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Practical Ways to Improve Your Garden Soil

Is your garden just ho-hum? No matter what you try (or didn’t try), your vegetables and flowers are just not flourishing? Chances are the problem is your garden soil. Yes, it could be neglect, lack of water, not enough sun, lack of fertilizer or really anything, but the best way to insure success for your next gardening season is to work on your soil. Without going into a bunch of chemistry, we’re going to keep this really simple and share practical ways to revitalize and improve your garden soil.

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When is the Best Time to Amend Your Garden Soil

Anytime you can amend your gardening soil is good; before you plant, when you plant, in spring, in summer, etc. But Fall, when there’s so much organic plant material and garden waste available, is the best time. Plus, it’s also easier to remember which areas of the garden didn’t do so well and which areas need the most help.

Image of Gardener's hands holding compost

Testing Your Garden Soil

I’ve been gardening for a very long time, really since I was a child. I don’t ever remember my dad testing our garden soil and I have never tested mine. I keep thinking I’m going to gather some soil samples and send them in to our local university extension service, but I’ve just never taken the time to do it.

At our last place, the homeowner before us was a gardener too and the soil was in really great shape. In our new place, the soil is very, very sandy. Over the few years we’ve been here, I just keep adding compost and taking the steps I talk about in this article. Each year the soil is improving and these ways of amending garden soil are working well for my gardens. That being said, I still think it’s important to have a soil test done, especially if you’re new to gardening, are in a new home, or you’ve never taken the time to do it like me. 

In addition to contacting your local extension service, you can also purchase soil test kits.  This soil test kit gets very good reviews. This ph and moisture meter gets great reviews too. If you do decide to test your soil, below is a handy chart to tell you what to add if your soil is deficient in one of these areas.

soil amendments chart

There are all kinds of advice and myths on the internet on adding epsom salts, calcium, baking soda, etc. etc. to make your plants bigger and better. I highly recommend, before adding any of these substances to your garden soil, to do a garden soil test to see if your soil needs any of these nutrients.

How to Amend Your Soil With Compost

No matter what the chemical makeup of your soil, the key to healthy soil is amending it with compost. Compost is simply decayed organic material and it serves to improve the overall structure, fertility and ability to hold moisture and nutrients.  So science and biology are just not my thing, and I hate trying to read an article about composting and having to wade through all the scientific stuff. So again, I’m going to try to keep this as simple as I can.

Different Types of Composters

I’ve always used a compost tumbler and this dual bin composter works especially well. There are two different sides, so you can fill one up and it can start the decomposing process while you’re filling the other side up. I like it because it is up off the ground and it’s very easy to add to and empty. It’s also super easy to turn and it’s rodent proof. Although small, it actually makes a surprising amount of compost. It’s perfect if you have a small yard or gardening space. It’s a great composter, but just not big enough for my needs.

This spring, my handy hubs built this monstrosity of a compost bin out of old wood pallets. I told him I didn’t need anything pretty and he obliged, as you can see below. Lol! Because I’m psychotic about rodents, he lined the inside of the bin with hardware cloth. He added hinges to the top panel, so we could prop it up to add to the bin. He also added hinges to one side of the front panel, so we can empty the aged compost. So far, we’ve just added untreated grass clippings and lots of shredded leaves. I haven’t been great about turning it, but I did over the weekend and I was happy to see that everything was breaking down nicely and there were pockets of fresh, earthy smelling compost. Yeah! That smell makes the happy endorphins go off in my brain. 

Image of a compost bin made from pallets

Composting Made Simple

Composting can be very confusing, but just like with most things gardening, let’s not make it difficult. If you want to get into the science of composting, there are tons of complicated articles and compost recipes out there on the web.

Basically, you need about 2/3rds brown stuff and 1/3rd green stuff. Brown stuff includes: leaves, paper, cardboard, paper towels, small twigs, etc. Green stuff includes: untreated grass clippings, kitchen scraps (no meat, bones), coffee grounds (yep, they’re considered green), plant foliage, etc.

Your compost bin or pile should never be slimy or stinky. If it is, you’ve likely added too much green stuff or something you shouldn’t have added. If this happens, simply add in lots of brown stuff from the list above. Likewise if your compost pile or bin is dry, add more of the green stuff from the list above.

Composting this way is not quick, but it’s easy. There are heat methods of composting, but they are expensive and are much more of a learning curve. 

Things not to add to your compost: 

Dog or cat poop, meat scraps or bones, cooked food scraps, dairy, etc. Although some do, I do not recommend throwing weeds into the compost. In my zone 4b, I don’t think the compost heats up enough to kill the weed seeds. I also don’t put diseased plant material in the compost.

Here are a few ways to get your compost pile to break down more quickly:

  • Water the pile if it becomes too dry.
  • Use a garden fork (my favorite) and turn it.
  • Place your compost bin in full sun.
  • Shred the stuff you put in the compost pile or bin. I highly recommend shredding everything you put into your compost. It makes a huge difference in the time it takes for all the stuff to decompose.
  • Add in compost starter.

Composting Kitchen Scraps to Amend Your Garden Soil

I have this countertop compost bin for fruit and vegetable scraps that works really well to hold the scraps until I can take them out to the compost bin. It has a carbon filter on the top, so nothing gets stinky and there are no gnats to contend with. Additional carbon filters are also available for purchase.

How to Amend Your Garden Soil If You Don’t Have A Composter or Compost Pile

Since composting can be a long term project, and your soil needs amending whether or not you have your own compost, there are other simple ways to amend your garden soil.

You can simply layer your vegetable beds with shredded leaves and grass clippings in the fall. Shredded leaves and untreated grass clippings will decay somewhat during the winter and provide beneficial nutrients and organic matter for your gardening soil. In the spring this decayed plant material can be turned or tilled into the soil.

A few ways to shred your yard waste. To shred your yard waste, simply toss it on the lawn and mow over it. If you don’t have a lawn mower that bags, dump your yard waste into an old garbage can and use your weed trimmer to chop up the debris. Also, there are many leaf blower/vacuum/mulchers that also suck up and shred leaves.

When you deadhead your flowers and clean them up by cutting back, simply leave the spent flowers and leaves in the garden. If I have big leaves like yellowed daffodil, tulip, hosta or daylily foliage, I just take a few minutes to chop it up with my gardening shears and leave it where it falls. I do the same thing in my vegetable gardens, by chopping up plant foliage and over ripe veggies. Sometimes I will dig a hole and bury the plant material (worms love this) and sometimes I simply leave the plant material on top of the soil and then turn it under in the spring. This is called composting in place.

Image of plant waste in a gardening bed

After reading up on it and seeing some great reviews, I’m trying worm castings (worm poop) for the first time this year. I simply add a handful to each hole, along with compost, as I transplant perennials in a flower bed that I’m redesigning. It’s a bit spendy, but my plants are worth it. 

Lastly, purchase bags of compost and manure. Since I haven’t been able to make enough compost, this is exactly what I do. 40 pound bags of organic compost and manure can be purchased for a couple bucks at most big box stores and smaller hardware stores. Every time I’m planting a new plant, transplanting or rearranging, I carry along a bag of compost and add it to the area where I’m working. After 3+ years of doing this, it’s beginning to pay off.

Mulching Your Garden Beds

If you’ve followed Gingham Gardens for any amount of time, you’ll know that I’m always harping about adding mulch to your garden beds. In addition to many other reasons, as a good shredded wood mulch breaks down into organic matter, it nourishes your garden soil. If you don’t have the budget to purchase a good shredded wood mulch, shredded leaves work too. In my vegetable beds, I use dried, untreated grass clippings.

A Few More Tips for Improving Your Garden Soil

Are you a creature of habit and do you plant your vegetables garden the exact same way every year? It’s important to rotate crops at least every 3 years so the same crops aren’t growing in the same place year after year and sapping the soil of the same nutrients.

If you’ve been working on amending your garden soil and your soil doesn’t seem to be getting any better, you may want to consider raised bed gardening. It can be spendy to get started, but if you do it right, raised beds can last for many years. The best part, you control the soil you add to them.

If you have a huge vegetable garden, you might want to look into growing cover crops during the winter.

If you’re interested in a more scientific approach to composting, check out this article entitled All About Composting

Although it’s fairly easy and inexpensive, improving your garden soil is not “one and done,” it’s a continuing process. Reviving and amending your garden soil should be just another step in the process of gardening. Whether you’re a seasoned gardener, a beginning gardener or all those in between, I hope you’ve learned some simple ways to start amending your garden soil.

More Articles on Gingham Gardens You’ll Enjoy:

Ways to Convert Lawn to Gardening Space
Flower Garden Maintenance Tips (lots of tips apply to veggie gardens too)
Garden Planning (How to Plan Next Year’s Garden)
DIY Garden Planner and Journal

We’d love to have you join us here at Gingham Gardens. There are tons of great gardening tips, inspiration and ideas, plus, the best gardening printables on the internet. Complete the form below to start your journey to planning and creating your best garden ever!

Thanks so much for stopping by Gingham Gardens today! I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit. Feel free to complete the comment form below if you have any questions or comments. Be sure to save the pins below to your favorite gardening board on Pinterest.

Happy gardening,

p.s. You can find Gingham Gardens on Pinterest and on Facebook too.

Pins to Save to Your Favorite Gardening Board on Pinterest:

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  1. Hi joanna: Thanks for all the good info. I love your idea of using old things for pots/planters. It adds interest and texture.
    I have a couple of old kettles and fake bird houses I will use.
    Love all the pictures of flowers, containers and veggies. I have flower and veggie gardens. Have peas, kale and radish planted but it has been old and raining so hope they really popl when the sun comes out.
    All the best.
    Happy gardening.
    Shirley in Canada

  2. hi joanna, new at this computer stuff so please bare with me….. i came across your site a few weeks back wasn’t able to get into til just today . great information so far ! .wish i found you in the summer of 2020 (lol) but moving forward i moved into a new place which the small areas that were established have been neglected . slowly getting there mostly potted annuals for now with couple prenials. anyways your great ideas about compost is greatly appreciated. i did subscribe to your news letter which i found put my email in all caps not sure if it makes a difference but it’s all lower case & i only use you tube. again thanks 4 your detailed explanations. take care & be safe !

    1. Hello Barb – I’m so glad you found Gingham Gardens! Have fun making over those neglected gardens. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past 4 years. You should receive the newsletter every Thursday. Good luck and happy gardening, Joanna

  3. Thank you for this Pinterest page. Really great pics!
    I live in SoCal where the days can be really hot. We get very little rain. The soil is clay. I have a above ground box which used to be in the sun until the neighbors bushes became trees. So half a day in the shade and sun in afternoon.
    We do composting and I have amended with mulch.
    Even the zucchini had a hard time.
    Any suggestions what to grow under these conditions.?

    All the letters in my email are lower case.

    1. Hi Paulette – Thanks for stopping by Gingham Gardens. I’m definitely not a Southern California gardener, but you may want to just grow flowers in your raised bed and consider adding another raised bed in an area that gets more sun. Good luck and happy gardening, Joanna

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