DIY Network

Preparing Soil for a Garden

Learn how important it is to thoroughly prepare soil for the garden.

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Among the keys to having a beautiful garden or landscape is great soil. More plants live, die, struggle or thrive based on the condition of the earth in which they are planted. If I had 10 hours to devote to planting a garden, I would spend nine of them preparing the soil. The lack of sufficient soil preparation at the time of planting is one of the primary reasons for an unhealthy landscape and one of the most avoidable mistakes we can make.

I'd like to be able to tell you about some easy shortcuts for achieving great, long-term results in your lawn and garden. But when it comes to preparing the soil, there simply aren't any. In our rush to instant landscapes, little if any attention is given to the subterranean environment that will serve as home to the plant's life. Perhaps we would be more patient if we were reminded that as living organisms, they, too, need the proper environment to thrive.

Proper soil preparation addresses two main issues. The first deals with ensuring the supply of adequate natural nutrients. Over time, nutrients in the soil become depleted as plant roots take them up or they're leached deeper into the earth. Microorganisms are responsible for many of these nutrients and are critical to a healthy soil food web. They can be destroyed by the excessive buildup of salts found in synthetic fertilizers.

The second issue pertains to soil structure. Chances are, your native soil is either too heavy and drains poorly, or is rather sandy and drains quickly. Neither condition is the desired result. Heavy soil can hold water like a bowl, which can potentially drown your plants. Sandy soil presents the opposite problem. Without the constant addition of water, most plants eventually die from dehydration. Fortunately, it doesn't matter from where we start; adding sufficient organic matter such as compost, aged manure and decomposed leaves works to improve the condition of the existing soil and future planting bed.

Soil with good structure drains well yet holds sufficient moisture. The goal in creating the ideal mix is to combine enough organic matter so the soil binds together when squeezed, yet breaks apart easily when disturbed. Well-prepared soil also contains nutrients and microorganisms and provides an optimal environment to promote the establishment, health and growth of whatever is planted there. Compost is the perfect all-inclusive amendment to provide ideal texture and comes packed with all the nutrients needed to keep plants thriving.

Whatever you're adding to the soil, begin by working a three-inch layer of organic matter to a depth of about 12 inches. A mechanical tiller may seem like the ideal tool, but the tines only dig in about half that depth. That's better than nothing, but with or without a tiller, I prefer to use a spading fork to break up the earth and incorporate the amendments to the proper depth. Once the organic matter is thoroughly combined, it may be necessary to add more to achieve the desired outcome noted above. It's a process, but the results are well worth the effort.

I know it seems like I'm creating a lot of work for you, but I can promise it is time well spent. I've personally experienced and seen many plant failures from unimproved soil. My success in my personal gardens as well as the incredible results enjoyed in my TV gardens is directly related to the attention I put into the soil before planting. It can be that way for you, too.

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