Amending Garden Soil

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Amending Garden Soil

I'm sharing this story to bring to light some myths about garden soil.

Living on a farm in the middle of the country does not necessarily give you an upper hand. This also means living in the city does not necessarily put you at a disadvantage. All soil is definitely not created equal but don't let preconceived ideas about the geography of your garden stop you from experimenting with the soil you have and hoping for some successes!

I had my first real encounter with gardening about 17 years ago. To that point, my experience consisted of a handful of summers I was able to convince my mom to allow me to pick out a few small potted flowers to plant in our yard. Beyond putting them in the ground and giving them a douse of water with the hose, the attention they received quickly waned to non-existence.

But 17 years ago, something sparked a fire under me. That something was marriage. My husband worked long hours, not arriving home until around 7:30 PM. Needing to establish my reputation as a capable partner in this relationship (earning my way to his heart through his stomach wasn't panning out so well,) I took his request to tend to the tomato plants daily very seriously. This was no small task. He comes from a long line of relatives with extensive gardening knowledge and skills to back it up.

At the time, we lived in an extremely small house and our garden was simply a strip of soil my husband hand dug along the West side of it, right up against the foundation. We planted, fertilized with an all-purpose chemical fertilizer and I watered daily. We've lived in 3 houses since that time, currently in one on a farm, and we've never had tomato plants as healthy or as productive with so little work as the years we gardened in that little strip of soil next to our first house.

I'm sharing this story to bring to light some myths about garden soil. Living on a farm in the middle of the country does not necessarily give you an upper hand. This also means living in the city does not necessarily put you at a disadvantage. All soil is definitely not created equal but don't let preconceived ideas about the geography of your garden stop you from experimenting with the soil you have and hoping for some successes!

There are many schools of thought on how to prepare your soil for gardening. There are those who rely on synthetic chemicals to make up for what their soil lacks. While not always wildly popular with the eco-friendly goals of many, it's a fast, easy, and inexpensive way for a beginning small-scale gardener to test the waters and see if they truly enjoy gardening. Or rather, to see how truly enjoyable gardening is!

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are people for whom garden soil is something of an art form. We have a friend who has spent a pretty penny creating the perfect soil for his raised beds, adding unusual amendments such as parboiled rice hulls. We've been eye-witnesses to tomato plants that required a 8 foot ladder for harvesting tomatoes the size of small cantaloupe. While dedication to this degree is not necessary for a good harvest, some people derive the most enjoyment from the challenge of growing the biggest and best.

Our personal gardening goals are simply a good, steady harvest and quality produce grown in the most economical way possible. Our first few years gardening on the farm we now live on quickly squashed all the wrong ideas I had of dropping plants and seeds in holes in country dirt and sitting in a lawn chair with a cold drink to watch everything flourish.

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This is what the soil in our garden looks like without any human intervention. While the soil doesn't look particularly bad and we had fair harvests, we experienced a whole new world of problems. Soil-borne diseases and an abundance of weeds growing in firmly compacted soil (evidenced by the dark areas along the edges of the hole I dug here) took all the joy out of gardening. Within 2 years, my husband realized raised beds were necessary if we were to continue.

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We believe in using what is available to you first and adding to it whatever is missing to make it complete. Since we raise cattle, cow manure is plentiful so the soil for the first raised beds we made contains a base of composted cow manure.

Since that time, my mother-in-law has taken up raising rabbits. Rabbit manure is a highly-prized soil additive, possibly the most desirable of manures, so we've found ourselves with the key to a bottomless treasure chest! This year, instead of using cow manure, we filled our new beds with rabbit manure (seen in the above photo) that has been composting for 6-9 months and followed the same process we did with our first beds of cow manure.

amending garden soil

We added to the rabbit manure a bale of Sphagmum Peat Moss. Peat Moss is somewhat of an anomaly in that its porosity makes it water retentive while simultaneously providing good drainage.

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While most people are amending their soil, we're amending manure. Normally we would add in some of our garden soil but I've explained we had problems with soil-borne diseases. So instead of garden soil, we added several bags of inexpensive potting soil. We've learned to be selective with inexpensive potting soil. Many of them are very poor quality which, when watered and then dried, rival solid rock. By observing spills around the bags in the home improvement store, we could see this brand had a nice mixture of compost, sand, and perlite, which also helps to aerate the soil.

The final step was to mix everything together. The Fiskars Compost/Mulch Fork, with it's D-handle design and spread tines made this much easier than using a shovel.

Although the rabbit manure had been composting 6-9 months, it was not broken down as much as I would like. Because it will not burn plants, rabbit manure does not need to be composted before being added to garden soil. However, with the large quantity we've used in this bed, even after being amended the aeration is not yet what it needs to be. We will probably let it sit at least until late summer before planting in it.

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And, like the beds we started 2 years ago, the soil will soon look like this.

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I think even an inexperienced gardener can tell which is the preferable soil.

If you're thinking you're not fortunate to have access to inexpensive organic material, do a little searching before you give up. Check the classified section of your local newspaper for people selling rabbit meat or beef. Chances are they will either welcome someone coming to haul away manure or will sell it inexpensively. I've seen listings on Craigslist for free rabbit manure! Help is also available through your local USDA Service Center and Outreach and Extension Offices through University Agricultural programs.

Just remember, there are many ways to achieve successful results in gardening. Experiment with what is available until you find a soil solution that works for you!