Raise your hand if you took up gardening during lockdown. For some people, growing their own fruit and vegetables guaranteed them fresh produce amid dwindling grocery store supplies. For others, gardening was a way to get outdoors for a little fresh air and exercise. Whatever your reason, welcome to the club.
Now, raise your hand if gardening has turned out to be a lot more difficult than you though it would be. Even just getting started can be scary: deciding on a garden bed or container planting, choosing the right seeds, the proper spot, and – of course – the best soil.
But what if – as many gardeners, new and experienced, have discovered this year – the “best” soil isn’t available locally? As it turns out, if you’re willing to put in a little time and effort, you can turn run-of-the-mill dirt into some pretty fantastic garden soil. There are quiet a few amendments you can add to your soil to optimize it for gardening – even if you’re on a budget.
How do you enrich poor soil?
The first thing you should probably do is test your soil to determine what you’ll be dealing with. You need to know the soil pH and nutrient content before you begin adding any type of organic or chemical materials to the soil. Overloading with the wrong additives can be disastrous – it could take years to undo the damage.
One of the easiest – and most fool-proof – ways of enriching soil is by adding compost. Made up of decomposed organic matter, compost helps bind your soil together but leaves it aerated and nourished. You can add 3”-4” of compost to a new garden bed and then top it up with a couple of inches of fresh compost every year.
If you have access to animal manure, this is an excellent addition to your garden. As it breaks down, it will naturally feed the soil.
You can also add worms to your compost – or directly to the soil – for a little extra help. Worms and other little creepy crawlies can aerate your soil as they move around in it. And their excrement not only acts as a natural binding agent, it also converts your soil additives into vitamins, minerals and nutrients for your plants.
And of course, you can use organic or chemical fertilizers to add any vitamins or minerals that may be lacking. Nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium are the three most important nutrients. And they can be found in different concentrations in most commercial fertilizers.
What type of soil is good for gardening?
There are three types of soil texture: sand, silt, or clay. Each one has particular drainage properties and nutrient quality. And while different plants prefer different soils, overall, the best gardening soil is loam, a mixture comprised of equal parts of all three soil types.
Loam is slightly acidic, which is preferred by many plants and other soil organisms like worms. Loam also contains a lot of calcium to help with water retention and the balance of soil chemicals as well as allow oxygen to reach the roots of your plants.
The varied texture of loam – with gritty sand, soft and dry silt, and heavy, wet crumbly clay – helps control drainage and air flow at the root level as well.
What can I add to my garden soil to make it better?
In addition to the basics – compost and nutrients – mentioned above, you can add many different amendments to your soil to enrich and improve it.
While you can start with any type of soil, it can take years to achieve the perfect balance. So, many gardeners turn to bagged or bulk soils that are already conditioned and amended.
Typically, container gardeners use a commercial or homemade potting soil mix – and the best soil mixture for flower gardens has equal parts compost, peat, and topsoil. If your soil is compacted, you should add peat moss and sand to help aeration and drainage.
Some gardeners add their grass clippings to their planting beds – but, if you work lawn trimmings into your garden so that they decompose slowly and enrich the soil, you must first be sure that they are free of pesticides, herbicides, and seeds.
Covering your garden with a layer of mulch can help it to retain moisture – and you can dig old mulch into the soil in order to provide nutrients as it breaks down, replacing it with a fresh layer every year.
How can I improve my soil on a budget?
It goes without saying that all of these amendments and additives can be rather costly. But if you, like so many other people, are on a tight budget at the moment, there are ways to improve your soil at little to no cost.
Many savvy gardeners know how to build healthy soil – and help the environment – without breaking the bank. Most soil amendments are comprised of organic materials that we add back to the earth in order to feed the soil organisms and provide nutrients and structure to the soil. And the great news is that your own backyard can provide a wealth of free soil amendments.
Make your own compost
The best way to get compost for free is to make your own. The organic material that you can create in your home compost pile is local, free, and full of organic goodness. And it keeps your kitchen and lawn clippings out of the rubbish bin and landfill. You can also add leaves or grass clippings to the planting beds below a layer of compost – the decomposing plants mimic Nature’s way of feeding the garden.
In order to add nutrients to the soil, you can add different types of animal or mushroom manures – for example, chicken manure can add nitrogen. Fresh manure contains a ton of nutrients – but composting it at high temperatures will kill any pathogens that could be transferred into the soil and your root vegetables.
If you have a fireplace or wood-burning stove, you can use wood chips from chopping your firewood as garden mulch. Or you could use the wood ash to drop your soil pH level and to add potassium, calcium, and nutrients to the soil.
There are so many ways to improve and enrich your garden soil, that even if your local garden supply store has empty shelves, there is nothing preventing you from growing your own food this year! What will you plant first?