In Quest of the Good Garden

Ilona Erwin

Good Soil Makes a Good Garden

In passing, a friend mentioned setting up a Kitchen Garden with some raised beds, but having some trouble with raising plants from seed. The factors mentioned:

  • late start,
  • clay soil,
  • perhaps (inferred) a new garden.

I realized that in starting a new garden area, there are so many fine points that go unmentioned. Not intentionally, but because there is an art to gardening, a feel that develops from getting to know your particular plot of land and style of working it. This is true in following basic directions for creating a garden, as well.

I decided to write this post in order to help address some of those points. I hope it helps my friend, and I hope it helps you garden successfully, too. All of which, summed up, is the joy of growing things.

The Nutrients in Good Soil, The Big 3 and more

When improving our soils we can follow the basic suggestions, but there is a lot of science that we can add to our side to produce a fertile soil in fine tilth. Raised beds are easier than open ground because we control the situation better.

The soil holds a whole universe of organisms, and the interaction of those makes up much of what is going on with the plants ability to grow well. The plant needs certain nutrients, and the fertilizer industry is built upon the Big Three Minerals listed as N-P-K: Nitrogen(N), Phosphorous (P), and Potassium (K). Now, there are a whole lot more which is why using only chemical fertilizers tends to deplete the soil.

Trace Elements

There are also trace elements, organisms, fungi, and all sorts of things, and some of those are necessary to your plants. The good news is that you don’t usually have to know all that. You just have to provide the improved conditions.

The information that is most important on these big three is that each will be good for some part of the plant’s growth phase. Nitrogen is important for leafy growth; Phosphorous is used to make flowers, seeds and roots; Potassium strengthens roots and stems – it helps the plant fight diseases. When plants are labeled “heavy feeders” they need quite a lot of these minerals, and probably a great deal of Nitrogen.

Add Organic Material to your Soil

When adding organic matter to the soil, one thing that is often advised is adding a bit of nitrogen fertilizer to help things along. This is because nutrients get released during the decay of that organic matter, but it is the little organisms like bacterias -microbes- that work on releasing those nutrients. And as in all living processes, there is not an immediate effect…at least not always the one you expect.

Sometimes your plants get less nitrogen, as the organisms temporarily deplete it in doing their work. So you boost it, temporarily. OR you can let the compost pile do that work for you in getting the organic matter ready for feeding your plants. Often in this process you will see the term “half-made ” compost- not fully rotted down, but enough to not compete with the plants need for nitrogen.


The compost pile is an art in itself. But basically, compost results in humus, which has humic acids: “Humic Acids boost Nitrogen levels in the soil and themselves boast soaring ion exchange capacities. Seeds planted in it germinate faster and grow healthier. They aid in photosynthesis and trigger enzyme production.”

I like adding coffee grounds to the soil. I learned that from my grandfather’s example, and with coffee shops on many street corners there is a potential source of grounds for the garden- but your daily pot is fine, too. The ‘Long Island Gardener’ states that the N-P-K for Coffee Grounds: 20-3-2. The addition of coffee grounds helps create good soil.

Get Your Own Soil Tester:

Book Selections To Try:

victory in the garden

Home Soil Test

This where the home soil test kits come in handy. It is a fun science experiment for the kids, and simple enough to do. Buy the kit and follow the directions, the results will tell you the general information you need to know to balance your soil and improve your plants growth.

Or you can get a laboratory to analyze your soil for you, in which case, contact your extension agent. A local extension agent is a good person to know, anyway… “experts who provide useful, practical, and research-based information” as they say on their website. They can help you find the laboratory or maybe give you some expert advice for your area.

Soil Structure

All that information on nutrients was about getting the plants growing well and producing healthy foliage, flowers, and fruit. But when it comes to starting your seeds in the ground, soil structure is crucial.

That is because good soil structure holds the moisture better for tiny little plant rootlets to survive, and is easier for them to penetrate so they can continue growing. Like a little cradle of fine particles that surround the sprouting plants with everything they need.

Timing Within the Garden

Timing is important, but the garden is forgiving. The key to whether you can successfully jimmy with the timing is whether you compensate properly for the proportions of the plants needs.

Plants need sun, soil, and moisture and the seasons provide a mixture of conditions in those three situations. The amount of sun, warmth of the soil, moisture content of the soil, rainfall, etc., will all change with the seasons.

A time to plant, And a time to pluck what is planted

seed packetWe sow the seeds under certain conditions, we harvest under others. If we sow our seeds too early, we risk unkind temperatures or cold soil with too much water, if too late, the sun may be so harsh that it dries the soil before the roots can grow deep enough to get the soils reserves of moisture.

Inventive man uses cloches to protect early plantings and provides additional watering for late ones. There are windows of opportunity and varying amounts of attention which create the welcome environment for the little seeds to grow. For example, if you plant late, you must provide more care in keeping the area watered and sometimes protected until the plants get a good start, whereas if you had planted on time, nature would do the job for you.

Plant Timing. Timing in Planting

Additionally, some plants are pickier (harder to grow). Check out the growing information carefully when you purchase your seeds, that should tell you whether you have leeway in the timing and conditions for good germination success.

Much plant information and garden technique is centered around timing, knowing when you can divide or prune a plant, how long it takes the seeds to germinate, the best time to cultivate the soil, what time of day to water or harvest vegetables.

Most of it is common sense and the rest is a pattern that tunes us into our seasonal schedule, a very natural way to learn and remember what seems like an overwhelming number of little factoids. In other words: it isn’t as hard as it sounds. I have a calendar section devoted to gardening tips and times to attend to certain chores, called Month by Month.

The One Greatest Garden Tip of All

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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.