Have you ever thought about the importance of maintaining healthy soil in your garden? This often gets overlooked, and then people wonder why their harvest is unimpressive. The truth is, a successful garden starts first and foremost with the soil, and the condition of your soil will determine the overall condition of your garden! We are going to talk about how to prepare soil for planting vegetables so that you can be sure to have a successful garden this season!
What is Healthy Soil?
Now, you may be wondering, what does “healthy soil” or “unhealthy soil” even mean? Especially in Colorado, our soil is not often conducive to gardening as it is. The soil in Colorado is often very high in clay content, making it very dense, not well-draining, and not good for growing crops successfully. While there is nothing toxic about our soil as it is, it is not healthy in terms of what your typical garden fruits and vegetables require to grow strong and healthy.
In contrast, healthy soil is soil that is rich in organic matter, minerals, and nutrients. This helps keep your soil loose rather than becoming dense and compacted, enabling it to retain moisture but also drain freely. Soil that is not overly dense and compact also allows the roots of your plants to grow deeper and stronger, as they are not fighting to penetrate impenetrable ground. Loose and fluffy soil also allows air to reach the roots of your plants, encouraging strong and vigorous growth. Healthy soil is often also referred to as “living soil,” as it should be full of living organisms such as earthworms, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, insects, and other living and active components.
How to Know if Your Soil is Healthy
There are plenty of ways to know if your soil is healthy or not. One way to determine the state of your soil is simply by examining it. So, grab a shovel, head out to your garden, and get ready to dig around a bit!
The first thing to observe is the texture of your soil. When you dig into the ground, is it light and fluffy? If your soil is thick, sludgy, or clay-heavy, your soil will need some work before you begin planting. If you aren’t sure how to tell if your soil is clay-heavy just by observing it, grab some of the dirt in your hands and try to form a ball. If you can do this successfully, your soil is high in clay content. You may also begin to notice a layer of heavy, sticky dirt begin to build up on the bottom of your shoes as you walk around. This is also a sign of high clay content.
The next thing you want to observe is the activity of your soil. When you dig past the surface, do you notice any earthworms or other insects in the soil? Healthy soil will naturally attract lots of these beneficial insects to your garden. Now it is likely that there will be earthworms in even some of the worst soil, so focus on the number of them. If you only see one or two squirming away from where you dug into the ground, this is not enough activity. You want the soil in your garden to be teeming with life below the surface!
Lastly, notice the way your garden bed reacts to water. If you spray down a section of the ground and the water just pools on top and takes some time to soak in, it is likely not as healthy as you will need it to be. Also, if you dig into unhealthy ground after watering, it will likely appear muddy and gross. Healthy soil will soak up water immediately and will still appear light and fluffy even after moisture has been introduced.
This method is a bit more intensive, but it is sure to give you a detailed description of your soil as well as a clear idea of what you need to do to improve it. This involves getting your soil tested! There are a few ways to do this. You can come into Bath Garden Center and pick up a free soil test kit to drop off at Colorado State University for testing (call or come into the Garden Center if you have questions or want to learn more!). You can also pick up a Rapitest Soil Test Kit! Such soil tests will give you insight on the pH of your soil, which minerals and nutrients are present, and the like! Some of the most important elements include nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, though magnesium, calcium, and sulfur are also very important to the health of your garden.
How to Improve the Health of Your Soil
Replace Clay-Heavy Soil
In extreme situations where your garden beds consist entirely of clay, it may be easier and more effective in the long run to remove a layer of the clay soil down to a foot or two and replace this layer of dirt with good topsoil. This new topsoil will give you a good starting point to be able to begin introducing organic matter, a population of beneficial worms and insects, and other essential nutrients. Evaluate your situation and perhaps consult with one of our professionals to see if this is the course of action you should take. While it is a rather extreme approach, it may save you even more work later down the road, not to mention sparing you the added frustration of having to deal with the results of mediocre soil.
Introduce Organic Matter
This is perhaps the most important part of improving your soil’s health. Simply planting crops in mediocre soil and hoping that fertilizer will do the trick is not a good idea. This is only a Band-Aid on an infected wound. It may help initially, but doesn’t address the real issue. Adding fertilizers will help replenish certain nutrients, but it does nothing to help maintain good and healthy soil. Organic matter, however, introduces nutrients into the soil, attracts necessary life such as earthworms, helps keep your soil from becoming compacted, allowing air to penetrate deep into the soil, improves your soils ability to retain the right amount of water, and also helps your soil drain freely so that any excess water doesn’t begin to pool, which can encourage rot and disease. Organic matter can include any composted kitchen scraps such as unused pieces of vegetables, eggshells, or coffee grounds. It can also include grass clippings, fallen leaves, and chicken or sheep manure. It is best to amend your soil in the spring before you begin planting as well as in the fall once your garden is finished for the season. This will ensure your garden is prepared for planting in the current and upcoming seasons. Compost can be purchased at your local garden center, or it is also so easy to create yourself and can also help cut down on your waste! If you want to learn more about how to create your own compost, check out this blog!
Use Organic Fertilizers
Now that your soil is rich in organic materials, using organic fertilizer is a great way to supplement any lacking nutrients to make sure your crops grow strong and healthy. At Bath Garden Center, we recommend using organic fertilizers because they are better for the environment and also healthier for you. Synthetic fertilizers can have a number of adverse effects that can be completely avoided when you choose organic! Learn about other highly recommended organic soil amendments today!
Plant Cover Crops
Planting cover crops is a great way to help maintain the integrity of your soil throughout the off-season. Much of your soil can erode throughout the winter, and exposure to the elements can deplete nutrients quicker than you realize. Cover crops are planted at the end of a season and they often cover the surface of your soil, preventing it from being blown or washed away by rain, snow, or wind throughout the cold season. Cover crops also add nutrients to the soil. Come spring, you simply have to till the cover crop into the ground and your garden is ready for planting! Learn more about planting cover crops!
Preparing Soil for Vegetable Gardening
This has been just a brief overview of how to prepare soil for planting vegetables. If you have any questions on preparing soil for vegetable gardening, please let us know! Gardening is our passion, and we are here to help you become successful in all of your planting endeavors!
Sawyer, Anne & Weisenhorn, Julie. "Living soil, healthy garden." University of Minnesota Extension. Date accessed: 12 February 2022. Web. 2018. Retrieved from:
Vinje, E. "Preparing Garden Soil." Planet Natural Research Center. Date accessed: 12 February 2022. Web. 2013. Retrieved from: https://www.planetnatural.com/garden-soil/