In order to have a lush green lawn, a beautiful flower garden, or a productive vegetable garden, you need to have good soil, and sadly, it is getting harder and harder to find good soil. If the topsoil in your yard hasn't been stripped by developers, it may have been neglected or abused by previous residents, or it may just never have been that good to begin with.
Though they are generally not harmful, like chemical herbicides and pesticides, chemical fertilizers are at best a short term solution for a long term problem. The best way to improve the soil's structure and fertility is by amending it with organic materials. Though the results may not be immediate, you will be rewarded with both a healthier, happier garden and the knowledge that you have done a little good for the earth.
Be a Sloppy Raker
Instead of raking up every single grass clipping or fallen leaf from your lawn, leave a few scattered across the ground. Too many can smother your lawn, but small quantities spread out across the whole area will decompose and enrich the soil, leaving your lawn looking better and healthier and saving you a little work at the same time.This is also known as grasscycling.
Learn More About Organic Lawn Care
Core aerating your lawn is a great way to loosen compacted soils and improve water absorption and drainage. You can use a commercial service or a rental machine. Lawn aerator shoes are not recommended because the small size of the spikes can actually compact the soil further.
Learn More About Helping Bees
Don't Kill That Clover
Although many people view them as weeds, white and red clovers are actually a beneficial kind of plant called a legume. Plants need nitrogen to promote healthy growth, but only legumes are capable of capturing nitrogen from the air and converting it into a usable form for other plants. The clovers are quite literally fertilizing your lawn for free.
Clover is also one of the most popular foods for bees, who also contribute to the health of your garden by pollinating your plants. Bees are currently in a bit of trouble due a mysterious problem call Colony Collapse Disorder, and they can use every bit of help they can get. If you are allergic to bees, however, you can still get the nitrogen-fixing benefits of clover without worrying about stings by keeping the clover mown regularly, so it doesn't flower.
Other legumes to grow in your garden include beans, peas, and lupin flowers.
Legumes are not the only plants that improve the soil. For example, if you have heavy clay soil, your garden may benefit from a class of plants known as dynamic accumulators.
Different plants have different nutritional requirements, so it's a good idea to rotate plantings from year to year in your vegetable garden to give the soil a chance to regain its most depleted nutrients. It's an especially good practice to alternate legumes through each of your garden beds.
It is also a good idea to periodically leave your beds fallow for a year, heavily mulched to add organic matter and prevent erosion and weed takeovers.
Learn More About Mulch
- Mulching | Backyard Conservation
Mulching enriches and protects soil, helping provide a better growing environment.
Mulching is one of the most important ways to maintain healthy landscape plants.
- Tree Mulching
Improper mulching kills trees.
Mulch is a great way to add organic material to the soil, prevent erosion, reduce weeding chores, and conserve water. Mulch is a also a good way to cover ground attractively in shady areas under trees and shrubs, where grass grows poorly.
Spread mulch to a depth of 2-4 inches, depending on the type of mulch, on most beds. Do not pile cones of mulch around the base of trees or shrubs. This can cause rot and other health problems for the plant. Leave the area around the base of plants bare or thinly mulched (less than one inch.) The best materials for mulch include wood chips, shredded bark, leaf mold, pine needles, and composted manure. A good mulch for vegetable gardens is straw, which can be dug under after harvest to decompose during the winter and add organic matter to the soil. Fresh manure, grass cuttings, or leaves should not be used as mulch because they can burn plants during the process of decomposition.
You can also "mulch" with plants. Some ground covers provide similar benefits to mulch, and cover crops such as winter rye are a common way to prevent erosion overwinter. In spring, the cover crop can be dug under, adding organic material to the soil. Some cover crops are also legumes.
Do not "mulch" with rocks, pebbles, bricks, pavement, cobblestones, or other heavy materials, which compact the soil and provide no organic material.
Learn More About Raised Beds and Deep Soil
The best way to prepare a garden bed is a method called double digging. This basically means that you turn the soil over to a depth of two spades, rather than one. This improves the soil's aeration and drainage, especially when you combine it with the raised bed method of bed preparation. While you're turning the soil and breaking up large clumps, add compost, leaf mold, rotted manure, or other organic matter to enrich the soil.
Unless you have a very large area to turn, Rototilling is not recommended because it pulverizes the soil excessively and may actually increase compaction.
Another soil-healthy way of preparing beds for vegetables, flowers, and other plants is no-till gardening.
Don't Throw Away Those Autumn Leaves
Instead of throwing away the leaves you've raked off your lawn, spread them as mulch over your garden beds. Overwinter, it will protect exposed soil from eroding and help prevent weeds from getting a foothold in early spring, before you're ready to plant. When planting time comes around, transfer the decomposing leaves to a compost heap, use them as mulch on garden paths or under trees, or dig them into your garden bed to enrich the soil there.
One small caveat - be careful not to use black walnut leaves in this way, as they will poison the soil for most other plants.
Learn more About Chicken Tractors
Try a Chicken Tractor
If you live in an area where poultry is allowed, consider using chickens in your garden. Chickens will turn the soil and fertilize it with their droppings. They also eat insect pests and tender young weed seedlings, but be careful! They're aren't picky and will also eat beneficial insects and tender young vegetable seedlings. You can prevent them from doing damage to desirable plants by confining them in lightweight, movable pens.
Movable pens provide many of the advantages of a free range lifestyle while also protecting the chickens from predators such as hawks and stray dogs. Many pens are designed to have a sheltered area for protection during bad weather and a place to lay eggs.
Learn More About Composting
The single best thing you can do to improve your soil is to compost. Composting is easy and even kind of fun. You can do it fast and high tech if you want, with compost tumblers that can convert yard and kitchen wastes to good dirt in a few weeks, or you can do it the lazy way like me, by piling everything together, turning it occasionally, and letting nature do its thing for the next year or two. Composting, when done properly, doesn't smell, and it produces cleanest, fluffiest, most beautiful dirt you've ever seen. Dig it into your garden and the results will be remarkable.
Compost, called humus in its finished form, aerates clay soils and improves moisture retention in sandy ones. It improves soil structure and fertility for all soils.
The best compost materials include horse, cow, sheep, goat, and poultry manure, fallen leaves (preferably shredded, and again, avoid black walnut leaves), grass clippings, pulled weeds, vegetable peelings, egg shells, and leftover food scraps. Meat and fish scraps should not be composted. Most weeds seeds will be killed by the heat of decomposition, but you may wish to throw away any particularly noxious or invasive weeds that have gone to seed, just in case.
You can also purchase compost in many cities, in quantities ranging from a single bag to a dump truck full. (For several years running, my father has bought my mother dump trucks full of compost for her birthday. Not even six acres' worth of yard wastes can keep up with the demand of six acres' worth of soil in need of amending.)
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Learn More About Improving Soil Naturally
- Improving Soil
Every healthy, productive yard and garden starts with healthy, productive soil.
- How To Build Healthy Soil
A good gardener grows soil.
- Sustainable Soil Management
Though intended for farmers, this article also provides much useful information for gardeners
- How to Improve Heavy Clay Soil Naturally
Heavy clay soil is a nightmare for many gardeners and homeowners thanks to its poor drainage and tendency to compact.
- Dynamic Accumulators for Better Soil
Gardeners can reduce or eliminate fertilizer costs and improve soil naturally with a category of plant known as "dynamic accumulators."
Ben Zoltak from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on November 11, 2012:
I eat most of the weeds that grow in my garden lol... Great article, I've been raking most of my leaves onto the periferi of my property. We just bought a house this summer and the whole 1/2 acre is heavily impacted. So far the two black walnut trees leaves haven't affected my small garden beds, but I will continue to avoid. I do worry some that the oak leaves I've mulched around the giant oak in our yard could do it harm? I hope not, it's most heavily impacted around that tree, and my push mower won't shred so well, so I'm hoping a few good turns over the fall and spring will help.
Chris on March 14, 2012:
I love using compost method!
Tariro chigwende on October 12, 2011:
billy bon on September 12, 2011:
this is a good site to learn more about the soils
Multiman on March 12, 2011:
JJK on March 12, 2011:
This is really helpful thankyou
Worms Etc on January 24, 2011:
Nice, I think everyone should have a pen full of chickens aka "chicken tractor." They sure do turn the grass green behind them. I myself am a worm farmer and think worm compost to be one of the best compost and soil amendments available, but maybe I am biased :-P
Kabuati on January 04, 2011:
thanks a lot for the article it really help me with some ideas on how to improve atoll soil
kgnature from North Carolina on September 10, 2010:
Great Hub! Thanks.
Blake Stiteler from cypress, Tx on April 24, 2010:
awesome dude!! thnks for all the tips :D
kerryg (author) from USA on March 28, 2008:
Thank you for the insightful comment, Sally's Trove! I often leave the leaves whole overwinter so they can help smother early weeds before planting time (which is well into May in my state, long after dandelions and crabgrass and the like are already doing their thing), but I agree: if you want them to decompose faster, shred them!
Sherri from Southeastern Pennsylvania on March 28, 2008:
Excellent hub, full of good advice. Especially that warning about the black walnut leaves.
I'd like to add that fallen leaves contain valuable mineral nutrients brought up from the soil by the tree's roots, nutrients that are not present in surface-rooted plants. But there's a disadvantage to using whole fallen leaves as mulch or as an addition to the compost pile. Whole fallen leaves take much longer to break down than other vegetation, so before you pile them up as winter mulch or add them to the compost pile, shred them in order to avoid clumps and mats that can suffocate plants in the ground and inhibit proper decomposition in the compost pile. A lawnmower with a bagger is a good tool for shredding leaves. Just set the blades high and run the mower over the leaf-strewn lawn.
One other thought. If you use wood mulch, keep it at least 30 feet away from your house and your car. "Artillery" or "shotgun" fungus breeds in wood mulch and shoots black spores that will permanently stain anything they hit.
Thanks for all the good and inspiring info!
C.S.Alexis from NW Indiana on March 26, 2008:
kerryg, this hub is full of good info that is practical and smart gardening. Good job!
Eileen Hughes from Northam Western Australia on March 25, 2008:
Great hub, everyone should read this to improve their lawn and garden. I composte too. I wrote an article on Holiday proofing your garden you may want to read that https://hubpages.com/living/Pre-Holiday-proof-gard
Zsuzsy Bee from Ontario/Canada on March 25, 2008:
Kerry! I'm a firm believer in composting and organic gardening. Great hub