Dig down in your backyard a few inches and take a good look at your garden soil. Is it dark brown and crumbly or heavy reddish clay? Rocky or slightly sandy? There are so many different types of soil across regions, climates, and even different parts of your property. And there are many more distinctions within soil we can’t see: PH levels, vitamins and nutrients, beneficial microbes, and possibly pests, blights, and even dangerous contaminants. Before you plant, start your soil preparation—and Pinetree Garden Seeds can show you how.
Preparing Soil For Planting
Different types of soil can make your garden yield bumper crops or turn into a total bust. So how can you make sure you have perfectly balanced garden soil for the crops you hope to grow? Pinetree Garden Seeds has provided premium organic, heirloom, and non-GMO garden seeds in affordable, people-sized portions for over 40 years and we want every seed we sell to get the best possible start. Our soil preparation guide for home gardeners can help you set the stage for a spectacular gardening season!
Request a soil test
Your seedlings will dig down deep into your soil to draw up the moisture and nutrients they need to grow. You need to know what they’ll find. If they can’t access the nourishment they need, your crops will underperform. And if they find hidden contaminants, your crops may not be safe to eat. The biological and chemical composition of your vegetable garden soil is critical to your gardening success and it isn’t something you can see without a little help.
Pinetree Garden Seeds stocks helpful, easy-to-understand home soil test kits capable of showing you the chemical composition of your soil at a glance using a color-coded system. We also sell electronic soil testers that can evaluate your soil for a wide variety of crops.
For the ultimate soil evaluation, however, you may want to consider reaching out to your local agricultural extension or co-op. For a small fee, these labs are capable of testing vegetable garden soil not just for nutrients but for dangerous elements like arsenic or lead. If you live in an urban area or own an older home, there is a real risk that petroleum products, lead paint chips, or toxic heavy metals may have been introduced into your backyard soil over time. It is well worth making sure that the crops you grow are safe for your family to eat!
Balance your soil’s PH
Think back to your high school chemistry class. Remember discussing how acid, neutral, or alkaline (basic) organic materials can be? The relative acidity of your backyard soil is known scientifically as your soil’s PH value, and plants have strong preferences for different PH levels. When our customers ask how to prepare your soil for a vegetable garden, we always recommend testing and adjusting soil PH as needed before planting.
The best soil mixture for a vegetable garden will have a PH balance between 6.0 and 7.0 but you should always check the PH preferences of your crops before you plant to be sure you are providing the PH level they like best.
For instance, azaleas, blueberries, hydrangea, peppers, potatoes, radishes, rhubarb will grow better in soil that is more acidic—between 4.5 and 5.5. Asparagus, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cucumbers, ferns, hosta, ivy, and peonies thrive in soil that is more alkaline—6.5 to 7.5.
So how can you adjust your vegetable garden soil’s PH level before planting your seeds? First, know that it is very difficult to isolate areas of your garden as “acidic” or “alkaline” if plantings are close together. Root systems reach further than you might think! And if plants are already growing, proceed with caution—it’s easy to “burn” plants with sudden swings in soil PH levels.
To Make Soil More Acidic
- Carefully mix in iron sulfate, a quick-acting agent that can be easy to overdo. Adding sulfur is another way to get more acidic soil while peat moss naturally increases soil’s acidity over about two years. Avoid using aluminum sulfate in your backyard! Aluminum can leach into water supplies and is very toxic, especially for children. If you crave acid-infused, bright-blue hydrangea blossoms, reach for ammonium sulfate instead.
To Make Soil More Alkaline
- The best natural soil amendments are compost, lime, or wood ash. Many of our customers are active composters or save their woodstove ash over the winter for just this reason.
No matter which soil additive you are working with, continue to check your soil’s PH levels over the next few months.
Understand your soil’s structure
Vegetable garden soil should offer stability and flexibility. Tender seedlings need to be able to push up through the soil and new roots need to find their way deeper into the soil. Water needs to filter through soil slowly enough for plants to absorb it but quickly enough to keep mold and blight at bay. So what kind of soil do you have?
If your soil feels like clay, it will hold moisture well but will also have a tendency to become hard and compact when dry. Add organic matter like compost to help create airflow through the soil. If your soil feels sandy, water will move through it easily—but can also flush out nutrients as it goes. Keep it moist! Keep it well fed! And if your soil feels silty, it will retain vitamins and minerals but resist water flow. Add compost to keep it loose! If your soil crumbles at the touch and feels like loam, you’re lucky—this is the soil type most plants prefer.
Break the Soil Up!
Loose, aerated soil allows your plants to easily access water and oxygen. If you have hard, compacted soil, use a spade or other tool to turn and break up the soil to about 12” down before planting.
Give the Soil a Boost!
At Pinetree Garden Seeds, we recommend using all-natural and organic soil amendments whenever possible. Remember, whatever you feed your plants ends up in your food. Different vegetables need different diets, but most vegetable garden soil will appreciate organic compost or seaweed-based fertilizers.
Dangerous soil? Use raised garden beds instead.
Not all soils are safe for planting and finding contaminants in backyard soil is more common than you might think, particularly around older homes. Fruits and vegetables draw everything up from the soil, including impurities, making your crops unsafe to eat. If your soil test revealed elevated lead levels, don’t give up.
Elevate your game! You can still have a backyard garden by building raised garden beds. Raised garden beds are a fantastic DIY home gardening project and there are wonderful tutorials all over the web that can show you how.
Raised garden beds have all sorts of benefits. Raised bed soil can warm faster, drain better, and resist pathway weeds, while raised beds provide a barrier than can deter common pests like slugs and snails. Raised vegetable garden soil can be 100% organic and mixed to your exact specifications. You can also designate a bed as acidic or alkaline and customize growing conditions for your crops.
At the Pinetree Garden Seeds headquarters in rural Maine, we are starting to see some of the signs of spring. Is it time to prep your soil for a vegetable garden? Share your favorite tricks and techniques for pre-planting preparation in the comments below.