One expert shares the dirt on what you need to know about, well, dirt.

If you have ever watched something you planted in a seemingly perfect location wither and die, you may be questioning whether or not your soil is the problem. And with good reason: Your soil makeup can make or break the health and wellbeing of your plants. Here, Harriet McCarthy, the volunteer coordinator at Historic Bethabara's Medicinal Garden, explains what you need to know about your soil before you start planting this season.

Woman planting in soil
Credit: Getty / Guido Mieth

How to Identify Your Soil Type

There are six specific soil types: clay, sandy, silty, peaty, chalky, and loamy; loamy earth, a mix of sand, silt, and clay, is categorically considered the best for planting. According to McCarthy, the easiest way to identify your garden's own is through a simple test via a group like the Cornell Cooperative Extension. "The average person needs to determine the soil's pH, how porous [or] water retentive it is, and how friable (loose versus compacted) it may be," she says. Once you have those values, you'll know what type of soil you're working with—and if anything needs to be added to it to make it more productive.

How to Optimize Your Soil

According to McCarthy, the best type of soil for growing most plants is reasonably friable, moisture retentive, but well-draining dirt that contains plenty of organic matter. "Most of us don't have that ideal when we start out, but that's what we all strive for," she explains. You can achieve those qualities by adding mulch; pad the top layer of your garden beds with two inches of mulch every year, she notes. "Over time, that mulch will break down and add much-needed organic matter to your soil." Of course, if you are starting out with less than desirable conditions, you can always add a soil conditioner to your dirt to help it along.

Supplementing Your Soil

If you are planting varieties that require a high content of organic matter in the soil, but yours is lacking in that department, you can supplement it with homemade or bagged compost before adding mulch. Or if you have the space, plant a cover crop (crimson clover is a common choice) to bare rows in fall and mow it just after it begins to flower in spring. "The roots will add both organic material and nitrogen, and make it easier to work when planting," she says.

Working with plants that require excellent drainage? Pre-treat your soil with a conditioner ahead of time; these products aid this process. And if you need to make your soil more acidic, introduce sulfur before planting—and then go in with acidified fertilizer at the appropriate times, notes McCarthy. "If your plants have more basic soil needs, add a layer of lime before planting and then supplement again at a later date if your soil test indicates you need additional base elements."


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