Healthy soil is the first step to healthy, productive plants. Preparing your beds before planting can make all the difference in the success of your garden. Whether you’re starting a spring, summer, or fall garden, follow the steps in this blog post to help ensure healthy plants and bountiful harvests.
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5 Steps to Prepare Your Soil For Planting
1. Examine existing beds
Take a look at your garden beds and do a quick visual evaluation. Ask yourself the following questions:
- If you’re gardening in a raised bed, does it require repair?
- Is the watering system working? Do I need to fix any leaks? What is the coverage like? Does the bed receive enough water? Are the plants getting enough moisture?
If you need to make adjustments or changes to your raised beds or watering system, these posts may be helpful:
2. Evaluate the soil
Now take a closer look at the soil in your beds. Here are a few key considerations:
- Has the soil level dropped significantly? Should I top off my beds with new raised bed mix, or will a layer of compost be enough? Generally, raised bed mix contains ingredients like vermiculite, coconut coir, or peat moss that take longer to break down. After several seasons, however, those ingredients may need replacing as well. Soil should be loose and friable. If the texture is changing, you may need additional raised bed mix.
- Are there any issues I need to address with the soil from last season (weeds, garden diseases, or major pest infestations)?
- Consider having your soil tested. A soil test can determine the health of your soil. A soil test measures nutrient deficiencies and the pH level. Testing your soil provides the necessary information on what your garden may lack. This is the soil test kit I use. It’s very simple to use. Learn more about how to test your soil in this blog post.
Read this post for more information about how to remove Bermuda grass without chemicals.
3. Prepare your soil for planting by adding compost
As the organic matter in your soil breaks down, the soil level will drop. Filling your beds all the way up takes advantage of all the space in your raised beds, giving your plants access to more soil, nutrients, and water. Top off the soil in your beds with compost regularly. A common gardening mistake is not filling your beds up all the way with soil.
Adding compost to your garden soil at the beginning of each season has many benefits:
- Enhances soil structure: Compost can improve the texture of your soil, making it easier for plant roots to spread. It helps sandy soils retain water and nutrients and loosens clay soils to improve drainage.
- Increases nutrient content: Compost is rich in essential plant nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. It also contains micronutrients such as manganese, copper, iron, and zinc.
- Supports beneficial organisms: Compost teems with beneficial microorganisms that help break down organic material, making nutrients more available to plants.
- Suppresses diseases and pests: Some studies suggest that compost can help suppress certain plant diseases and pests, reducing the need for chemical pesticides.
- Helps retain moisture: Compost can increase the water-holding capacity of your soil, reducing the need for frequent watering.
How do I add compost to my raised beds?
You don’t need to till or even dig the compost into the soil to get the benefits of compost. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. Instead, spread the compost on top of the soil and let nature do the work. The worms will pull it into the soil, and the microbes in the compost will release nutrients that will soak into the soil. Add at least one inch (2.54 cm) of compost if possible.
If you have a thick layer of mulch, as I do, pull back the mulch first and then add a layer of compost to the top of the soil. If the mulch has mostly broken down, it’s ok to add the compost right on top of the mulch.
Which type of compost should I use?
The best compost is what you make yourself. The second best is from a locally-made source you can trust. I like the compost from Arizona Worm Farm. If locally sourced isn’t an option, bagged compost also works.
If you purchase bagged compost, try to buy several different brands so your garden gets a nice blend.
If you are just getting started gardening and wondering which soil to fill your raised beds with, this post explains the mix I like to use.
4. Prepare your soil for planting by adding worm castings
Worm castings are one of the best natural fertilizers. Organic worm castings provide healthy bacteria that enrich the soil and encourage plant growth. The easiest and most economical way to ensure a steady supply of worm castings for your garden beds is to add worms to your beds and have in-bed vermicomposting bins.
If you don’t have in-bed vermicomposting bins in your raised bed, add worm castings to each garden bed each season.
What is the best amount of worm castings to add when preparing my beds for planting?
Apply 1 pound castings per 40 square feet of bed for existing raised garden beds. In new soils, aim for 5% worm castings.
Apply worm castings by hand on top of the soil and then water in.
Learn more about in-bed vermicomposting in this blogpost.
5. Add needed amendments to prepare your soil for planting
Based on the results of your soil test, follow the recommendations and add any or all of the following to your soil before planting to prepare the soil.
Biochar is made by burning organic material in a low-oxygen environment. It can be used to improve the texture, water retention, and nutrient availability of your soil. Biochar has been shown to help plants grow healthier and stronger for longer periods of time.
When incorporated into the soil, biochar acts like a sponge and holds onto essential nutrients until they are needed by the plant. Biochar may increase alkalinity in soils.
Watering and growing plants year after year depletes essential minerals and micro-nutrients from soils. Adding Azomite can improve soils depleted of these important minerals and micro-nutrients.
Gypsum is a naturally-occurring source of calcium sulfate which helps bind organic matter to clay in the soil. Gypsum is beneficial for breaking up clay and compacted soil.
Blood meal acts quickly in the garden to fix nitrogen deficiency. One application can feed plants for several weeks. Be careful when applying nitrogen to young plants, as too much can burn them. I like to add some to the soil before planting. Be sure to follow label instructions for proper amounts.
Bone meal adds phosphorus and calcium to the soil. Plants need phosphorus for healthy root development and flower growth. The nitrogen and calcium it contains are also beneficial to plants. If used in the correct amount, there is little risk of burning plants because bone meal is taken up by plants slowly over time.
Your garden soil needs a variety of nutrients to thrive. Taking the time at the beginning of each season to add compost, worm castings, and the needed amendments to your soil will improve not only your soil but your harvests too!
Learn other ways to become a self-sufficient gardener in this article.
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