What Should I Put in My Garden Soil?


In "The Vegetable Gardener's Bible," Edward C. Smith quotes folk wisdom: "A poor gardener grows weeds, a good gardener grows vegetables, and a very good gardener grows soil." He explains that improving garden soil is an investment, and that soil is more than dirt. It is nutrients, organic matter and living creatures including worms, beetles, bacteria and fungi. Plants need a range of nutrients from rich soil with a continuous supply of organic matter to grow well.

Organic Matter

  • Organic matter in the soil supports microorganisms, worms, bugs and other creatures that live in and under the soil. The best organic matter is compost, also called garden gold or black gold. Compost consists of certain decomposed and decomposing materials. Items used to make compost include farm animal manures, coffee grounds, eggshells, fruit and vegetable peels and rinds, dead flowers and leaves, hay and straw, and lawn and hedge clippings. Organic matter needs time to decompose. When it is complete, it is a rich, black material ready to add to garden soil.


  • Mulch is chopped or shredded matter put on top of the soil keeping sun off and retaining moisture in the surface of the soil. At the end of the growing season, mulch tilled into the soil to break down in the winter improves the organic matter content and builds up the soil. Materials used for mulch include chopped straw or hay, shredded leaves, twigs, bark and tree matter, and shredded newspaper or cardboard.

Nutrients and Minerals

  • Soil testing reveals levels of acidity, alkalinity and nutrients in your garden soil. Limestone and wood ash improve acidic soils, increasing the alkalinity. Sulfur and sulfate improve alkaline soils by increasing the acidity. Increase low nitrogen for healthy leaf growth by adding blood meal or fish emulsion, or a garden fertilizer with a high nitrogen content. Other nutrients and minerals plants need include phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, zinc, boron and chlorine.

Green Manure

  • Green manure is the planting a fast-growing cover crop and then plowing or tilling it into the soil. Crops, such as clover, vetch, cowpeas, soybeans and alfalfa, are planted in early spring or early fall to add organic matter and nutrients like nitrogen. Green manure fertilizes and builds up the soil, adding bulk and releasing necessary plant nutrients. Green manure crops are also used as living mulch, interplanted with an annual or perennial crop.

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  • "The Vegetable Gardener's Bible"; Edward C. Smith; 2009
  • "Composting for Dummies"; Cathy Cromwell and The National Gardening Association; 2010
  • "Organic Gardener's Composting"; Steve Solomon; 2010
  • "Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web"; Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis; 2010
  • Photo Credit Hemera Technologies/Photos.com/Getty Images
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