The ONE Thing for a Great Garden

Ilona Erwin

number 1

Ever see Jack Palance in ‘City Slickers‘? He dangled “the ONE thing”, the secret to all of life’s answers, during the entire movie.

We all wanted to know what wisdom that great distillation of a lifetime of living would give to us.I don’t think we ever found out what “the ONE thing” was, because for each of us it is an individual answer.

But that situation is different in gardening. Gardening is simpler, at least it is more straightforward. If there is one foundational secret to a great garden it would be the quality of the soil.

The best gardening tip that anyone will give you:

“Great Garden Soil Makes A Great Garden”

Soil is what makes the garden grow, no matter what the climate, or the size of your yard; and regardless of the quality of plants you purchase, they won’t thrive in your yard without good soil.

Many of us start out with less than ideal soil conditions, so how may we improve the soil we were given to work with? Keep this ONE thing in mind and work towards organically improving your soil, because it is an ongoing process. Not a job that is never done, but more like the fact that living things need to be fed. Your garden soil needs feeding, and it, in turn, will feed your plants… which will produce beautiful foliage, blooms, and fruit for you to enjoy in your garden.

Convinced yet? I hope so, because you are about to embark on a sure fire course of landscape improvement just by focusing on this one thing.

Step One: Discover Your Soil
Not all soil is alike. In fact, there are three basic ways to classify soil, but countless types of soil profiles in the world.

Clay Soils… Silt or Loam Soils… Sandy Soils

To find out more about your soil, the easiest way is to go to your garden grab a handful of the soil and squeeze. If it forms a solid ball it has high clay content, if it is crumbly and dark it has more loam and organic matter, if it is difficult to hold together it likely has more sandy qualities.

Buy your own soil tests to do at home.

However, that isn’t all to know about your soil profile! Soon you will find that understanding the pH of the soil is important to the health and thriftiness of the plants and the choice of plants.

Once you run across the cultivation tips for certain plants like azaleas or blueberries, the importance of whether your ground is alkaline or acid in pH becomes one of the pieces of the great garden puzzle to put together. It is easy to purchase a simple soil test kit and test for the pH as well as other soil components.

Or simply contact the government extension office in your county, either way it is not hard to find out whether your garden soil is acid, neutral or alkaline. Most places have the information you need about the general soils in the area of your garden available just for the asking.

“Sand is the largest particle in the soil. When you rub it, it feels rough. This is because it has sharp edges. Sand doesn’t hold many nutrients or water. Silt is a soil particle whose size is between sand and clay. Silt feels smooth and powdery. When wet it feels smooth but not sticky. Clay is the smallest soil particle. Clay is smooth when dry and sticky, or plastic when wet. Soils high in clay content are called heavy soils. Clay can hold a lot of nutrients, and some kinds can hold quite a bit of water, but the structure of clay doesn’t let air and water move through it well. Most of the water in a clay soil is so tightly bound to the clay particles that plants can’t get it loose.” –Soil Types

Improve Clay Soil Better Soil Guide Good Garden Soil

Step Two: Add Good Organic Stuff

In every single article on garden tips for better soil I include the option of adding compost.
Compost is perhaps the least expensive way to consistently build up the organic matter in a soil.

Organic matter is the decaying residue of green wastes that adds humus and fertility to garden dirt. As the article on ‘Good Garden Soil’ explores, there are other additives and amendments, but a compost bin will help provide much of what is needed to improve your soil.

Frugal Gardening Advice

“Make your own compost pile. Your own bin, or one purchased, will collect all your green waste: vegetable peelings from the kitchen, coffee grounds, tea leaves, etc. It should reduce the amount of garbage that would need to be collected -to some degree, too!”

I used to hear stories about gardeners who would not find it beneath them to follow the horse trail to gather good horse manure. If you have a source of manure from a horse, cow, or chickens, that is ideal to age for some months and then fertilize your soils. Forget about waste that comes from you, your cats, or your dogs, which aren’t healthy wastes to use.”

Compost 101, A New Pile Of Info

Click here for quick tips on Composting

All those leaves you either have hauled away or burn? Save them! Compost them! Create leaf mold which is one of the best soil conditioners- and they are free!

Making good compost from adding amendments for healthy vegetables.

Near a quarry? See if you can get some rock dust to re-mineralize your soils. Might be cheap, might be free.

Need to buy fertilizer or conditioners? The end of season (falltime) stores usually discount their lawn and garden supplies.

Learn about green manure, almost as good as the brown stuff.

My list of suggested additions to a compost pile:

  • Grass Clipping +
  • Mulched leaves +
  • Vegetable peels, old fruit, rotten vegetables +
  • Coffee grounds and tea leaves +
  • Chicken, cow, or horse manure +
  • Lint and household dust +
  • Hair from you and your pets +
  • toilet paper rolls and used napkins +
  • NO dog or cat waste –
  • NO meat leftovers or products –
  • NO diseased plant matter –

Easy enough, don’t you think? And for an extensive list of what you can put into your compost pile, see the following link.

163 things you can add to your compost pile

How much soil amendment should you use?

Of course, there are a number of organic fertilizers and amendments, and each one has its attributes, amounts of Potash or Nitrogen that they add, etc. but a compost pile is a way to be green, AND organically improve your garden.

Step Three: Keep the Tilth Loose

The tilth is the way the soil holds together, and compaction is an enemy to plant roots which are searching for food and moisture and need air. Good tilth is the soils texture. You can keep it loose for plant health by avoiding the following habits.

  • Don’t work soil when it is wet
  • Avoid stepping on the cultivated areas
  • Don’t “over-till”

DO keep adding organic matter, cultivate when soil crumbles easily, and use pathways. Raised beds are also a way to conserve good tilth in the soil.

Another way to preserve good tilth in permanent areas of the garden is to use organic mulch. Mulch is a covering for the soil which preserves the moisture from evaporating as quickly, in the case of organic mulches provides a layer of bark or something similar that breaks down to increase the amount of humus, and helps prevent compaction or weed growth.

More about …

Mulching for Moisture Mulching practices

If you follow these three easy steps and keep soil building as a number one priority, you are going to have a great garden- at least the basis for creating one that gives back beauty and production for the efforts and plants you put into it.

Educational Links:

163 things you can add to your compost pile

Contact a local government extension agent

Humic Acids -humus in your soil

About soil structure

Oh, by the way, if you are in the mood to watch ‘City Slickers’ one more time…
Instant download City Slickers

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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.