Soil is the lifeblood of your garden. It’s the home your plants dig their roots into and the soft reminder under your nails that you did a grleat day’s work. Like most things in life, there is always room for improvement when it comes to your soil quality.
Here are 14 ways to improve your soil quality:
- Check the soil’s pH.
- Provide the proper nutrients.
- Check the soil’s drainage efficiency.
- Adjust your watering schedule.
- Clean your pots and boxes.
- Remove old vegetation.
- Prevent compaction.
- Mulch your soil.
- Fight and prevent pests.
- Sterilize the soil before use.
- Use a moisture meter.
- Rotate crops.
- Consider using fertilizer or manure.
- Plant cover crops.
This article will serve as your ultimate guide to creating better quality soil for your garden. You can take the strategies that you think will work for you and leave the ones that don’t fit your gardening style. Below, I’ll dive deeper into how to make use out of each method to improve your soil quality, suggest some helpful products, and provide you with research-based explanations.
1. Check the Soil’s pH
One of the easiest ways to improve the soil quality in your garden is to become well versed in soil pH. When discussing what a plant needs, any beginner’s answers will revolve around sunshine and water.
However, many fail to mention the importance of choosing a quality-grade soil in the first place, and pH is one of the biggest indicators when it comes to soil quality.
Soil pH determines how acidic or alkaline your mixture is. If you’re not familiar with these concepts, let me take you through a few simple examples. Substances that are acidic in nature, in the non-gardening world, include orange juice and lemonade. Alkaline substances are characterized by their low acidity, with an excellent example being milk.
Though your soil being acidic won’t cause the need for an antacid in the garden, and you might not be able to detect pH by sight or smell, it’ll still affect your soil. Nutrients are only readily available and absorbable in your mixture as long as it has the right pH.
This brief video gives a great explanation of the importance of soil pH:
Though this video talks about the concept in the context of farmers, you can imagine how the phenomenon would affect your crop of flowers or veggies. Your plants need the essential seventeen nutrients to grow and thrive. These nutrients include, but aren’t limited to:
Additionally, plants require carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, but these compounds are absorbed by plants through breathing and watering. Just as humans need nutrients to grow and thrive, which requires a balanced diet, your plants need a little bit of everything.
Soil pH determines how many nutrients your plants are getting on their dining table. The perfect soil pH for plants is around 6.8, as that’s the level most nutrients are available at.
However, this isn’t to say that all plants need their garden at an exact 6.8. A 7 on the pH scale is neutral, and plants need a little bit of acidity to grow. However, some plants like blueberries, for example, like the soil a little more acidic. You should start suspecting something is going on with your pH if you notice weird coloring in your plants, or they won’t grow even though every other condition seems to be ideal.
To summarize, soil pH influences the amount of nutrients your plants are receiving. A pH that’s been thrown off, whether by excessive fertilization or a weird year for your crop, can have detrimental effects on soil quality. Test your pH frequently using a meter, an at-home testing kit, or sending a sample into a lab.
2. Provide the Proper Nutrients
High-quality soil provides your plants with everything they need. Above, I briefly talked about the seventeen essential nutrients for plants. Like humans, plants require a diverse range of vitamins to grow.
They get these vitamins and nutrients directly from the soil, which is why ensuring your mixture has the proper pH level can be crucial in confirming this process is going smoothly. Keep in mind that each crop’s needs and requirements may vary.
Nutrients can be added to your soil through organic matter and compost. Sometimes this process is referred to as amending the soil. You’re adding vitamins and nutrients to amend the soil composition and benefit your plants.
An easy way to do so is to add banana peels to the soil or begin your compost bin. Additionally, gardens often lack basic compounds like phosphorus and iron that can be added back through organic matter or a specific fertilizer.
Research your plants and check how they like their soil. For example, tomatoes, greens, and cucumbers appreciate a little added nitrogen in their mixture.
3. Check the Soil’s Drainage Efficiency
Drainage efficiency is a crucial indicator of soil quality. Noticing that a lot of water is pooling at the top of your garden or that your garden tends to become waterlogged in the rain indicates that your soil isn’t doing well enough in the drainage department.
At first, some may wonder whether their soil just isn’t absorbing water properly. This could certainly be the case. Sometimes, the soil becomes hydrophobic if the peat moss has clumped up or too much compaction has happened.
This phenomenon can be caused by a soil composition that favors peat moss or clay soils that have dried out and become hard to penetrate by water. You’ll notice that in houseplants, water goes through the sides of the pot and out the bottom rather than through the plant.
However, if it’s not hydrophobia and instead waterlogging is occuring due to natural conditions, you might want to consider a drainage system for your soil along with a watering schedule adjustment. You can make a DIY irrigation system by following the instructions in this video:
Additionally, you can use some aeration methods or composting to fix the drainage issue. A top layer of mulch will help your garden absorb excess water if you live in a rainy climate.
Even though this step has been discussed frequently in the context of large outdoor gardens, drainage is also essential when it comes to your house plants. If your house plants aren’t draining properly, the soil is probably compacting around your roots and making it hard for the plant to suck up any nutrients.
If you don’t have a proper drainage system in your pot, you risk mold creating at the bottom of your plant. Not to mention that your plant will get dehydrated no matter how much you water it.
To improve water drainage in a house plant, you can use a bottom watering technique or flush your soil out. To flush your soil, you’ll want to:
- Find a proper drainage spot in your home
- Make sure there are drainage holes in the bottom of your plant pot.
- Add a drip tray underneath your plant.
- Slowly pour room temperature water over the plant.
- Let the plant flush its soil over the next few hours.
- Let the plant dry out over a drip tray.
Soil flushing can help rid the soil of toxic materials, as well. This is a great way to improve your soil quality.
4. Adjust Your Watering Schedule
Watering your plants is important. But did you know how much, how often, and how heavily you water your plants is more important than watering them altogether?
All plants have a different watering schedule they’d like to adhere to. Many first-time gardeners find themselves at a loss because they water all of their plants the same amount every day, but a few keep dying.
This is because some plants require different moisture levels to thrive, so watering all your plants on the same schedule is guaranteed to kill some with unusual preferences.
It can be hard to know whether your plant is getting the moisture it needs, so I suggest using a moisture meter (which I’ll dive more into below) paired with your research to determine whether or not your plant is getting what it requires.
Even if your plant comes out at a 10 in moisture, you could still have a problem. Some plants like to be sevens, sixes, or even two’s when it comes to water retention. Additionally, many plants want to dry out completely before being watered again. I even know of a few plants that do well with weekly showers!
Another method to check your soil moisture is to use the toothpick test. This isn’t as accurate as a moisture meter, but it does the trick. All you have to do is stick your finger or a toothpick into the soil. If it comes up clean, without any dirt, your plant is probably too dry for its liking.
5. Clean Your Pots and Boxes
This is one of the simplest ways to improve your soil, but it often goes overlooked.
Your plant pots and boxes can be hoarding tons of dangerous bacteria or mold spores. This is especially true if you were having soil problems with the previous crop and even more likely if you had mold problems! For this reason, a good scrub of your plant pots and boxes is necessary before adding a new crop.
To clean your houseplant or outdoor pots, you just need water and some gentle soap. If you were having mold or gnat problems, a little bleach or a natural additive like neem goes a long way, too. Just be sure to let the pot air dry in the sun to ensure there’s no moisture left when you add the soil. Remember, moisture breeds mold!
Cleaning plant boxes can be a little more difficult, as they’re usually outside in the garden and are typically made of wood. Still, you can get a spray bottle with some warm water and do a little bit of scrubbing if you’ve been having issues. A clean container makes for healthy soil.
6. Remove Old Vegetation
You can also remove old vegetation from the soil to improve soil quality.
The gardening community stands divided on this tip, but I’m one to suggest removing old vegetation even if it doesn’t seem quite dead yet. You can do so using your hands or gardening tools, and I think this rule goes pretty evenly for houseplants and garden plants.
You can technically still use soil with old roots, but this can sometimes cause nutrient deficiencies in your plant. Any plant roots in the soil that are still living will soak up the nutrients that you’d likely much rather see going to your other plants.
Additionally, they can take up room where your new plants would love to grow their roots, or helpful critters might like to live. This goes for your old plants that aren’t doing great, and you don’t have much hope for.
Dead plants are technically compost, which is a great helper to your soil and plants. Therefore, if the roots, leaves, or petals are dead, it’s okay to keep them in.
However, beware of seeds! Some gardeners might love an extra few plants sprouting up during the growing season. Still, others may be horrified to find sunflowers in the carrot patch or an iris in their rose garden (just an example, because if you’ve accidentally grown an iris in your rose garden, you are my hero, those are some fickle flowers!).
Regardless of your philosophy of keeping old vegetation or letting it go, you can take this tip as a sign you should sift through your soil and make sure there’s as much room as possible for your plants.
Removing rocks and pebbles will leave more room for roots and provide easier access to your soil. Going through your soil every once and a while will also give you peace of mind that there’s no mold, gnats, or unwanted fungi.
7. Prevent Compaction
Soil compaction is the enemy of healthy soil. So much so that I considered making this the first item on the list but decided ultimately I didn’t want to overwhelm you.
Why is soil compaction slightly overwhelming? It’s overwhelming because it can occur naturally and through no fault of your own, and there are no quick fixes. Luckily, though the fixes are not quick by any means, they are usually pretty straightforward.
First, let me explain what soil compaction is and how you can look for it. Compaction means that your soil has become so tightly pressed together (hence, compacted) that there’s no room for plant roots to grow, water to penetrate, or little helpful garden critters to live.
If you have compacted soil, you probably know it. You can’t pick it up and let it fall through your hands, you dig up giant muddy clumps, and it’s so hard you need a shovel to get through it.
Soil compaction can be caused due to a few different reasons and preventing it is easier than fixing it after the fact. Most often, soil compaction is caused by traffic. If you tend to walk all over your soil after it rains, you’re adding pressure to your garden that’s making the soil compact together. Or, if you’re driving your car or bike right over the soil, it’ll compact whether it’s wet or not.
You should have a clear path around and through your garden to prevent compaction. You can create a path out of stones or create a “No Walking/No Driving” sign to keep pedestrians away.
Additionally, you should make sure your gardening beds are never so wide or close together that you have to walk across them to get to other plants. Later on in this guide, I’ll talk about a cover crop to prevent compaction.
Your house plant soil can become easily compacted if it’s being overwatered or your soil has become hydrophobic. This isn’t just a problem for large, spread-out gardens, either. Aeration can be beneficial to houseplants, and this video by Plant Boy on YouTube shows some easy aeration methods:
Keeping soil compaction in mind and preventing it will help your soil remain in excellent shape.
8. Mulch Your Soil
Mulching and composting are two of the easiest, most basic ways to improve soil quality.
These methods are great ways to add some extra organic material to your mixture. Organic material improves soil quality and adds extra nutrients to your garden. Additionally, mulching can help with temperature control, suffocate weed germination, and improve watering.
Though they do similar jobs, mulching and compost are two different approaches. Mulching usually looks similar to wood chips and is completely organic. Both add beneficial microbes to your soil.
The method of spreading mulch or compost is the same, though, as you’ll add a thin layer to your topsoil. Compost can come in many packages, and you can even learn to compost at home by yourself.
You can also throw out banana peels in your garden, use wood scraps, or attempt to farm your own worms (this method is called Vermicomposting).
Both mulching and compost can also help with compaction, which I discussed earlier in this article. Compaction is detrimental to your soil’s quality and can naturally occur in the winter months as your garden becomes packed with snow. Mulching at the end of the growing season, which is close to the start of winter, can help your garden absorb this additional moisture.
9. Fight and Prevent Pests
Gnats, caterpillars, and beetles can be harmful to your garden as long as they’re alive.
I know this is a dark way of putting it, but it’s true. Dead bugs will decompose in your garden and add nutrients to the soil. However, living bugs will infest the soil, soak up nutrients, and even eat your plants. Caterpillars and beetles are notorious for chewing on leaves, while maggots can get deep into your soil and destroy plant roots.
Even if the pests in your garden aren’t directly affecting your soil pH, moisture, or nutrients, they aren’t a welcome guest. In a high-quality house, would you expect roaches or vermin? No! Therefore, the amount of pests (or lack thereof) within your soil can determine whether your mixture is high quality or not.
You don’t have to worry about getting your garden fumigated, though. If you need to combat bugs, you can use natural methods like neem oil or a quality top dressing.
High-quality soil suppresses pests on its own and creates plants strong enough to hold up when they’re under attack. Nevertheless, pests in the garden should be taken seriously. In the middle of any gardening crisis, the last thing you need is a pest invasion!
Though it’s not technically a garden pest, this is the perfect time to mention garden mold. White mold is especially common in house plants and can look like a fuzzy white web covering your soil.
To get rid of mold in your soil, you’ll need to repot the plant and sterilize the old container it was in. If you need to reuse the soil, you should sterilize it before using it again, as I’ll discuss below.
10. Sterilize the Soil Before Use
As I briefly mentioned above, sometimes soil can get moldy. It’s rare, but it has happened before: sometimes that bag of soil you purchased already has mold in it. That’s why sterilizing soil is a crucial process, especially when adding to your garden.
Even when purchased from the highest-quality gardening stores, soil bags are not immune from pests, molds, and other toxins that can harm your garden. It’s usually a good rule of thumb to let any new soil dry out in the sun before adding it to your garden.
You could also sterilize soil more intently through the use of heating or freezing methods. These approaches are better suited to smaller batches of soil and are as straightforward as you might’ve expected. Here’s what you’ll want to keep in mind:
- Freeze batches of soil in your fridge
- Use the microwave or oven to heat the soil to no more than 180 degrees Fahrenheit
- Use boiling water to sanitize soil
Sanitization will kill everything living in the soil, so it’s better if you grab ambler batches and let them dry out completely before introducing them back to your garden. Microwaving your entire house plant is going to kill not only the pests and molds but the plant, too.
This will be counterintuitive if you’re adding soil to increase nutrients in your garden. Unfortunately, there’s no way to pick and choose what you are killing when you use heating, freezing, or solar methods of soil sanitation.
Take this into account before practicing soil sterilization. If you find mold in a bag of soil but don’t want to kill the other living microorganisms, you might want to try some natural approaches when it comes to mold control like neem oil or physically removing it from the mixture.
11. Use a Moisture Meter
Moisture meters are a highly beneficial tool to have in your garden, especially if you’re using one that has a 5-in-1 feature set.
The challenging part about this approach is that usually, there’s no one right answer. As gardeners, we do a lot of guessing. We look at our garden, notice something, and assume the problem. If our plants could talk, I’m sure we’d have an easier time figuring out what’s wrong. Moisture meters are as close to talking plants as we get.
A moisture meter is a tool that you stick into your soil. It will read the moisture of your plant, and you can compare it against its preferences.
I’m bringing up moisture meters again because most of them have multiple settings that can help you understand what’s going on in your garden, whether houseplants or an entire backyard farm. Some moisture meters will tell you the temperature, humidity, pH, and sunlight, along with water retention.
Knowing is half the battle when it comes to gardening. Using a moisture meter can greatly improve the quality of your soil, just based on giving you a better idea of its current state.
12. Rotate Crops
Some gardeners swear by crop rotation. The benefits are worth it, though! However, I want to preface this tip by admitting it’s not for the weak-hearted.
So what is a crop rotation, exactly? This video helps explain a bit better:
To put it simply, a crop rotation means you are rotating different plants and vegetables from one bed to another each growing season. This practice is highly beneficial for urban farmers or veggie growers. Crop rotations can be as simple or complex as you’d like them to be, but they take some planning regardless of your intentions.
Doing a basic crop rotation can help your garden maintain its longevity and keep the land fertile. A crop rotation can help reduce soil erosion, break natural cycles of weeds and pests, and replace nitrogen in your garden.
My most important tip when it comes to crop rotation is to read up on your crops and keep a gardening notebook. Having a list and system that reminds you of the previous year’s crop is an easy way to save the headache of constant rotations. This is by no means a quick fix, and it might take a few years to reap the benefits of this approach.
13. Consider Using Fertilizer or Manure
This tip is low on the list, but don’t let that fool you. Fertilizer and manure are some of the most widely used substances to help improve soil quality. Fertilizers usually have excess amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. If you remember our nutrient chat from above, you know that these are essential when it comes to plant growth.
I’d highly suggest using organic fertilizers or manures instead of synthetic ones. Fertilizers can be purchased at most gardening stores, or you can learn how to make your own.
14. Plant Cover Crops
You’ve made it to the end of the list, and I’d like to think that this step is the perfect way to close this guide. When added at the end of the growing season, cover crops can help protect your soil throughout the cold winter months.
This tip won’t be as helpful if you live in a climate that’s relatively constant throughout the entire year, but even some of these locations can have a weird season here or there. Planting a cover crop, along with a thin layer of mulch, at the end of the growing season will help control the temperature of your garden. Think of it as the warm, cozy blanket your garden requires before the winter.
Some common cover crops that are used to support soil quality are:
- Clover (red, white, crimson)
- Field peas
- Hairy vetch
- Cereal rye
These crops aren’t interchangeable, though. You’ll need to research which does best in the climate you live in for this method to be successful.
Can I Test My Soil Quality?
Any combination of the above methods will help improve your soil quality little by little. But what if you have a pH problem and you’re focused on the wrong methods? Is there a way to test your soil and know exactly what’s going on without all the trial and error?
You can test your soil quality at home or send a sample to a lab. You can also scan your soil independently to see whether any red flags come up, such as mold or compaction. High-quality soil is essential for a high-quality crop.
Depending on the type of test you administer, you might be surprised to find out just how much information is in your soil! You can test your soil quality by sending a sample into the lab, grabbing a test kit online, or having a professional gardener come out to inspect your garden. As you can see, you’ll be able to find a soil-testing approach no matter your budget.
However, if you want to just do a visual inspection and see how your plants are doing, this is the way of our ancestors. Gardeners had to be in tune with how their soil looked, smelt, and felt in their hands before all of the fancy gadgets arrived to make it easier.
You might be surprised how much you can naturally pick up on! Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with making testing easier, and innovations in gardening mean high-yielding crops. However, always try to get to know your soil through your five senses first.
Your soil is as important as sunlight and water for your plants. If you can get the lighting down right and your watering routines are on point, you still need to be highly attentive when it comes to the soil you’re using.
Soil can be ravaged with disease, have an organic matter absorbing your plant’s nutrients, and is prone to molding and fungi. Additionally, overwatering or having too little sunlight for your soil can create a disastrous domino effect in your plants. Any combination of the above strategies will surely support a healthy crop growth.