preparing the soil

at 8:51 pm

Why Should You Prepare Your Soil?

1.  To replace depleted and deficient nutrients

One of my gardens has been here for 80 years with minimal replenishment of soil nutrients.  It won’t grow sickum.  It has been planted so many times that all the nutrients have been used.  When I want something to grow, I have to replace all the depleted nutrients so that they are available in the soil to feed the plants.

Old gardens in general are nutrient deficient unless someone has been replacing nutrients regularly.  However, don’t assume since you are starting a new garden plot that has never been used for such purpose, that it isn’t depleted as well.

Ask your gardening neighbors what kind of soil you have if you don’t know.

2.  To get rid of weeds

It may seem obvious that you want to get rid of your weeds before you plant, but what is less obvious to new gardeners is that just because you pull-up or till-under your weeds, doesn’t mean you got rid of them.

Some farmers “till-under” their weeds, wait for the weed seeds to sprout (a couple weeks) and then “till” them again.  This will eliminate those opportunistic weed seeds from coming up after you’ve got your plants in.  If you only till once, you will likely have more of a weed problem than if you till twice or more.

3.  To incorporate organic matter

Gardens love organic matter.  Once you have planted, you can’t go back and add organic matter to the root zone of your plants where it will be most beneficial.

4.  To provide a seed-bed for better germination and plant growing conditions

Seed-to-soil contact is often overlooked.  This is unfortunate since it is one of the most crucial aspects of seed germination.  seed-to-soil contact refers to the amount of soil particles contacting your seed after it has been planted.  (Think of it this way:  the seed needs to know it’s in the dirt and it does that by feeling the dirt particles around it.)

Clumpy, cloddy, or coarse soil will have a much lower germination rate than well prepared soft, fine soil.

Well-prepared soil also allows the roots to grow more freely.  (There is a reason plants won’t grow in cement.)

Additionally, soil preparation is essential for the correct absorption/ evaporation of water.


How Should You Prepare Your Soil?

1.  Choosing amendments

There are two ways to choose your soil amendments.  One is the “shot-gun” approach of buying a couple bags of this and a couple bags of that (peat moss, manure, fertilizer, whatever) and dumping it on.  With this approach, you may correct some of your issues, but you don’t know which ones, or why, or how. And you still have issues you don’t know about.  This is the preferred method of 90% of all gardeners.  (I’m guilty too.)

The second way is to get a soil sample done first, which will identify your deficiencies and most likely give you a more accurate direction of repair.

2.  Soil sampling/testing

You could do your own soil sampling.  However, lay equipment isn’t always accurate and professional samples will identify many more nutrients than a smaller home-owner test.

We personally use professional soil sampling.  In the long run, we feel this is cheaper, and more accurate.  This way we aren’t adding nutrients that aren’t deficient and thus causing an excess.

If you are brand new to gardening, by all means don’t be afraid of the shot-gun approach.

If you’ve been gardening a while, I would highly consider having a professional soil sample taken.  This is as easy as getting one or two zip-lock bags of dirt and calling someone.  Your local County Extension Office can help you out.

3.  Adding amendments

If you are using the shot-gun approach, you want a tiller, and a shovel or spade.  Ask your gardening neighbors for suggestions and sources.  (For example, a farmer might be willing to give you some of his old straw from the previous year.)

If you’ve chosen to have soil sampling done, the company assisting you should provide recommendations in addition to your results.  They will also be able to guide you to suppliers (including organic suppliers).

Once you get your nutrients, till them in at a concentration they will tell you.

4.  Tilling

You will want to loosen up your ground and soften the dirt with a tiller.  If you are new, tilling in one direction will leave areas missed (even if you can’t see them).  You will want to go back again in a perpendicular direction for your second pass.  Each time you pass through, you will be able to go deeper.  You want to do at least two passes.

If you are adding soil amendments, you won’t want to put them on until just before your final tilling pass.  (You will also want to make sure you spread your amendments out evenly.)

*A note:  make sure you aren’t tilling when your plot is too wet or your soil will clump.  Also make sure not to do it when it’s too dry or you will just turn it into a dust patch.*


Soil is incredibly complicated.  Don’t get overwhelmed by it.  If you’ve never gardened before you may just want to stick with tilling a few times.  You don’t want to put money into soil samples and amendments and then decide you hate gardening.

Also, it is possible to have a garden that you aren’t putting amendments in.  I have had gardens in some of the places I’ve lived where I was able to rotate the crops, and just let the rain maintain them.  They still gave me produce–but not nearly as much as they would have if I’d pampered them.

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