There are a few different routes you may take when planting your garden that will require different products and methods. If you choose to plant in containers, you'll need to purchase a potting soil. Potting soil is specifically formulated for container planting and has the optimal texture for the perfect balance of drainage and moisture retention. However, potting soil is not suitable for an outdoor vegetable or flower bed. Your native soil should be utilized when planting in-ground, but you'll want to get to know it before you begin.
The first thing you should do before getting started is have your soil tested. You can do this by contacting your local cooperative extension service or by purchasing a soil testing kit at your local garden center. To find your local cooperative extension service, also known as the county agent, simply follow this link:
Having your soil tested by your cooperative extension service will provide a more detailed and accurate analysis than an at-home soil test would be able to produce. Your county agent should also be able to give you advice on soil amendments that have proven helpful for other gardeners in your area. Once you have the results of your soil test, you can begin taking steps to improve your garden area and get it ready for the growing season.
The pH of your soil determines its acidity or alkalinity, which regulates the amount and type of nutrients available to your plants. Not only does pH affect the health of your plants, it also has an effect of the well-being of beneficial microorganisms and earthworms that live in the soil. Though a soil test is the only definitive way to determine the pH of your soil, it is worth noting that areas receiving frequent rainfall are more likely to have acidic soil while more arid climates tend to have alkaline soil.
The lower the pH number, the higher the acidity. While 7.0 is neutral on the pH scale, most plants prefer soil with a pH of 5.5 to 7.5. If the results of your soil test indicate that your soil is too acidic, you can add dolomitic lime or wood ash to help raise its pH level. Dolomitic lime will also supply calcium and magnesium, two essential plant nutrients often lacking in acidic soils. For soil that is too alkaline, adding peat moss or elemental sulfur will help to lower its pH level. High pH levels prevent plants from absorbing iron from the soil, often causing them to suffer from iron deficiency. Iron deficiency is evidenced by leaves that turn yellow while their veins remain green.
When adding amendments to your soil to alter its pH, keep in mind that it is easier to add more than to remove them once they have been mixed in. Use them sparingly and monitor the pH closely until the desired level is reached, consulting with your cooperative extension service for advice along the way.
Not only can soil be amended to alter its pH, it should also be amended to improve its texture. Ideally, soil should be easy to dig in and drain well while still holding the nutrients and water vital to plant growth. While some parts of the country have soil that fits this criteria, most gardeners have either clay or sandy soil that will require some hard work to reach an optimal texture.
Clay soils are heavy, difficult to dig in, hold too much water and prevent roots from getting the oxygen they need to grow. Clay can be amended by adding organic matter that will break up the dense clay particles and allow water to drain through the soil. When amending clay soil, start with ground that is moist, but not wet and sticky. Working in wet clay will cause the soil to compact, making it harder and denser. Plant material such as leaf mold, grass clippings and vegetable peelings that have been allowed to decompose into compost are ideal additions. Compost, garden soil or humus purchased from a home and garden center will also help to give clay soil the texture it needs.
Unlike clay, sandy soils are loose, hold few nutrients and dry out too quickly. An addition of peat moss or vermiculite will increase the ability of the soil to hold moisture, but will not add nutrients to the soil. Like clay soil, sandy soil benefits greatly from the addition of compost and commercially available garden soil. Both plant based compost and dehydrated manure are types of organic matter that will make the soil more nutrient rich and improve the soil structure. However, be cautious when using manure as it can burn plants if it is not well aged.
Once you have determined your soil type and the amendments that it needs, you're ready to begin working with it. Spade, hoe or till your soil to a depth of roughly 8 inches before adding any amendments. Next, spread a 2 inch layer of organic matter over the area and incorporate it into the soil, breaking up any large pieces of clay. Once the first layer of organic matter has been fully incorporated, spread a second 2 inch layer of organic matter with any other additions such as lime, wood ash or sulfur mixed in. Blend it into the soil with a spade or shovel, being sure to reach the full depth of the bed.
Once your soil has been amended to improve its pH and texture, it is ready to become a home for the plants of your choice. By following the steps outlined above, you can be sure that your soil is happy and healthy—and that leads to a successful garden!

Amending Soil