Even if your back yard is full of sandy, clay or otherwise miserable soil, you can convert it into rich, healthy soil. While you can purchase specialty products to help you do this, you can use a variety of natural materials and creative methods to do it yourself — virtually free.
The key is to make sure there’s lots of organic matter (dried leaves, compost and nutrient-rich materials) in your soil. There are lots of cheap and easy ways to get great garden soil, including:
- Work organic matter into your soil. Turn up a foot or so of your soil before planting season and then add in a whole lot of fabulous organic matter. Dried leaves are perfect for this (ones that have already started breaking down from a previous season are best), as is compost. These will instantly improve your soil drainage and help bring some nutrients into your depleted soil. As the garden season progresses, use natural mulches around plants. At the end of the season, turn up the soil and work the mulches in, too.
- Build some raised beds. If your soil is really lousy and you’re not up for heavy work, these are a great solution. Use scrap lumber (make sure it’s untreated), cement blocks or other affordable materials and build rectangular boxes. Sides should be at least two feet high, and the beds should be small enough so that you can reach any section inside from somewhere around the outside. Fill with a mixture of any untreated organic matter you can find — grass clippings, compost, dried leaves, hay, yard scraps, you name it, and top off with a fair amount of soil (purchased or scavenged from out of the way parts of the yard). If you have access to rabbit pellets or chicken manure, stir those in as well.
- Do lasagna gardening. Here, you’re doing a similar procedure right on top of your garden. Not only is this cheaper than building raised beds, but you can do it on areas like grass and save yourself a lot of digging. Lay down cardboard boxes (to kill off the grass) and then layer natural materials like grass clippings, yard waste, dried leaves and compost. Alternate green and brown layers. If you set up your lasagna garden in the fall, it will be ready to plant in come spring. You can also plant in it right away in the spring or summer if you top it off with a few inches of soil. See the resources at the end of this article for more information on lasagna gardening.
- Be creative and generous with your mulch. When it comes to mulch, the more the better. Not only does it keep moisture in the soil, but it prevents weeds and slowly nourishes your soil. Aim for a wide variety of materials to get the healthiest balance. Coffee grounds, untreated wood chips, grass clippings, hay, rhubarb leaves and even weeds (before they go to seed) are frequent mulches in our garden. Add more and alternate throughout the season for a lazy way of doing the lasagna garden principle. See the resources at the end of this article for more information on great sources of mulch.
- Plant cover crops and “green manure.” These easy, inexpensive crops are sown between growing seasons and provide a host of benefits for your soil, from fixing nitrogen in the soil to contributing organic matter to breaking up compacted soil and more. See the resources at the end of this article for more information on cover crops.
- Bury your scraps. This is a fun and easy way kids can help the garden. We keep a garden trowel in the back yard and our kids bury their banana peels, apple cores and other compostable scraps right in the garden. They often pick a favorite rose to “feed” with their banana peels, being careful not to dig too close to the rose and its roots. These scraps take a long time to break down, but they do slowly nourish the soil and also teach kids about healthy soil.
- Remember that working in organic matter helps no matter what type of soil problems you have. Whether your soil is clay, sand or silt, natural materials will improve drainage, reduce compaction and add nutrients.
- Aim for a mix of green and brown for mulches and amendments. Brown materials (such as dried leaves) initially use nitrogen in breaking down, while green ones (such as weeds and grass clippings) supply it. Coffee grounds are an exception and count as “greens,” incidentally.
- Compost is your friend. Get in the habit of composting everything from veggie scraps to houseplant clippings to shredded paper to weeds. For a quick, great liquid fertilizer, scoop some compost into a five gallon bucket and fill with water. Let it steep for a day or two in the sun and then pour the “tea” onto your garden plants.
- Avoid artificial fertilizers and specialty additives. It’s easy to burn plants and throw off pH levels with these quick-fix solutions (even natural ones, like blood meal). In the long run, you’re much better off creating truly healthy, nutrient rich soil.
- Plant easy plants. When you’re struggling to nourish your soil, this isn’t the time to experiment with delicate plants or varieties that have very specific nutrient or pH needs. For the time being, plant fruits and vegetables that have a reputation for being fuss-free.
Want more information on improving your soil? Here are some great sites with lots of info.
- Lasagna Gardening
- Cover Crops: Green Manure
- 12 Great sources of natural mulch for your vegetable gardens
- Green Manure Cover Crops For Minnesota