how to prepare soil for gardening
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How to Prepare Soil for Gardening

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Dec. 15 2020, Updated 11:23 a.m. ET

Soil is life’s firmament. It’s a storehouse for all the nutrients that plants and other life forms need to grow and flourish. Soil supports plant roots and can house millions of microorganisms that help things to grow and eventually decay. If you know how to prepare your soil for gardening, and if your soil is well cared for and tended to regularly, it will improve year after year, becoming more fertile with each growing season. This outcome is great for everyone, especially your plants and flowers!

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how to prepare soil for gardening
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How to prepare soil for gardening

Unless you live in a desert or some other inhospitable place, chances are good that your soil will be workable enough not to require much preparation. That said, not all soil is created equal. Different compositions of soil possess different qualities, and some are better for certain types of growing than others. Preparing your own soil for gardening requires that you first understand what type of soil you’re working with and improving or preparing it from there. 

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What are the different types of soil?

There are a few different types of soil that you’re likely to see in American backyards. Some are sandy and dry, others are rocky and shallow, some are moist and peaty, and others are sticky like clay. Each one of these different soils reacts differently to roots, water, and weeds. Not all of them are good for growing, though. Sandy soils don’t hold enough water; clay holds too much. A good balance between the two is soil that is wet to the touch but still loose enough that it crumbles in your hand. 

how to prepare soil for gardening
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What is good soil for gardening?

Good soil needs to be moist and aerated all at once. It should also be nutrient-rich, which is something that doesn’t generally occur in rocky, pebbly types of soil. In many parts of the country, good soil is hard to come by, but that doesn’t mean you need to run out and get a bag of potting soil every time you want to garden. It won’t hurt to have some, especially if your dirt is massively inhospitable. In these cases, you might need to create a new blend from the get-go. 

How do I improve garden soil?

Even the most inhospitable garden soils can be improved. Adding organic matter will enhance the soil with nutrients, making it more fertile for growing. It can also make the soil more workable and easier to dig. It might even remove some of the negative attributes of the more stubborn soils. Organic matter loosens tight clay and helps sand hold more water, making both much easier to utilize for planting. 

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how to prepare soil for gardening
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Can compost or mulch help prepare soil for gardening?

There are a number of organic compounds that you could add to the soil to improve it. The most obvious involves starting a backyard or kitchen compost bin to collect your organic waste. A good mix of nitrogen and carbon-rich ingredients, as well as soil, air, and water, will ensure a fine fertilizer to mix into your soil when you’re ready to plant. 

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These include plant matter like leaves, straw, and grass clippings. Starting a mulch pile in your backyard is a great way to begin this process, especially because you’ll need to work these plant materials into the soil over the course of several months in order for it to decompose. You can usually start the process in the fall, letting it decompose through the winter so that you’ll see positive results come spring.

how to prepare soil for gardening
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Can manure or other fertilizer help prepare soil for gardening?

Composted manure can be incorporated into the soil ahead of time to help get it ready for planting. Most experts recommend not using fresh manure as it can damage plants and introduce diseases into the soil, but composted manure is usually a good bet. Sometimes you can even get this premade from local organic farms nearby. 

There is also such a thing as green manure. Many times, this type of manure is made from oats, rye, clovers, buckwheat, or mustards that are grown after a crop has been harvested. The small shoots of weed that pop out of the soil are then torn up and plowed back under the dirt. Once the loose sprigs start to decompose, they return their nutrients to the soil, strengthening it for the next planting season. 

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Other types of fertilizer are commercially available as well, but many of them are synthetic or otherwise harmful to the environment. If you want to add fertilizer, look for specifically organic fertilizer. It will be better for your soil, your crops, the living creatures in your backyard, and your peace of mind. 

how to prepare soil for gardening
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Does tilling the soil help prepare it for gardening?

No matter how troublesome your soil is, experts agree that you should till it as much as possible. Tilling is most effective when it is moist and not wet and during the wintertime, if you’re looking to use it for spring planting. The reason behind this seasonal timing has to do with the fact that when you work the soil for the first time, it can become a bit rough. The winter temperatures help keep it moist and mellow out until it’s time to plant. 

Tilling can be done with a rake, a spade, a hoe, a shovel, or an electric roto-tiller if you have access to one. We would recommend you remove all large sticks and rocks from the soil by raking it first. You don’t want to have those things get caught in a tiller you borrow from your neighbor. You should also till as deep as you can, at least 8 to 10 inches down. This is because deep tilling loosens the soil, allowing vegetable roots to grow deeper.

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Is topsoil or potting soil better for gardening?

Some folks might assume that pouring a few bags of potting soil or topsoil into their dry beds might help to enhance the soil for gardening, but these additions aren’t the best idea for outdoor gardens. According to Builders Sand and Gravel, potting soil is best used for plants that are either still in containers or those that will be planted in... pots, oddly enough. They can actually cause your outdoor soil to dry out if you mix it in. 

Topsoil is better to combine with outdoor soil and can be used to slightly enhance gardens and flowerbeds. Just don’t rely solely on it. Preparing your soil is a multi-step process that requires the addition of organic matter above anything else. With time, effort, patience, and a little bit of eco-friendly sensibility, your garden will be flourishing in no time. 

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