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 great 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.
- Add decomposed organic matter.
- 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 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 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, such as a bar soap.
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 plants. 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 17 nutrients to grow and thrive.
These nutrients include:
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 6.5, as that’s the level where most nutrients are available.
However, this isn’t to say that all plants need their garden at an exact 6.5. 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 more acidic or with pH levels around 5.0.
You should start suspecting something is going on with your pH if you notice weird coloring in your plants. For instance, iron chlorosis, or the yellowing of leaves, occurs when the plant doesn’t get enough iron from the soil.
Although iron plays a crucial role in chlorophyll formation and, therefore, in photosynthesis, this nutrient is necessary only in trace amounts. If the plant shows signs of iron deficiency, it’s most likely due to the soil being too alkaline, as this nutrient becomes less accessible as the pH rises above 6.0.
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.
How to Test Soil pH
Maintaining a suitable pH for your garden will ensure your plants thrive. After all, high-quality soil is essential for a high-quality crop. But what if you have a pH problem and you’re focused on the wrong methods?
You can test your soil quality at home using store-bought testing kits or send a sample to a lab for more accurate results. You can also scan your soil independently to see whether any red flags come up, such as mold or compaction. You’ll be able to find a soil-testing approach no matter your budget.
2. Add Decomposed Organic Matter
High-quality soil provides your plants with everything they need. Above, I briefly talked about the 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 decomposed organic matter. Sometimes this process is referred to as amending the soil. The added minerals and nutrients when amending the soil composition can 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, green, leafy vegetables and cucumbers appreciate added nitrogen in their soil mix.
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 due to fungal activities resulting in wax-like buildup or too much compaction has happened.
This phenomenon can also be caused by a soil composition rich in peat moss or clay soil that has 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 occurring due to natural conditions, you might want to consider a drainage system for your soil along with a watering schedule adjustment.
Even though this step has been discussed frequently in the context of large outdoor gardens, drainage is also essential when it comes to your houseplants. If your houseplants 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 fungi growing at the bottom of your plant, leading to root rot. As a result, your plant will get dehydrated no matter how much you water it.
If your soil has poor drainage, you can amend it with loose materials, such as sand or perlite. If it has become compacted or hydrophobic, it’s best to repot your houseplant in a fresh potting mix with better aeration and drainage.
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?
Each plant has a different watering schedule it’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 making a plant journal with details on each plant’s watering needs. It also helps to check the soil weekly for moisture using the finger test.
Most plants need watering when the upper 2 inches (5 cm) of the soil feels dry. That usually equates to the second knuckle on your forefinger. However, note that succulents and cacti typically tolerate or even prefer dry soil between waterings.
You can also use a moisture meter. Even if your plant comes out at a 10 in moisture, you could still have a problem. Some plants like to be 7s, 6s, or even 2s when it comes to water retention. Additionally, many plants want to dry out completely before being watered again.
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 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!
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. If the roots, leaves, or petals are dead, it’s okay to keep them in. However, if the plants died because of disease, it’s best to remove infected plant matter and sterilize the soil before attempting to grow new plants.
Also, beware of seeds from weeds or invasive plant species. 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.
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 new 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 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 by 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 garden 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.
Too much rain without adequate drainage and plant roots to absorb moisture can also cause bare garden soil to become compacted. That’s why your garden shouldn’t be entirely flat to avoid rainwater from pooling, causing the soil particles to clump and form crusts.
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, mulch and compost have two different approaches. Mulch can be made of wood chips, straw, or shredded dried leaves. On the other hand, compost is fully decomposed organic matter. Either way, 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 mulch and compost can also help relieve compaction. 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 soil trap in more moisture and retain heat when the cold season sets in.
9. Fight and Prevent Pests
Gnats, caterpillars, and beetles can be harmful to your garden as long as they’re alive. 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. The number of pests (or lack thereof) within your soil can determine whether your substrate 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 spraying a neem oil solution on pest-infested plants (which is particularly effective against Japanese Beetles).
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 to avoid re-infestation.
10. Sterilize the Soil Before Use
As I briefly mentioned above, sometimes soil can get moldy. It’s rare, but it sometimes happens that a 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 to pests, molds, and other problems 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 are a few options for sterilizing the soil:
- Freeze batches of soil in your fridge.
- Use the microwave or oven to heat the soil to no more than 180 °F (82 °C).
- Pour boiling water into the infected soil.
Sterilization will kill everything living in the soil, so it’s better if you grab small batches and let them dry out completely before introducing them back to your garden.
These methods 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. Note that removing visibly moldy sections from the mixture doesn’t guarantee that there are no more mold spores left within the soil.
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 level of your soil, and you can compare it against the plant’s 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 indoors or on 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.
It will also help you diagnose common issues in your soil, such as drying up too quickly or too slowly and pH changes. As previously discussed, these soil quality parameters are crucial for plant health.
12. Rotate Crops
Some gardeners swear by crop rotation. It may seem troublesome, but the benefits are worth it. I’d also 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, 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 vegetable 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 properly executed crop rotation can help reduce soil erosion, break the 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. Fertilizers and manure are some of the most widely used substances to help improve soil quality. Fertilizers usually have good amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
Over time, the soil nutrients become depleted due to plant consumption, requiring gardeners to supplement the missing nutrients usually before the growing season.
Sending soil samples to a local extension service for a comprehensive soil analysis every 1-2 years can help you determine the most appropriate type of fertilizers to use in your garden.
I’d highly suggest using organic fertilizers or manures instead of synthetic ones. Fertilizers can be purchased at most gardening stores, and you can even select nutrient-specific or plant-specific products.
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 unpredictable weather patterns.
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.
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, nutrients are naturally depleted over time.
Any combination of the above strategies will surely maintain optimum soil quality that can support healthy crop growth.