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How to Build Healthy Vegetable Garden Soil

Vegetable garden success—growing healthy plants and reaping a good yield—is closely tied to the health of your vegetable garden’s soil. Here are a few tips to build healthy vegetable garden soil.

#1 Establish permanent narrow planting beds and permanent walkways so you never walk on or step into planting beds. Small, permanent beds are ideal for growing vegetables. A bed 3 or 4 feet (1-1.2m) across and 6 to 8 feet (1.8-2.4) long is a manageable size. Don’t make planting beds too wide; you want to be able to reach into the center of a small bed without stepping on the soil. Permanent beds will not need to be re-worked season after season—simply add aged compost and manure to the bed each year to renew soil nutrients.

#2 To start a new garden, remove whatever is growing there—usually lawn or weeds. Be sure to remove not only the top growth but roots as well. Do not turn lawn or weeds into the soil. Many types of grass and weeds are spread by creeping roots; don’t leave roots in the soil. Never allow weeds or grasses to flower; weed and grass seeds can lay dormant in garden beds for years before sprouting to compete with vegetables.

#3 Dig or till the soil when it is just moist—not too dry or too wet. The best soil is almost cake-like in texture—a combination of solids and small air spaces. Digging or tilling when the soil is too wet or too dry can damage soil texture making it difficult for plants to thrive.

Preparing the soil with a garden fork
Preparing the soil with a garden fork

#4 Turn the soil lightly; a half to full shovel turn of the soil is more than enough. Avoid rototilling the soil unless you have to. Beneficial micro-organisms and worms live in the soil and enrich the soil; do your best to not disturb them.

#5 Test soil texture and moisture by squeezing a handful of soil in your hand; if the soil forms a tight ball or you can squeeze water out of it, it is too wet. (Wait a few days before working the soil.) If the soil will not form a ball, it is too dry. (Soak the planting beds with water and you will be able to prepare the bed the next day.) If the soil forms a ball that crumbles apart when you just tap it, it is just right and ready to work.

#6 Use a spading fork to turn the top 4 to 6 inches (10-15cm) of a new planting bed and to break up clods into small pieces not larger than ½-inch across. Remove stone and rocks from vegetable beds. The first time preparing a new planting bed, use a spading fork to loosen the soil to about 6 inches (15cm) deep; thrust or drive the fork into the soil as deep as you can and rock it back and forth every few inches.

#7 Test the soil and adjust the soil’s pH if necessary. A soil test will tell you the soil’s pH (how acid or alkaline it is) and if it lacks any nutrients.

Aged compost
Aged compost or commercial organic planting mix are the best soil amendments.

#8 Add organic amendments and nutrients if your soil test calls for it. You will find a variety of organic fertilizers at a nearby garden center. A balanced organic fertilizer such as 5-5-5 is usually a safe choice. You will also find lime and sulfur to adjust the soil’s pH. Be careful when applying fertilizer, lime, or sulfur to your garden. Don’t add what your garden does not need; too much fertilizer can be as bad as not enough.

#9 Add 1 to 2 inches(2.5-5cm)of organic matter (aged compost or chopped leaves) to the planting bed once the soil has been loosened. Organic matter releases nutrients to the soil as it breaks down. You can also add a balanced organic fertilizer to the soil if your soil test calls for it. (Commercialorganic fertilizers have a label with a series of three numbers such as 5-5-5. These three numbers refer to the percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in the package; if the amounts are roughly equal the fertilizer is called balanced.) Always follow label instructions when applying a commercial fertilizer.

#10 Once aged compost, organic fertilizers, or other soil amendments have been added to the planting bed, turn the soil to 6 inches (15cm) deep and rake the soil level; break up soil clumps and remove any remaining stones.

#11 Use organic, natural herbicides and organic pest and disease controls.

Related articles of interest:

Your Vegetable Garden Soil

Improving Garden Soil with Organic Amendments

How to Improve Clay Soil

Plant Nutrients

Vegetable Plant Nutrients: Sources and Deficiencies

Making Compost for Your Vegetable Garden

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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