Good soil makes up the foundation of every thriving garden. Whether you’re starting your very first garden or simply adding to last year’s, it’s important to assess your soil and figure out exactly what it needs before you begin planting.

Identify Your Soil

fill a bucket with the soil in your yard to get a better idea of its contents

The three most common types of soil are sand, clay, and loam. While there are myriad variations in between, most soil gnerally falls into one of these three categories. Sandy soil is unlikely to hold water. As a result, it doesn't allow a lot of plants to grow in it. Clay soil holds a lot of water and is very slow to drain. When it has dried, it tends to feel a bit like cement (i.e. difficult to dig into). Unless you plan on planting water-loving plants in this type of soil, you'll probably want to go for something else.

Most gardeners strive for loamy soil. Loam drains at just the right rate, not too fast and not too slow. It also tends to have the perfect consistency for most plants, trees, and shrubs to thrive in. Although loamy soil may need some amendments to make it totally optimal for plant growth, it's sure to provide a great foundation for your garden all on its own.

To find out what kind of soil you have, head outside with a bucket and shovel and dig down about six to ten inches. Then pick it up and play with it. Does it crumble easily? Was it hard to dig up? Did the hole fill in easily as you were digging? How much of it is made of sand (large particles), silt (medium particles), or clay (small particles)? All of these observations will give you more insight regarding the type and structure of your soil.

Look for Signs of Life

Healthy soil is often teeming with life, with worms, spiders, and other insects crawling around inside of it. After you’ve observed the consistency of your soil, look for signs of life and count them. If you count ten or more worms/other insects, chances are your soil is healthy. If you count fewer than ten, you may need to enhance your soil to make it more hospitable to subterranean life. Remember, it’s often these beneficial critters that help keep pests and diseases at bay.

The next time you’re out pulling weeds, notice how long their roots are. If they all seem long and sturdy, then your garden plants will probably be able to grow deep roots in the soil, too.>

Improve the Soil

organic compost in the soil

Sandy Soil:

Add a minimum of two inches of organic matter, such as compost, to your soil each year. This will help improve its structure so that it’s more likely to stay together. Once you’ve planted your crops, cover your soil with a layer of mulch to help it retain moisture.

Clay Soil:

Add at least three inches of organic matter to the soil every year. If you dream of a thriving vegetable garden, raised beds are definitely the way to go, as they'll create proper drainage and ensure that none of your plants get "wet feet." You should also avoid walking through the growing area, as it’ll only cause the soil to become more compacted.

Silty Soil:

Add about an inch of organic matter to replace any nutrients that may have been lost during the previous growing season.

Keep the Soil Healthy

plant cover crops to keep your soil healthy all year long

If you want to keep your soil healthy all season long, you'll want to take the time to apply mulch to your garden beds. This will regulate soil moisture and keep weeds a minimum. You should also test your soil’s pH to ensure it says within the 6.5 to 6.8 range. You can typically purchase a test kit at your local hardware store or garden shop. If you find that your soil is either too alkaline or too acidic, you may need to work a few extra amendments into your soil to bring it within the ideal fertility range.

Liquid soil conditioners can also help make your soil more workable if you don’t have a lot of compost on hand. They’re designed to mimic the nutrients found in compost and can be applied to all soil types.

If you’d like your soil to thrive even when you’re not using it, consider planting cover crops. Since soil doesn’t like to be "empty," cover crops will help keep your garden beds from being taken over by weeds when you’re not using them to grow vegetables and flowers. The best part is that cover crops also return nutrients to the soil — just till them under when you’re ready to grow the plants you actually want to grow and wait a few weeks for the greens to break down. Whatever you end up planting will have a more than a healthy dose of nutrients, as well as a solid soil structure, at its disposal. Just add a bit of compost before you plant, and your healthy soil will be ready to nourish healthy plants.