Gardening Articles: Care :: Soil, Water, & Fertilizer

Garden Preparation (page 2 of 2)

by National Gardening Association Editors

Testing the Soil

Once you know the type of soil you have, assess the nutrient composition with a soil test. You can purchase a do-it-yourself soil test kit that gives a snapshot picture of your soil’s nutrient health, or you can send a soil sample off to a state university soil lab or a private lab for a more extensive analysis. The results usually include levels of organic matter, pH, and major nutrients. If you are gardening in an urban area, you may want a special test for heavy metal contaminants.

Adding Organic Matter

Organic matter provides the essential building blocks of your soil. Adding organic matter annually is essential to your soil’s tilth, fertility, and water drainage and retention. Organic matter can be in the form of compost, aged manure, grass clippings, shredded leaves, hay, or straw. Work the compost into the top 4 to 6 inches of soil with a spade or garden fork before planting.

Adding Nutrients

Soil can’t live on organic matter alone. Based on the soil test, add lime or sulfur to raise or lower the soil pH to the recommended level for most plants -- between 6.0 and 7.0. Add fertilizers containing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium as recommended. Organic fertilizers, such as soybean meal, have the advantage of breaking down slowly in the soil so they are available when plants need them. Chemical fertilizers, such as 10-10-10, offer a quick dose of readily available nutrients, but they don’t last as long in the soil. Spread the nutrients on the top layers of the soil and work them in with a digging fork or soil rake.

Shaping the Beds

Once the soil is properly amended, it’s time to get creative. Raised beds are a good solution for annual vegetable and flower gardens, especially if you have heavy clay soils. Soil formed into raised beds warms up faster and dries out quicker in spring, and the soil around the roots is less compacted. All of this means better plant growth.

To build a raised bed, mound soil 10 inches high in 3- to 4-foot-wide beds running as long as you wish. You can also get whimsical by creating oval, round, or even heart-shaped raised beds. Level the tops of beds with a soil rake or cultivator. Once the beds are made, you can feel confident planting seeds or transplants, knowing your soil is ready to support their growth.

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