How to Prepare Soil for Planting Your Vegetable Garden

Before you start growing your crops, it is important to learn how to prepare soil for planting in your vegetable garden.

Soil plays an important role in growing vegetables because that’s where the crops will grow. Thus, the soil needs to be well-suited for whatever vegetable you plan to grow.

Just as importantly, you don’t always get to choose the kind of soil your home comes with. So what do you do then if your backyard has poor soil for growing?

In this article, I’ll discuss how to prepare soil for growing a vegetable garden so your crops will thrive.

 

Building the Soil

Now that you know all the basics, it’s time to start working on your garden’s soil. Because your plants will grow in the soil, it’s important to make the environment as hospitable as possible for your crops.

Doing so allows them to feel comfortable. And, more importantly thrive.

 

Soil Preparation

When it comes to soil, proper preparation and continuous care is key. This allows you to set up your garden for growing. And, it also lets you keep improving its quality.

Why?

Better soil equals better yields. That’s because the right kind of soil allows your plants to get everything they need to promote root growth. It also allows them to get all the essential elements they need to live, grow and stay healthy, including water, nutrients and air (oxygen).

Here’s what good soil conditions offer your plants.

  • It drains water well
  • Retains moisture
  • It is well aerated
  • It contains enough nutrients
  • It’s able to hold minerals (nutrients)

As such, it’s important to understand that soil preparation is an ongoing process. As long as you plan on growing vegetables or plants in it, you should be taking care of it.

In general, vegetable crops are annuals (short-term crops). As such, you’ll be doing some soil preparation and maintenance seasonally. Some examples of these include okra, baby corn, baby carrots, lemongrass.

In contrast, most fruiting crops are perennials. As such, you prepare soil less often. But, because of the reduced frequency, it becomes more important.

That said, some perennial vegetables are treated as annuals. These include garlic, kale, and radicchio. As such, how often your prepare soil can vary depending on what crops you grow.

 

How Can You Improve the Soil in Your Garden

In almost all cases, you’ll want to improve the quality of the soil in your garden. Doing so means you get better yields and bigger crops as well.

For the most part, improving soil comes down to 3 things.

  • Improving its texture
  • Adding to its nutrient content
  • pH levels

Of course, there are few other details along the way. And, you’ll need to do a few extra things like testing your soil and later on, digging.

So, let’s get started.

 

How to Test Your Soil

Soil testing is an important process that you need to do. That’s because it tells you:

 

The Nutrient Concentration of Your Soil

Your soil’s chemistry plays a big role in how your vegetable garden grows. Just as importantly, different crops react differently to specific nutrient deficiencies and surpluses.

More often than not, a vegetable will quickly tell you that something’s not right.

Tomatoes for example will develop a kind of rot when there’s too much calcium. Also, too much nitrogen will cause fruiting vegetables to grow more leaves than fruits.

 

Your Soil’s pH Level

When it comes to plant nutrition or nutrients, you also always need to monitor your soil’s pH level. You learned about soil pH above.

But, it’s worth repeating its importance here because it affects how your plants can absorb nutrients in your garden’s soil.

That means if your soil’s pH is in:

  • The right range. Your plants can absorb (and use) the nutrients present in the soil (along with those from fertilizer).
  • Too high or too low. Even if your soil is rich in all nutrients, your plants won’t be able to take up some of the minerals. This leaves them at risk of deficiencies.

It’s also worth noting that too low of a pH can cause some nutrients to become toxic to your plants.

That said, some plants like highly acidic soil while others prefer a more alkaline environment. As such, there is no right or wrong pH level. Instead, the goal is to match your soil’s pH to the pH level your plants like.

That will allow them to grow optimally.

 

Soil Testing & How to Take a Soil Sample

The only way to know what’s in your soil and whether it’s a good match for your plants is to test it. Here, you have a few options.

  • Buy a soil test kit and test it yourself. These kits are simple to use. And, they’re inexpensive as well. You can pick them up at your local garden center. Then, follow the instructions and test your soil. That said, they’re somewhat limited in that they give you only some basic information about the nutrients in your soil and it’s pH level. As such, it’s a good option for beginners or if you just need to get an idea of what your soil has.
  • Get a sample and send it to a lab for testing. This is something you can do if you’re more serious about your growing your vegetable garden. It takes more time and needs more precise soil samples. Of course, it costs more as well. But, labs offer a more complete and complex analysis. The results will show you the nutrient composition in your soil so you know what fertilizer to use and how much. It will also tell you other problems that are specific to your soil and your area. And, offer recommendations on how to remedy them while giving you the type and amount of fertilizer you should use.

Of course, you can always do both anytime. With test kits you’ll be doing everything at home. So, timing is flexible.

With lab testing, you’ll want to check when they’re least busy. That way, you can quickly get your results. I’ve found that fall is usually a better time for this. Plus, it’s the perfect time to add amendments since it takes a bit of a while before the changes take shape. Since winter will cause a lull in gardening, it’s a good opportunity to do so.

 

How to Take a Soil Sample for Testing

if you plan on doing either the soil testing methods, it’s always a good idea to know what you need. For soil test kits, do read the instructions carefully. And, ask the manufacturer if you have any other questions or need clarifications.

With lab testing, get in touch with a few labs near you and start researching. Ask for prices, the process and how long it will take. Also, ask them how you should take the samples. They’ll be happy to give you the details.

While the exact steps may differ, here’s a brief overview of how to take a soil sample for testing. This way, you have a good idea of what to do.

 

Step 1: Have the right tools on hand
  • Something to dig with. You’ll need something to dig with like a trowel, spade or shovel. If you have them, a soil probe or auger is actually better for this purpose. Make sure your tools are clean.
  • You’ll likewise need cups to place the soil that you’ve dug
  • Plastic bag or Pail. This is where you’ll combine the samples

 

Step 2: Put soil in the cups

This is where you collect the soil.

Dig up the top 4-6 inches of the soil and put them into cups.

You’ll be repeating this for anywhere from 6-15 different locations depending on how big your garden is and how many different sections is has. Make sure that you’re collecting soil of the same depth.

 

Step 3: Combine all the soil

Combine all the soil you’ve collected into the pail and mix.

Depending on how much you’ll need to test or send, you’ll be able to put that in a bag or take it out from the pail.

Some people recommend breaking up the soil, although I’ve found that you don’t need to do it. If you’re sending it to a lab, ask them.

 

Here’s a simple chart showing the water holding capacity of different kinds of soil. It shows you how much moisture each soil absorbs and the capacity they can hold.

chart that shows soil water holding capacity per type of soil
chart that shows soil water holding capacity per type of soil

 

How Do You Adjust Soil pH?

pH can vary from 0 to 14. But, most garden soils have pH that’s between 5.0 and 8.0. Although, some are a little more extreme than that range.

Above, we’ve discussed why soil pH is important. And, you also know that you can test your soil for its pH easily with a home soil test kit.

The big question now is, what do you do with your results?

In all likelihood, you’ll end up with 3 different scenarios. And, here’s what you should do for each.

  • You’re good to go! No need to do adjust your soil’s pH. This is if your soil has a pH 6.0 to 7.0. Some gardeners will likewise widen the range up to 5.5 to 7.5 since that works as well. Either is a good pH range since more plants do well around this level.
  • Acidic soil. If your soil pH is less than 6, it’s too acidic. So, you’ll want to reduce its acidity. This can be done by adding ground limestone.
  • Alkaline soil. If your soil’s pH is over 7.5, then you’ll want to reduce its alkalinity. You can do so by adding soil sulfur.

Both ground limestone and soil sulfur are available in your garden center. Since many gardeners use it to amend their soil’s pH, they’re both easy to get hold of.

How to adjust soil ph chart. The list shows you how many pounds of limestone or sulfur to add to increase or decrease soil pH to 6.5

In case you prefer on having the charts separate, here’s the chart showing how much limestone you need to increase soil pH based on the kind of soil you have.

How much Limestone to add to Increase soil pH chart
How much Limestone to add to Increase soil pH chart

Meanwhile, if your soil pH is above 7.5, here’s a chart showing how much sulfur to lower soil pH based on the kind of soil you have.

Amount of Sulfur to Add to Soil to lower pH level
Amount of Sulfur to Add to Soil to lower pH level

 

Adding Organic Matter to Improve Soil Texture

Except for a very few rare instances, gardens aren’t going to come with perfect soil. As such, you might have too much heavy clay or loose sandy soil.

Here’s where organic matter comes in. Simply put, organic matter is decaying plant or animal material. While it sounds a little yucky, these items are filled with compounds that are good for your soil.

As such, gardeners use it as an amendment. That is, something you add to the soil to improve it. This is vital because you can’t dig up your entire garden or yard and replace the soil that’s in it.

So, the next best thing to do is add something, in this case, organic matter, to make it behave like ideal soil, which is loam.

Some examples of organic matter include compost, grass clippings, sawdust and animal manure.

What does organic matter do to soil?

  • It loosens soil allowing it to allow water and air to easily pass. Both of which are needed by your plants’ roots to stay healthy.
  • Improves water/moisture retention. This way, you don’t need to water as often since the soil holds the moisture long enough to allow the roots to absorb it.
  • Makes soil hold nutrients better. Just like water, soil that holds nutrients (from your fertilizer) allows the roots to absorb more of it.
  • Add beneficial microorganisms. Decomposed matter attracts microorganisms like bacteria, worms, fungi and other creatures that are good for your crops.

Make no mistake, you’ll need lots of it. This is why it’s a good idea to add some organic matter to your soil before each season.

 

Improving Your Soil’s Nutrient Content

Both your garden soil’s pH and texture are easier to fix. That’s because you can easily check the former with a home test kit. And, like it or not, adding organic matter is something you’ll be doing consistently. This way, your soil will be so much better off years from now.

The last piece of the puzzle is improving its nutrient content.

This one’s a little trickier. That’s because from above, you know that there are a lot of nutrients your plants need.

As such, it’s important to be able to break each one down and see how much of each is present in the soil.

This way, you’ll know what’s abundant and what’s lacking. From there, you’ll be able to compensate for the lower nutrients.

This is where the lab test comes in. You’ll need to send your soil samples to a lab to get a full picture of its nutrient composition. From there, they’ll make suggestions, including what kind of fertilizer and how much of it to use.

So, while it’s a little more costly, sending the samples to the lab is well worth it in the long term.

Something that may come in handy is knowing when and how much fertilizer each kind of vegetable needs. This can help you plan your vegetable garden.

Here’s a chart showing you the different kinds of vegetables and when to side dress them.

Chart on When to Side Dress Vegetables
Chart on When to Side Dress Vegetables

 

How to Start Digging the Soil

While it may look softer, it’s a good idea not to dig when the soil is wet, like after rains. I’ve had to learn that the hard way. The extra moisture makes it much heavier to move. So, unless you’re looking for a workout, wait until the ground dries a little before getting to work.

 

Digging Different Soils

Another thing worth knowing different soils have different textures and other characteristics. As such, when you dig into them, you’ll quickly realize that they feel different.

Thus, knowing how to dig and when to dig each kind of soil makes the work easier on your part. It also saves you a lot of time and work.

 

When to Dig Heavy Soils Like Clay

You’re better off digging heavy soils like clay during early winter or in the fall. That’s because frost helps break down this kind of soil such that you end up with a more workable, crumbly texture come spring.

Why?

The extreme temperature causes the water in the soil to freeze and expand. This breaks apart the soil clods to improve your soil’s structure.

 

When to Dig Light Soils Like Silt and Sand

In contrast, you don’t want weathering to mess up the structure of silt and sandy soils. As such, digging them up 7-14 days before planting during the spring is a better option.

That said, you do want to add organic matter to the soil during the fall.

Here, you may want to bring out your garden fork to complement your shovel. That’s because it’s easy to remove weeds with the fork.

 

Preparing to Dig

Because digging is quite a bit of work, you may want to plan and organize before getting started. This isn’t much of a problem with smaller plots. But, anything that’s medium-sized to large is better off done in sections.

 

How to Prepare Your Soil for Gardening: Starting the Dig

After you’ve added amendments and nutrients to your soil, it’s time to mix. Turning your soil is much like mixing all the ingredients together in a baking recipe.

It aerates the soil while allowing the newly introduced ingredients to get to the bottom. This makes them easier to access for your plants’ roots.

That said, you’ll want to do so prep work before doing this part, especially if you plan on doing it by hand.

That’s because dry soil is hard soil.

If that’s the case, then you’ll want to water it thoroughly and wait a few days.

Similarly, you don’t want soil that’s too wet. Besides being squishy and harder to walk on, it actually messes up the soil structure you worked so hard to improve.

So, in this case, somewhat moist and crumbly soil is ideal. A good way to test it is to get a chunk of it into your hand.

  • If you can’t get a chunk, then it’s too hard.
  • If you get a chunk and squeeze, then water drips from it, it’s too wet.

What you want is something in between.

 

3 Ways You Can Turn the Soil

While there are tons of ways you can prepare your soil via digging, there are 3 effective ways that are commonly used. Each way works. But, as usual, they all have their pros and cons.

So, it all depends on what kind of soil you have and what you want to do with it.

Here are the 3 methods.

  • Use a tiller/rototiller
  • Single Digging the Soil
  • Double Digging the Soil

 

Using a Rototiller/Tiller

This is the easiest way to get the job done. It’s especially efficient if you have a large plot that you want to turn.

Unlike the other two which are manual (meaning get a shovel and physically dig), this makes use of a manual or mechanical gardening tool.

rototiller is a device that comes with tines at the bottom. Tines are blades much like those in your electric fan. And, they spin. But, these are made of metal.

As they turn, the blades break up the soil and churn it. Thereby, mixing it.

These devices come in manual (where you push), electric or gas. The latter two are better for tougher soil and larger plots since they’re automatic. And, if you want to get the work done faster with less effort.

That said, you do need to buy or rent them if you don’t already have one.

When it comes to using it, you’ll be doing a few passes, going deeper each time. The initial one will be fairly shallow (just a few inches down).

As you go, you’ll notice the soil loosen up more and more. Keep going until you have about 8-12 inches in depth of soil loosened.

 

Single Digging the Soil

Single digging is another process that allows you to cultivate the soil.

But, unlike the method above, you’ll be using a shovel to turn the soil over. As you would expect, it takes more effort.

However, it’s well worth it.

That’s because unlike a rototiller, which can be harsh on the surface and the organisms that live in it, digging is more gentle.

In any case, you essentially end up with the same result. That is, you’re able to add more nutrients and amendments to the soil, create a smoother surface for your plants to grow on, and remove weeds along the way.

It also allows you to aerate the soil as well.

 

Single Digging Step by Step

Dig up a trench that’s 12-16 inches wide going down about 8-12 inches in depth

Put the soil that you just dug up into a wheelbarrow or a cart. This makes it easy to move the soil from to the opposite end of the plot.

Next, fill the trench with organic matter.

Now, dig another trench with the same dimensions right next to the one you just dug. But this time, use the soil you dig up to cover the previous trench. This “turns the soil” while adding organic material deep into it as well.

Fill the second trench with organic matter again.

Keep repeating the process until you reach the end.

When you get to the opposite end of the plot, fill the last trench with the soil in the wheelbarrow or cart after you’ve added organic matter to the trench.

 

Double Digging the Soil

Double digging is yet another process used for soil preparation. Because it’s extra work (you dig twice as deep as single digging), it’s often done with new gardens or when you need deep topsoil.

The good news is, you don’t need to do this regularly.

If you have poor soil conditions, you may need to do it every 3-5 years. Other than that, the only other time gardeners will double dig is when they have a new plot or the soil gets compacted.

Double digging improves soil aeration as well as drainage. You also add organic matter during the process.

 

Double Digging Step by Step

Dig a trench like the one you did above (8-12 inches deep).

Again, put the soil you just dug up into the wheelbarrow

Use a fork to loosen the soil in the trench. You want to go another 8-12 inches with this. Thus, you’re going twice as deep as single digging.

Add organic material into the soil in the trench. You can likewise mix it in with the loose soil.

Start digging your 2nd trench. But this time, use the soil you dug up here to fill the first trench.

Again, loosen the soil another 8-12 inches in the 2nd trench

Then add organic material

Do the same with the 3rd trench and keep repeating the process until you reach the end of the plot.

Fill the trench at the end with the soil that was dug up from the first trench after you’ve loosened the soil and added organic matter to it.

 

Not Digging

As a third option, you can go without doing anything at all.

Some gardeners don’t believe in turning your soil. They argue that it doesn’t do much good. Instead, it damages the soil’s structure, disrupts the balances of organisms and allows weed seeds to come up to the surface where they can sprout.

Of course, there’s also the extra work involved.

In short, they adhere to the saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

So, in place of digging, you add mulch. Then leave it be.

That said, not digging works. But, it does so when you already have good soil to work with.

If you don’t, it’s always worth the extra effort to improve it since it directly affects how your plants grow and yield.