How to prepare your soil for the gardening season

I’ve recently started thinking about what I’m going to plant in my garden this spring – it’s a nice mental escape from the current gloomy New England weather – and as I’ve been researching different flowers and vegetables, I keep seeing references to “ideal soil quality.” For example, Almanac grow guides always say things like, “Dahlias thrive in rich, well-drained soil. Your soil’s pH level should be 6.5 to 7.0, slightly acidic.”

It makes sense that the soil has a pH, but it’s never something I took into consideration when I planted my garden. I’ve always considered soil quality an “advanced gardener’s tip” – after all, my plants grow very well – but seeing repeated mentions of it piqued my curiosity. As a result, I started reading about soil quality, plant pH, and soil testing, and eventually even contacted Vanessa Dawson, a gardening expert and CEO of Arber, a wellbeing company. -be organic and non-toxic plant-based, for expert advice on soil quality and why it matters. Here is what I learned.

Does the soil quality really question?

Have you ever seen pictures of big, beautiful, flowering plants and thought, “Why don’t mine look like this?” If so, chances are the quality of the soil has something to do with it. Dawson explains that healthy soil produces healthy plants, and even if your plants are doing well, chances are they’ll do better if you improve the soil.

“Soil provides an enormous diversity of microbes, nutrients, and bacteria that plants depend on,” Dawson says. “When plants send up roots, they expect to find this complex microbiology that they can work interdependently with, both supplying sugars from the soil and attracting and then absorbing the necessary compounds they need through their roots.” If they can’t find the nutrients they need, the plants won’t grow as big and probably won’t produce as many flowers or vegetables as they could.

What does “poor” soil quality look like?

Naturally, my next question was, “So how do I know if my soil is bad?” Dawson explained that there are several factors to consider, including the appearance of the soil, how well it absorbs water and whether there are insects present.

“Light brown rather than dark and black soil is often devoid of microbial diversity,” she explains. “There should be a variety of different microorganisms in your soil. If you dig up a spoon, you should see worms, insects and beetles – all beneficial insects that help aerate and nourish the soil by keeping its microbiome prosperous.” She also noted that the soil should absorb and hold water easily and the plants should be dark in color with long, spreading root systems.

If you’re still not sure if your soil is healthy, there are testing services that will give you a more concrete answer. “You can always send a sample of your soil to test,” Dawson says. “Most state universities provide excellent and affordable soil testing services through cooperative extension service.”

What’s wrong with soil pH?

There is also the matter of soil pH, a measure of its degree of acidity or alkalinity. “Soil pH ranges from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral – more than 7 is alkaline and less than 7 is acidic,” Dawson explains. “Most plants and beneficial microorganisms prefer a pH between 6 and 7.5.” Soil pH affects plants’ ability to absorb nutrients, and while your plants won’t die if the soil pH is a bit low, they may not grow as big or produce as many flowers. Soil testing services will tell you the pH of your soil, but there are also soil pH test kits and soil pH meters that you can use at home.

If you find that your soil’s pH is outside the optimal range, there are various additives you can use to get it back on track, but be warned: this is not a one-time job. “If you want to adjust pH organically, it has to be done over time — it won’t be an overnight solution,” says Dawson. “Mulch, coffee grounds, and compost are all great ways to make your soil more acidic over time. Adding a dilution of baking soda and/or crushed eggshells are two natural and gentle ways to make soil more alkaline over time.” There are also commercial additives that will adjust the pH of the soil – garden lime will raise the pH, making it more alkaline, while a soil acidifier will lower the pH.

How to improve the quality of the soil in your garden

If you’ve determined that your soil could use a little TLC, organic matter, meaning some kind of decaying plant and/or animal matter, will be your best friend. The OSU Extension Service explains that the organic matter will help improve soil structure, water retention and pore space, while adding essential nutrients that plants need to thrive. The most common types of organic materials used in gardening are compost, animal manure, and mulch, but you can also use things like leaves and grass clippings from your garden.

To incorporate organic matter into your garden beds, you’ll want to start by digging up the soil with a shovel or cultivator, turning the soil over and breaking up any large clumps to relieve any compaction. You can then add an inch or two of organic material, whether it’s aged manure or compost, and mix it into the top layer of soil using your garden tool. Ideally, this should be done on an annual basis, usually in the fall, as this will give the organic matter time to break down during the off season. However, you can also do this in the spring a few weeks before planting – bagged compost is best for this application, as it is already decomposed. For more details on this process, OSU has a comprehensive guide to improving garden soil with organic matter.

If it’s too expensive or labor intensive to modify your existing soil, another option is to build raised beds, which you can then fill in with better growing material. “If you want to buy additional soil, focus on organic produce,” says Dawson. “Look for products aimed at professional growers, as the quality will be higher, and always look for soil that has a compost mix in it.”