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Good soil is the key to a successful garden. Soil may be the most overlooked aspect of gardening—and the most important. Good-quality soil provides plants with essential nutrients necessary to reap a good harvest. In general, the goal is to enrich soil with compost to provide needed nutrients. Compost, leaf-mould, or wellaged manure will increase the ability of your soil to both drain well and hold moisture—the “sponge factor.” Never use fresh manure! It can harbor dangerous pathogens and will burn tender plant roots. Compost it for at least 6 to 12 months.

Here are some guidelines to help ensure your soil is tip-top:

  • Test your soil. Results will reveal its pH, phosphorus, lime, potassium, soluble salts, and texture. For accurate results, contact your local cooperative extension service office for a free (or low-fee) soil test. They will provide recommendations for any needed amendments.
  • Start with well-drained, sandy loam and add as much organic matter as possible. Plant roots penetrate soft, loamy soil more easily.
  • If you have sandy soil, add humus or aged manure, peat moss, or sawdust. Heavy, clay-rich soil can also be added to improve the soil.
  • If you have silt soil, add coarse sand (not beach sand) or gravel and compost, or well-aged horse ma-nure mixed with fresh straw.
  • If you have clay soil, add coarse sand (not beach sand), compost, and peat moss.
  • If you have impossibly rocky soil or solid clay, consider building some raised beds that you can fill with good soil. Growing vegetables in containers or grow bags are also options.
  • Proper drainage is essential; water-logged plant roots will negatively impact plant health

Soil Amendments

If your soil needs replenishing, these materials can be of help:

  • Bark, ground: made from various tree barks; improves soil structure
  • Compost: excellent conditioner
  • Leaf mold: decomposed leaves that add nutrients and improve soil structure
  • Lime: raises the pH of acid soil and helps loosen clay soil
  • Manure: best if composted; good conditioner
  • Peat moss: conditioner that helps soil retain water
  • Sand: improves drainage in clay soil • Topsoil: usually used in combination with another amendment for added soil

Remember: You should build your soil, but also you have to work with nature. If you have cold, clay soil, it takes longer to warm up in the spring. Consider raised beds, plastic mulch, and indoor seed-starting to get started earlier. If you have light soil, your early crops will thrive but you may struggle with later crops which dry out; consider building trenches alongside plants and irrigate more often to keep soil from drying out.

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