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From the ground up — The soil can make all the difference in healthy, thriving plants

by Janet B. Carson | January 16, 2021 at 1:45 a.m.
Compost and other soil amendments can be mixed into a raised bed before planting. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)

Gardeners can get pretty excited when choosing flowers or vegetables for their gardens, but to have success with growing, you need a strong foundation — and that is the soil.

Healthy soil leads to healthy and happy plants. It all starts from the ground up.

Soils vary tremendously from state to state and even from neighborhood to neighborhood. Some places have deep, rich native soils, while others have poorly drained clay soils, and others are a haven of rocks. Some soils are very acidic while others can be very alkaline.

Knowing what your yard contains to begin with is the starting point in knowing how to improve it. You should start with a soil test.

To take a soil sample, try to get a "core" of soil, a good trowel-full, roughly 6 inches deep from several areas in the garden. Mix the cores together and take one pint to your county office of the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service (uaex.edu). Within a few weeks, you will get a computer analysis back, giving you a lot of information about your soil.

Soils are a combination of different size mineral particles of clay, silt and sand, plus organic matter and living organisms.

Soils that are heavy in clay tend to hold too much water and are often poorly drained. Soils too heavy in sand don't retain enough moisture, as water and nutrients can move through them too rapidly.

Soil and other amendments come by the bag or truckload; solo gardeners could find bags easier to handle. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)
Soil and other amendments come by the bag or truckload; solo gardeners could find bags easier to handle. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)

HUMUS BRINGS LIFE

For years, gardeners were advised to get a load of sandy loam to garden in, but many found they were incorporating weeds along with the sandy loam. Today, many gardeners are opting for a load of compost or other organic-rich material to add into their native soil, to amend it.

Organic matter is any material that once was alive and has decomposed into humus. Shredded leaves, grass clippings, plant debris and manure are all forms of organic material that can be composted down into a useful form of organic matter.

Organic matter improves the soil by reducing compaction, opening the soil up to better nutrient and water retention and encouraging living organisms to set up house.

It is always a happy day when you are turning the soil and you see earthworms — a great indication of a healthy soil. But there are many organisms that live in soil and help to break down organic material, including healthy bacteria, protozoa, fungi and beneficial insects. In and of itself, organic matter is not fertilizer, but it enriches the soil and makes a healthier environment for the plant, allowing for better root growth, which in turn allows for better top-growth.

Check how water drains from a site before planting. Here a clogged drain floods a nearby bed. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)
Check how water drains from a site before planting. Here a clogged drain floods a nearby bed. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)

BUILD THE BED

Consider where you are growing your plants. Are you doing in-ground planting, raised beds or containers?

Raised beds and containers allow you to control the soil type much more easily, and drainage is rarely a problem, provided you make sure your drainage holes are open and draining well.

Foundation gardens and in-ground flower and vegetable beds require more care. Check the soil drainage. Dig a hole roughly the depth your plants will be growing in, then fill the hole with water until the water is standing. See how long it takes to drain. A well-drained soil should lose an inch of water per hour. If you still see water standing in the bottom of the hole the next day, you have drainage problems which need to be resolved.

Heavy clay soils will drain poorly. Amending with compost or organic matter can help to lighten the load.

Some gardeners think that sand will solve the problem, but sand and clay can equal concrete — not a good idea.

Raising the height of the beds or berming up the soil where you are planting can also improve soil drainage. But know where the water is coming from. Water has to go somewhere, so know the water patterns of your yard.

If your garden soil has a lot of rocks in it, try cleaning out as many as possible. Gardeners with rocky soils know that the rocks seemingly multiply every season, but do the best you can. Once you have removed the debris, mix in your soil amendments.

Composting organic material creates a soil amendment called humus. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)
Composting organic material creates a soil amendment called humus. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)

SHOVEL IN THE SOIL

There are a lot of soil options out there. Most bagged "garden soil" or potting soil mixes are often soil-less, they are comprised of organic matter, peat moss, ground up bark and perlite.

Never use soil from the yard in containers or raised beds. Not only is weight a limiting factor, but you can transmit weed seeds and pathogens along with the soil. On the flip side, bagged "potting" soil is not ideal for in-ground plantings. It is lightweight and typically more expensive than compost or garden soil.

You can buy bagged compost and bagged garden soil, or you can order it by the truckload. I have found that bags are more manageable for me than hauling loads of soil around the yard. I can get help placing bags where I need them, and using them as I need them, but I think age and ability will come into play here.

Check with your local municipality. Many counties are composting yard waste and will offer it free or at a deeply discounted rate to their citizens.

Some nurseries also offer their own mixed soil, and others have a "super" soil mix they get from local composting facilities.

Before hauling in too much of any soil mix or amendment that you haven't used before, get a little bit and work with it. Some products seem better than others. Once you find what works for your garden, you can continue to buy more and build your soil up. You could also start your own compost bins and grow your own amendments.

These raised beds at the C.A. Vines Arkansas 4H Center include irrigation systems as well as amended native soil. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)
These raised beds at the C.A. Vines Arkansas 4H Center include irrigation systems as well as amended native soil. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)

KEEP AT IT

Amending your garden soil is not a one-time fix, unless you are building landscape beds for trees and shrubs. Anywhere that you are planting on an annual basis will need some amending each season. Humus does break down over time, and plants are using minerals and nutrients from the soil each season.

In containers, you don't have to dump out all the old soil and replace it with fresh each season, but you do need to freshen it and add some new organic matter. The only time I recommend restarting container planting from scratch is in containers that held diseased plants. You don't want to start a new garden season with potentially infested soil.

You will notice the soil level in your raised beds and containers tends to go down each year — again, the humus is breaking down, and you do lose some soil as you are cleaning out old plants each season. Adding some fresh compost or organic matter and working it in with your existing soil is ideal.

When you take care of your soil, you are taking care of your plants. With a little care each year, the soil can continually be improved, and it can sustain plant growth for a long time.

For large gardens, composting bins for different stages of decomposition make sense. This setup binds allowed Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church's community garden at Avilla in Saline County to make helpful amendments to native soil.  (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)
For large gardens, composting bins for different stages of decomposition make sense. This setup binds allowed Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church's community garden at Avilla in Saline County to make helpful amendments to native soil. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)

Read Janet Carson's blog at arkansasonline.com/planitjanet.

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