HOW TO AMEND SOIL
At a glance, dirt is dirt. You plant it in it, things grow, and there’s not much to be said on the topic. Soil is actually a complicated ecosystem that includes a balance of organic material, minerals, living organisms, water, and gases, to make a balanced cocktail of what our plants need to live. While it sounds complicated, soil has been maintaining itself for millions of years already and hardly needs any micromanaging from you. However, there are some easy ways to nudge it in the right direction to suit your growing needs.
A couple of changes early in the spring season before you start growing are all you need to have happy, healthy plants.
WHAT IS SOIL AMENDING?
Soil amending is simply adding things to your soil to bring it closer to the ideal conditions for your plants. That could mean making it drain better, giving it more nutrients, getting more structure, or even modifying the pH. All of this can be done by mixing in parts that have the qualities you need so that the soil is more properly balanced.
HOW DO YOU AMEND SOIL?
If you have to amend your soil, it’s no reason to panic. We have tons of materials to choose from to get the perfect soil. This is ideal to do in the spring before you start planting so that everything is ready for your plants to set their roots into without any hassles or extra work. It’s a bit of a garden-prep chore, but the resulting healthy plants are worth the work in the long run. You won’t need any fancy tools - some shovels and rakes are enough to mix everything in.
Ideal soil is loamy, full of nutrients, a mostly neutral pH, and has good drainage and structure. If yours doesn’t, that’s ok, because these are the tricks to diagnose and fix your soil. The difference a good foundation makes is remarkable, and you’ll have better-looking plants with less time spent fussing over them. Here’s what your garden might actually need and how to navigate the many products available out there:
HOW TO AMEND SOIL WITH TOO MUCH CLAY
Soil that is too heavy with clay can be a problem for your plants simply because it doesn’t drain very well. By holding on to water it can stifle the roots of your plant as they look for access to air, nutrients, and other things they need to grow. Too much stagnant water at the roots can even lead to root rot, but almost always stunts the growth and vibrancy of your plants. If you grab a fist of your soil and squeeze, and it sticks together in a tight ball when you let go, you’ve likely got a garden with lots of clay.
To improve drainage, you can mix in some builder’s sand or gypsum before planting, mixed up with coarse organic material like some shredded bark. This will break up the soil and let the air into your roots. Wait for your garden to be on the dry side before you start to mix things around, though, as things can get mucky and sticky when it’s wet.
HOW TO AMEND SANDY SOIL
Sandy soil has the opposite problem than clay - it drains far too quickly so your plants don’t have any moisture reserves at all in the soil around them. You might find yourself following an exhausting watering schedule just to keep up, and still get plants that are wilted, stunted and unable to stand up to hot, sunny days. If you take a fistful of your garden soil and squeeze, and it crumbles apart when you let go, you likely have sandy soil.
Grab some compost or manure to add to your garden for better water and nutrition retention at the roots. Mix it in at least four inches deep to get it to where it needs to be. Once you’ve mixed in the soil, consider using a mulch as a top layer to help lock moisture in at the roots. There are lots of choices of materials from inorganic to organic, and you can even choose them to suit the style of your landscape and home. This protective layer provides shade from the sun and helps the water stay close to the roots instead of evaporating. The results are hydrated plants and a less hectic watering schedule. As an added bonus, mulch does a good job of preventing weeds.
HOW TO TEST pH
The pH of your soil says a lot and is a condition that many of your favorite blooms might be sensitive to. Try to grow in something too acidic or alkaline, and you might end up with lackluster and pale plants despite efforts to boost their performance. It’s all about the foundation from the soil and roots up.
The simple way to test your soil’s pH is to buy a testing kit. They don’t all work the same and many are more or less intense than others, but most require digging a hole a few inches down, removing debris, and filling the hole with distilled water. Make sure to use distilled, as your tap water could skew the results. You can buy distilled at most grocery stores if you don’t have it at home.
Once the hole is full of water and murky looking, use the test probe and stick it into the hole. You can generally expect a reading in less than 2 minutes. A neutral pH reading is 7, while anything higher is alkaline, and lower is acidic. The further from 7 the number is, the more intensely acidic or alkaline it is. Your goal for perfect soil is something that is between a 6 and 7, as that’s the pH balance that most plants are happiest in. If your number is off of that range, you might need to fix it a bit.
FIXING ACIDIC SOIL
The most common fix for acidic soil is adding lime - that’s ground up limestone, not the fruit. Start off by adding 7 pounds of limestone for every 100 sq feet. If your soil is sandier, you might only need 5 pounds of lime, while clay-heavy soils might need closer to 8 pounds. Till the soil before and after adding the product, mixing the soil up to make sure the lime is spread out evenly. Test the soil pH afterward and see if you need to add more.
HOW TO AMEND ALKALINE SOIL
Too much natural lime in your soil already? Mixing some fertilizer and compost in is the perfect natural way to add nutrients while lowering the pH to a better level for your plants. Mix it in generously and work the soil deeply to make sure you’ve really incorporated the new mix. The results won’t be as immediate and testable as when you add lime to acidic soil, but the active bacteria and organisms in your compost will slowly bring down the pH as they work. You can also water the garden with some half-and-half water and old coffee for some more acidity.
If you have a seriously alkaline problem, some elemental sulfur is a good natural choice for fixing. The bacteria in your soil will get to work on the sulfur and release tiny amounts of sulfuric acid to lower the pH over a few months.
No matter what your soil type at home, there’s a solution for whipping it into shape - unless you’re one of those lucky homeowners with naturally perfect soil. Amending is a really simple process that helps your garden fill in the gaps of what your plants need to succeed the most. With a tiny bit of work up front, you’ll notice a dramatic payoff in your garden year after year.