Q: How do you start putting in a garden if your soil poor and is really bad?
A: Whether you have rocks, sand, or heavy clay…or dust or dirt without any substance to it…no matter how you describe it, if your soil is poor for gardening, you’ll have to be clever and work around it.
But the good news is, there are ways to do this!
Sometimes you can improve the soil that’s there.
If it’s beyond an easy fix, you can plant in raised beds you’ve filled with good soil.
Or you can just make lasagne!
First take a look at what you’ve got. If you grab a handful of damp soil and squeeze it, what happens?
If it holds together loosely, you may have a foundation to build on. You can amend the soil with compost and manure and see what you have in another year or two.
On the other hand, if the soil either slips through your fingers like dust or forms a very firm clay ball, raised beds or lasagna gardening are probably better use of your time and money.
Then look for worms—yes, worms! When you dig around in the soil, do you see any worms?
Worms in the soil are an indicator of quality, so fewer worms in the soil can indicate a lack of nutrients. On the flipside, if you see many worms in your soil, you probably have high quality soil. (Check prices on WORMS here)
How much patience or time to wait do you have? Time and hard work spent creating a garden space will eventually pay off. It will usually take about 2-3 years of amending before you can turn poor soil into healthy fertile soil.
If you want good garden results this year or next, you can start growing some plants in a raised bed or containers while building soil in a larger area for a future garden.
A little about the three main ways to deal with poor soil:
Soil amendment: This takes a few years and can include adding compost and manure to the soil. Planting cover crops and later tilling them into the soil as “green manure” incorporates substance and nutrients. Other materials to till in: dry leaves, weed-free plant material, seed-free kitchen vegetable/fruit scraps, used livestock bedding. They will eventually “compost in place.”
Some other materials to add in small amounts are sawdust/wood chips (will pull nitrogen out of soil if used too much), evergreen needles (will add acid), wood ashes (will add alkalinity and other minerals), and bone meal for calcium.
You can make your own calcium ash supplement by burning leftover meat bones after you’ve boiled them to stock. The resulting ash is a very available source of calcium and other minerals for your plants
Rural Living Today readers Fin and Sue told us that they built soil where they had a lot of rocks and sand. They used a combination of chicken tractors, composting, and lots of labor. Now, a few years later, their soil is very good for gardening!
Lasagne gardening/sheet composting: This involves layering various materials on top of the ground and allowing them to compost in place. Lasagne beds do not require tilling; usually turning the soil is sufficient between crops.
A lasagne bed should be created right where you want your garden to be, as the layers will become the garden itself. Each layer should be wetted down well before adding the next layer of material.
A good first layer is corrugated cardboard, which acts as a weed barrier. Lay it right down on dirt, sod, gravel, whatever. Hose it down, then pile on the fillings.
Stack layers one to two feet high of any of the following materials: manure, compost, food scraps, dead leaves, wood chips–anything that will decompose. Whenever you have more material, spread it on top and wet it down. Before long you’ll have a rich bed of great growing soil.
You can get materials from lots of sources. Place an ad in Craigslist or Freecycle for clean yard debris–many people will drop it off instead of paying for removal. Also ask farms and horse stables if you can take a load of free manure (if you have a truck available). You may be able to get wood chip mulch from arborists or wire maintenance crews trimming trees on a city street.
In the fall, we like to drive around in the truck and snag bags of leaves off the curbside that have been set outside for trash – easy composting materials! To help speed things along, we “inoculates” lasagne garden beds with a healthy dose of composting worms. They will multiply quickly and the compost they create within the beds themselves is of the highest quality available. You can buy redworms online or you can sometimes find them in old leaf piles.
Raised beds and containers: This is the simplest in some ways, though it requires containment or shaping of beds. It involves bringing good soil in from somewhere else.
The simplest raised bed is good soil mounded on top of poor soil. Wood or rock frames can be used for edging, or you can just rake tumbling soil back into the mound as needed.
Raised beds constructed of wood, concrete blocks, straw bales, or other materials can be anywhere from a few inches to a few feet tall. The height depends on the root depth of your plants as well as your physical comfort while gardening.
Marie loves gardening in the waist-high raised bed Jim built from lumber and corrugated metal roofing. She can lean across to the center from either side without straining her back. We can pack a lot of intensively planted veggies in the 4’ x 40’ bed. To minimize the soil need we filled the bed with tree branches in Hugelkultur fashion and capped them with topsoil. As the branches decompose and the soil settles we’ll just top the bed off with our farm compost each year.
At our farm we use all these methods. We have a large garden patch in an area where we amended already-good soil with manure and green compost just for good measure. A lasagne bed was layered in another area. We use some low raised beds for overwintered garlic and strawberries and our tall raised bed for kitchen veggies.
Bethany adds: Make sure you mulch. When I was younger and learning about gardening I did not understand why I kept hearing about mulch. But now that I am more experienced, I will not garden without it. I use dead fall leaves, wood chips, spent straw, or pretty much whatever I can get my hands on.
Spread the mulch in a thick layer (a few inches) around your plants and in your beds. This will not only help retain water but it will really help attract beneficial insects and worms. When I build a new garden bed, I usually use the lasagne layering technique but I always make sure the top layer is a thick blanket of mulch for this reason. Sometimes mulching can be the difference between sunbaked hard & compacted soil, and damp, loose & rich soil.
Once you have soil of a good substance and composition, it’s wise to have the soil tested for nutrient levels. We use the soils lab at University of Massachusetts. We just take soil samples, mix them together, and mail a little plastic bag of soil to the lab. The prices are reasonable and the results are emailed in a nice format with organic and non-organic recommendations for specific crop groups.
If you prefer to stay local for soil testing, check with your local university extension office or ag consultant to find a lab in your area. Soils labs are very busy in the spring, but fall is also a good time for testing.