It is romantic and ideal to think you till your existing soil, drop in some seeds, and “watch em’ grow”. This method may actually work in the first year of your organic, edible garden. However, those plants are hungry and they absorb many of the existing soil goodies like minerals and other nutrients. Plus, soil pH is rarely ideal in new gardens. The quick take on pH is that most plants like slightly acidic soil (6.2 – 7.0). This measurement is important because proper pH allows soil nutrients to be more available to plants. Is there more to know about pH? Yes, but only if you’re curious or getting more advanced. Remember, we aim to keep it easy! So, you may need to adjust the pH of your soil.
Here is a simple way to build great soil. This easy method works for both new and existing gardens. If there is something unique to new gardens we will note it.
Important – Unfortunately, polluted and contaminated soil is quite prevalent in much of the world. Do not just assume your soil is clean without due diligence. It is your responsibility to ensure the safety of the soil you intend to grow edible plants on. There are no universally agreed upon safety thresholds for many soil contaminates, but testing services are available. DIY Backyard Farm or Backyard Enterprises LLC do not intend to be resources of information on soil contamination, testing, etc. These are areas best left to professionals. However, there are some great resources available to home gardeners from Universities and other organizations. Here are a couple of examples from Cornell University:
Finally, raised beds can reduce, but not eliminate exposure to polluted soil. After all, your hungry plants will often send roots deep into the beds right through to the “native” soil. If you do have contaminated soil you could always explore container (think pots) gardening. Container gardening is not as bad as it sounds either. We have beautiful and creative container gardens all around our yards.
1)Preparation – To till or not to till? That is the question!
If you are establishing a new garden for in the ground planting then we recommend tilling. Established gardens may already have more optimal soil conditions. Such conditions could be hurt by deep tilling. In the case of established garden beds, we recommend lightly working the top 3-5 inches of soil. Take care not to harm earthworms as they are great friends of healthy soil.
For new garden beds, deeper tilling will loosen up the soil, allowing you to find roots and stones that should be removed. It will also make nutrients more evenly distributed. Do not dig your way to China folks. When we do a deep tilling we typically go down no more than 10-12″ into the soil. Of course, be sure you know where you are digging. You need to be careful not to hit any wires, pipes, or other important things buried in your yards. We have seen some sprinkler lines buried just a couple of inches below the soil surface.
After tilling, your soil should not look or feel as heavy as when you started. Ideal edible garden soil will be loose, light, and grainy in nature (no large clumps or dense layers). Plant roots need to work their way into the soil. Make it easier for them and the plant will have more energy to provide you with higher quality produce. Furthermore, some root vegetables like carrots need loose soil to grow straight and uniform. Just say no to crooked carrots!
Adding peat moss and/or coarse vermiculite are great ways to lighted up or loosen your soil. This is extra important when planting directly into “new dirt” in your garden. Just be sure to wear proper breathing protection when working with soil amendments. Many, like vermiculite are hazardous to your lungs.
2) Get your soil tested – You will likely hear advertisements for fertilizers and other soil amendments claiming 2 pound tomatoes, Fiat-sized pumpkins, etc. Some of these soil amendments are useful and often times organic. However, we do not recommend adding soil amendments without first getting some basic soil testing. Many local garden centers will run these basic tests for you (often for free). This is another reason it pays to buy local!
Your local Cooperative Extension System Office is also a great resource for accurate soil testing. These offices are staffed by experts who can test your soil and make recommendations for needed amendments–things you add to make your soil just right. If you are going organic be sure to tell them so they make proper recommendations. Also be sure the measurements they give you are for a small, backyard garden and not a large farm!
Don’t worry, soil testing is very cost-effective. After all, you could waste effort & money on unneeded or improper soil amendments.
3) Compost – Composting is all the rage these days. It helps us reduce our waste and reuse the nutrients trapped inside much of the organic waste we throw away every day. Composting does not have to be smelly and unappealing. A properly set up composter or compost pile is a low maintenance way to get much of the soil amendment you will need for your garden. We have dedicated specific sections of this site just to composting.
Many composters for home use come with handy guides to teach you the ropes. Remember, composting is a natural process, so less human intervention is usually better. Once you get the composter started it typically goes into cruise control. Routine composting jobs are turning the pile, keeping it moist, and adding new organic waste.
Finally, be sure to only put organic materials into the composter. Fruits, veggies, and used coffee grounds are just some examples of ideal composting materials. Meat scraps, clippings from chemically treated lawns, or highly processed food leftovers are not items you want to compost.
4) Watch your garden – Simple! If things are growing wonderfully than you probably have fantastic soil. If your seedlings are slow to grow or your plants look frail…you guessed it. There’s a good chance your soil needs some TLC. Keep a garden log and let your children or grandchildren participate. The log will help you track plant growth, garden conditions, etc. Not only will you monitor the soil, but you can track what grows well where and make adjustments to future plantings.