  • mulched branches and twigs
  • grass clippings, if composted

What Other Amendments Are Good For Improving Soil?

I ♥ Peat Moss, and Talk About Dirt for more information about knowing your soil

If you have clay soil: I have used gypsum with good results- it improved the soil texture. When I lived in the city, my yard was made up of a heavy clay over a shale base, a common situation found in Columbus, Ohio.

Adding gypsum was one improvement that I used, especially in my little vegetable patch. Now that I am on a clay-loam, loosening the soil is not as much of an issue and enriching it with manures and compost is a higher priority.

I still feel gypsum is good for a heavy clay condition.

More To Improve Soil and Fertility

I have always liked using fish emulsions and seaweed emulsions- I think they produce great results and improve the health of plants. However, they are pricey for inland areas like Central Ohio.

Now leaves we have plenty of, and they break down within a year into a nice mellow leaf mold. Some have acidic and some have alkaline reactions, Oak leaves tend to be acidic and Maple to be alkaline. That can matter when you have acid loving plants, so take note if you grow azaleas, etc.

Organic matter also encourages earthworms, and earthworms are the gardens underground workers. While there is debate on whether they are good and whether you want them or not, if you have them they will aerate the ground and are generally considered helpful.

I buy worm castings to enrich my soil, and add it to containers. I think it produces good results.

Using mulch slowly builds up soils, if it is of the organic type. Bark or hulls that rot down add to the soil and improve it. Read more on mulch and its benefits: types, assets, drawbacks… from my point of view.

What is the One Greatest Garden Tip?
(hint: it has to do with building garden soil)

You can add woodash, but remember it is alkaline. Greensand is used as a natural fertilizer and soil conditioner. Manures are of different types. Chicken manure is considered “hot”, requiring more time to mellow, and horse and cow manures are considered better suited to add directly to the garden. An old fashioned way of using manures is as “manure tea” which is the addition of manure to a bucket of water and then using the top water for feeding the plants . The old sediments can be added to improve the soil tilth.

Tilth… Do You Tilleth?

Adding organic matter is not the only way you improve the soil, physical handling of your soil makes a difference, too. Digging the ground at the right time help the texture of your soil stay ideal, don’t work it when wet, especially if you have clay soils. Beware of overusing the mechanical tillers, they can create a hardpanA compacted horizontal soil layer that restricts growth of roots as well as air and water movement beneath the area that the tines impact, but they are time and backsavers when used right. I especially like my Mantis, and highly recommend it.

You can learn more at the following page:

If you’re breaking ground for a new garden, it might be a good idea to roto-till in amendments, but if your soil is loose, open and fluffy, rototilling could destroy the soil pores that enable water and oxygen to pass through, and could harm millions of microorganisms that help feed the soil and prevent soil-borne diseases. –Ciscoe’s To Do List

I roto-till ground every once in awhile in the vegetable garden. I like the idea of raised beds, but if you get lax in weeding you should rototil the area, I think. Both the till and non-till types of gardening are good as long as you stay away from herbicides. I just don’t think you ought to use them on a large scale in the garden.. and ideally not at all. The best way to keep the soil in good health is to continually rotate through the seasons with organic additions, cultivation, and attempting to reduce weeds each year by not letting them go to seed, and uprooting them. A good garden fork is a very good tool for working soils of all types.

What’s That Mean? tilth tilth refers to the structure of the soil, whether it is in good condition for planting and growing.

friable friable means that something is “crumbly”. When soil is friable it is crumbly and does not either stick together or sift through your hand.

When soil is in ‘good tilth’ it is friable.

hardpan hardpan is a layer of compacted soil underneath the top layers- it makes it difficult for plant roots and keeps the water from draining off.

humus humus is the decaying organic matter that gives soil its nutrient value and tilth. Made up of decomposing plant and animal matter, the compost pile is your resource for humus from yard waste.

Should I Use Fireplace Ashes In My Garden?

Pros & Cons of Woodash

Wood ash gives back some nutrients to the soil, and potash is an important for plant growth, root and fruit development. There are trace elements and calcium in fireplace ashes that are necessary for good plant development, so on the whole, wood ash is beneficial.

That said, there are situations where they will harm your plants and garden. This harm will be concentrated in two conditions:

  • Wood ash is very alkaline and will raise the pH of the soil rather like lime.
  • The source of the ash is important. If you burn something toxic like pressure treated wood, you will have dangerous residues.

I NEVER burn pressure treated wood. I also won’t use fireplace ashes if they are contaminated with the ash of colored inks from printed materials like advertising circulars or magazines. (In the same way I won’t use colored inks when using newspaper to smother weeds.)

Because if its alkaline properties, wood ash is not good to concentrate in one area of the soil, it is not good for the potato patch, and it is very harmful to acid loving plants.

With these caveats, go ahead and use wood ash to add needed potassium to the vegetable garden, or garden beds. Just be careful of the source and sparing of the distribution.

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.