Improving Soil for Gardening Explained

How to Improve Soil for Gardening

To improve soil for gardening, one of the most important steps is to increase its organic matter content. This can be achieved by incorporating compost, well-rotted manure, or leaf mold into the soil. These organic materials help improve soil structure, drainage, and water retention while also providing essential nutrients for plant growth. Additionally, applying organic mulch around plants can help maintain soil moisture, suppress weed growth, and regulate soil temperature.

Another crucial aspect of improving soil health is maintaining the proper pH level, which varies depending on the plants you wish to grow. Conduct a soil test to determine the current pH level and adjust it accordingly using lime (to raise pH) or sulfur (to lower pH). If your soil is compacted or heavy in clay, consider adding sand or perlite to improve drainage and aeration. For sandy soils, incorporating organic matter can help increase water and nutrient retention. Regularly monitoring and amending your soil based on your plants’ needs will lead to healthier, more productive gardens over time.

Key Takeaways

  • Increase organic matter content by adding compost, well-rotted manure, or leaf mold
  • Conduct soil tests to determine pH levels and nutrient content
  • Adjust soil pH using lime (to raise) or sulfur (to lower) based on plant needs
  • Improve soil structure with sand or perlite for clay soils, and organic matter for sandy soils
  • Implement crop rotation to replenish soil nutrients naturally
  • Use cover crops to add organic matter, prevent erosion, and fix nitrogen
  • Add aged manure to improve soil structure and provide nutrients
  • Encourage earthworm activity to enhance soil aeration and nutrient content
  • Consider natural amendments like rock phosphate, azomite, and bone meal for specific nutrient needs
  • Apply organic mulch to maintain soil moisture and regulate temperature
  • Practice regular soil monitoring and amendment based on plant requirements


Compost is an excellent way to create organic matter for your soil. A good compost pile should include a mix of “green” and “brown” materials and be turned regularly. You can also create liquid compost tea for a nutrient-rich plant food.

While composting is ideal, commercial compost can also be used in your garden. The nutrients in this organic soil blend help plants utilize nutrients more effectively. If needed, remove the first few inches of soil and replace it with compost, this will help improve the lower soil and feed deep roots with the microbes and nutrients in the compost.

Compost is very easy to make and maintain, to start the pile add a lot of organic material that is green and let sit to decompose. The pile should be turned about every 4 to 5 weeks to ensure that everything is properly decomposed. It will also need the proper amount of water to help keep the decomposition on track, to do this water should be added every 3 to 7 days.

The amount of water will vary depending on the humidity level and wind. The compost should not be fully decomposed when it is added to your garden instead, let the decomposition process finish in the garden. Organic material helps to hold water in and therefore all soil needs to have a healthy amount of plant matter in it.

Another option is making a liquid plant food with compost. When it is fully decomposed put the compost in a five-gallon bucket making it about half full. Fill the rest of the bucket with chlorine-free water and let it sit for at least 24 hours. Using a cheesecloth or paint strainer and another bucket, pour the liquid compost through the strainer and into the other bucket. This liquid plant food can be bottled for later use or added to other liquid fertilizers with a dilution ratio or one quart of fertilizer with one gallon of chlorine-free water.

Related: How To Grow Anything in Clay Soil?


When doing a soil test, there are two soil tests that must be performed. The first is to check the acidity level and the second is to test the amount of key nutrients in the soil. With a pH test kit or pH meter, you can find out the pH levels as well as keep track of it because it will take time to increase or decrease the acidity level of the soil.

The pH level of the soil is important for plants because the acidity levels of the soil will depend on the amount of nutrients that can be dissolved in the soil. The pH level of the soil is a method of measurement with pH being an abbreviation that means potential hydrogen.

Therefore, a pH test is checking the amount of hydrogen that is in the soil’s water as well as the activity of hydrogen ions. All plants thrive in a specific soil acidity, for example, azaleas and conifers do best in soil with a pH between 5.0 and 5.5, while vegetables do best with a pH between 5.8 and 6.5.

Plants have spent a tremendous amount of time in a specific area of the world with specific growing conditions. Matching those conditions as much as possible will help with happy and healthy plants.

Testing the soil for nutrient content is a must before adding any fertilizers to the soil to prevent burning or killing any plants. There are several different test kits and meters for testing the soil’s nutrient levels.


Ancient farmers started rotating crops in 6,000 BCE to allow the soil to be replenished with vitamins and minerals that plants need. Over the years this farming method has evolved into a proper system that takes care of the soil’s ecosystem by adding organic material back into the soil, nutrients but more importantly the three main nutrients for growth are nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium.

The grain crops grow shallow roots and when they rot, they keep the top part of the soil from becoming too compacted, turnips do the same but when the leaves are tilled into the soil, they help to deter pests in the soil as they decompose. As they decompose, they are also releasing phosphate, and potassium into the soil. Legumes fix nitrogen to the soil when they have an established root system, and all of these crops will add plant matter back into the soil when tilled.


With the two-field method, the land is divided into two fields and only one-half is planted for food production.

The second half is left without sowing anything and allowing the land to rest for one or more growing seasons. This process is reversed the following growing season or two.

The land that is left to fallow or grow wild, helping to put organic matter as well as vitamins and minerals back into the soil.


The three-field method started in Europe in the late 15 century, when farmers would divide the land into three fields. The first field grows a grain crop, the second field grows peas or legumes, and the third field is left to fallow.


With the four-field method, the land is divided into four fields, with the first field growing a grain crop, the second field growing turnips, the third field growing legumes, and the fourth field left to fallow.

Related: How to Make a Compost Pile?


Growing cover crops is an excellent way to reduce or eliminate the use of artificial fertilizers, add organic matter, prevent wind and water erosion, and increase the soil’s water-holding capacity. For example, cover crops can improve sandy or compacted soils as well as helps with erosion from hilly sites.

If you’re looking for a way to improve your soil, try planting daikon radishes and red clover in the fall. These crops will produce massive amounts of organic matter, as well as fixed nitrogen to the soil with the legumes, while the potassium, and phosphate will be made by the daikon radishes when they decompose.

Cover crops can also be used in the summertime to help keep weeds down and reduce soil erosion as well as fix nitrogen to the soil with legumes. This process is also known as green manure.


Aside from providing vitamins and minerals, manure also can help to hold in moisture and loosens compacted soil like clay. It should be added during the fall to give it time to seep into the soil, so you don’t burn your crop or plants.

It is also good for improving the soil for what is growing in it and is a process called soil amendment. Without soil amendment, all of the nutrients in the soil will be used up if not replenished. Manure gets better with age and will need to decompose for six months or longer before it is truly ready to fertilize plants or crops, therefore it can also be added in with the compost.


Earthworms improve the soil’s ability to absorb water with the tunnels that make it while eating organic matter. Their casting or waste is also known as vermicast which is a great way to feed your plant, helps to hold water, and provides all the essential nutrients for happy and healthy plants.

Earthworms live in the top one foot of soil, therefore adding compost that is full of plant matter will help to attract them. If you don’t have a compost pile, then you can grow a cover crop to turn all that plant matter into the soil.

If you find it difficult to attract them, you can also buy some from a bait shop or the internet. Another option is to start a worm farm. All you will need to do is take some topsoil from the garden and add some compost and/or plant matter.

After some time, separate the dirt from the organic matter and add the dirt to your garden. If you prefer a liquid fertilizer, then you can put the soil in a five-gallon buck and let sit for a least few hours.

Using a few paint strainers, pour the contents of the five-gallon bucket into another five-gallon bucket. The soil that is collected in the strainer can be dried out and put back in the worm farm or garden. The most common worm used in gardens and worm farms is red wigglers because of their size.

Rock phosphate

To make your own liquid plant food, you should consider using rock phosphate for increasing the amount of phosphate in the soil. It contains 30% phosphates and 48% calcium while being a natural source of these nutrients.

It is also referred to as phosphorite and is found in clay deposits. It is important to note that rock phosphate does not react with plants as synthetic chemical fertilizers do. You should avoid over-fertilizing your crops which can cause leaf chlorosis and destroy beneficial microorganisms in your soil.

A moderate amount of rock phosphate is beneficial to your soil and some home gardens may already have adequate amounts of this mineral. To increase your harvest or to produce more rose blooms add 10 pounds per 100 square feet but application rates may vary depending on the manufacturer. Therefore, it is recommended to check the bag before applying it to the soil.


Azomite is a rock that comes from ash deposits of ancient volcanos, and it is used as a natural fertilizer as well as for soil amendment. This rock is mined in central Utah, U.S.A. where there is a large deposit that was formed by an ancient volcano that filled a small seabed with ash. The minerals in azomite are known to produce a larger harvest as well as larger produce with more flavor.

The name azomite is an acronym meaning A to Z of minerals including trace elements because it contains over 70 minerals and trace elements. Azomite is a powder that is available in three granular sizes, it is applied by spreading it on the soil where it takes a few days to break down into the soil after being watered.


Bone meal is finely ground bones that come from livestock. The bones are boiled or steamed and then ground into a powder. It is used to provide phosphorus and calcium to the soil for the growth of plants and blooms.

Bone meal breaks down slowly therefore laying down a small amount will prevent the possibility of the soil being too rich in phosphorus and burning your plants. It is spread onto the soil like any granular fertilizer at a ratio of 10 pounds of bone meal to 100 square feet of soil. Some manufacturers include other nutrients in the bone meal which may reduce the need for those nutrients. It can be purchased at any garden center, home improvement store, or online retailer.

Joel Simon

As a kid, Joel found enjoyment in caring for the many houseplants he grew up with, learning how to transplant them safely, cloning them, and more. At about the age of 10, he wanted to see if he could sprout an orange seed from a store-bought orange and ended up using it as a science experiment in a school project. Throughout the many years of gardening, he has helped many friends and family set up their food and botanical gardens. After years of caring for plants, he was talking with other gardeners and discovering old methods of farming and botanical gardening. Joel has decided to share his knowledge for others to enjoy as he has for many years.

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