Getting Your Soil in Tip-Top Shape

"In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt." -Margaret Atwood

Dirt has been shrewdly termed "misplaced material." -Victor Hugo

The soil in your lawn and garden is the foundation for all other growth: its condition will play a huge role in your success as a gardener. The good news is that you don’t have to accept what you have! If your soil condition is less-than-ideal, there are plenty of ways to improve it. Taking care of your soil will automatically take care of other problems in your lawn or garden, which means less work for you in the long run!

Whether you are a beginner, an experienced green thumb, have an established lawn and garden, or are starting from scratch on a new development, there are timeless tips that can help:

About Soil:

All soil is composed of mineral elements, organic components, air, and water. But this doesn’t mean all soil is the same: the mineral elements are different in every soil and the organic components create a web of chemical reactions. But once you get to understand these elements, don’t stop there: climate changes and water movement affect the soil constantly, so that change is an on-going process.

* The friendliest soil for gardeners warms up early, is easy to till, retains moisture well, and offers many nutrients for plants to use.

For Beginners:

Unfortunately, not enough people take time to study their soil before they plant. Your soil is your new best friend: get to know it. Put your hands in the dirt and study it, both physically and compositionally. Knowing what kind of soil you have and how to care for and improve it will make a big difference in your organic gardening experience.

Try This: Jar-of-Water Test

  • In a clear-glass quart jar, put a pint of water and a quarter cup of your soil.
  • Shake it up and let it settle.
  • After a day, look at the layers showing through the glass.
  • At the bottom, you will make out the coarsest mineral particles, or sand.
  • The next-smaller particles are silt.
  • The finest particles are clay.
  • Floating particles are organic material: the more the better!

If over half the sample is sand, you have light, sandy soil. If it is over half silt, it is heavy, silt soil. If one-fourth of it is clay, with a lot of silt, you have clay soil.

  • Heavy Soil - Difficult to work with, slow to warm, and cracks in heat; but retains moisture and nutrients longer. Plant seeds shallower than for an "average" soil.
  • Light Soil - Easy to work with, warms early, but not as full of nutrients. Plant seeds a little deeper than for an "average" soil.

For New Developments:

In a new development, you will be lucky if you get the original topsoil. If you can, encourage the developer to provide at least a few inches of topsoil, from the excavation or brought in from somewhere else. If the developer is long gone, check your soil and make sure it is not consisting of the subsoil, which is clay-like and becomes hard when wet. Consider bringing in at least a few inches of quality topsoil for a great start.

Other Factors to Consider:

Other factors to consider in your soil health are erosion, drainage, nutrition, and pH level.

  • Nutrition - The three most important nutrients are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Nitrogen aids in photosynthesis and promotes leaves, phosphorus is important in root growth, flowering and fruiting. Potassium helps roots and overall health. Organic fertilizers contain all three, with proportions listed in the order of N-P-K.
  • pH level - The "potential hydrogen" level is important because it determines the acidcity-alkalinity balance of soil. Seven is the midpoint on the pH scale, and is considered neutral. Numbers above 7 articulate alkalinity; numbers below 7 articulate acidity. Most plants grow well in the slightly acidic range of pH 6-7. *It pays to have your soil tested by a professional!


  • Erosion - Create a terrace horizontally across the slope to slow runoff, or consider raised beds if space is an issue.
  • Drainage - Regrade low areas with no outlet, or consider raised beds.
  • Clay Soils - Add any sort of organic material to boost the lack of humus. Add sand to lighten a heavy clay or silt.
  • Sandy Soils - Add moist peat moss, or another organic matter to keep it from drying out.
  • pH Imbalance - Because you can’t change the pH permanently, it’s best to plant large plants and perennials that can thrive in the soil you naturally have. For smaller plants or a short-term fix, you can add sulfur if the pH is too high or lime if it is too low.

*Any problem soil can benefit with mulch covering to shade it in the summer.

*Compost is beneficial to any soil type, as it provides your garden soil with invaluable nutrients and life-sustaining properties.