The goal of every avid gardener is to grow healthy plants, and while skills do matter for success, there are other factors that also play an essential role. For example, the knowledge of the type and quality of the soil. Truth be told, many gardeners underestimate the importance of these factors and if you are one of them, it is time for a change.

Why does this matter? For starters:

  • Any problems you might have with your soil that are preventing the optimal growth of your crops will need assistance in order to get better, otherwise, things will only get worse. There can be no improvement unless the source of any potential problem is removed.
  • Chances are, you’ve invested a lot of your free time into looking after your lawn or garden, so make the best of it.
  • Even if you are satisfied with the current results, a small change such as putting nutrients back into the soil can make a big difference.

With that being said, learning the specifics about a certain type of soil will give you a heads up on possible issues that may appear and the most effective solutions you can apply.

Table of Contents:

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and start with…

What makes soil healthy?

While the standard elements such as water, air, organic matter (also known as humus), minerals (clay, sand or silt) and live organisms, are a given in pretty much every type of soil, it’s their proportions that make the difference.

Ideally, what qualifies as healthy soil is the one that is rich in organic matter and contains fairly equal amounts (over 20%) of water and air. These specific factors create a favourable environment for live soil inhabitants like mites, earthworms and others to thrive and contribute to the growth of your healthy plants.

However, not all soils are made perfect. The percentage of the clay, sand and silt that your soil contains determines its texture, which is often the root of some common problems gardeners experience. For instance, a high percentage of clay can cause water drainage troubles, as clay particles are very small and it is hard for the liquid to move through them.

That’s why it is beneficial for gardeners to inspect the soil in their backyards and learn more about its specifics. How you may ask? In addition to paying attention to the plants’ growth, the presence of live organisms and how water drains, you can also test the soil with a little experiment. It’s easy, we promise, and everyone can do it!

When is soil improvement necessary?

Soil improvement is needed when you notice that the plants in your garden or the grass of your lawn do not perform as well as you’d expect. Signs like visible burning on the tips of the plants’ leaves, especially of young seedlings, are a clear sign that there is a problem. Other problems that need fixing can be:

  • Poor water drainage
  • Low water retention
  • Low fertility
  • Compaction
  • High/low acidity
Check out: Overseeding a Lawn: How and When to Repair Your Lawn

How to improve the soil

There are some effective soil improvement techniques that you can try and we are more than happy to share them with you. Кeep reading on to find the solution that works best for you and your garden.

Mulching

If you are not familiar with mulching, then it’s good to know that this refers to the process of covering plants and the top of the soil with mulch, which comes with some benefits for the garden. For starters, it provides protection and preserves the nutrients that the plants need, it reduces weeds’ infestation and invites earthworms, which are the little gardening helpers you want to have around.

Additionally, the mulching technique can help improve the water conservation quality of the soil. As we’ve already mentioned, the soil’s mineral composition plays a major role in establishing its properties.

Sandy soil, for example, is known to release water quickly due to the large amounts of air between its particles. This is a problem because you will have to water more frequently and as the moisture drains away, the necessary food for the plants in the form of nutrients disappear as well.

So, basically, mulch can:

  • Improve water retention in the soil;
  • Reduce weeds’ growth
  • Protect your garden’s soil from the weather conditions and pests
  • Prevent erosion
  • Enrich the soil with organic matter

There are both organic and inorganic types of mulches available out there. Which means that you can recycle things like grass clippings and leaves and help your garden become stronger. There is no specific time when you have to apply the mulch, but there are a few rules that it’s good to follow:

  • Don’t add too much of the mulch. Determine the thickness of the layer based on the type of much you are using and the number of plants you have. Some mulches are lighter and can let sunlight through easier than others, therefore adding more should not hurt. Also, if a bigger part of the garden is already planted, use less of the material.
  • Do not fully cover the stems of any trees you have in the garden, as this may help spread pests.
  • Mulch breaks down over time when exposed to the elements, so remember to keep an eye on it and add a fresh layer when needed.
Learn too: How to Get Rid of the Weeds in the Lawn Without Killing the Grass

Composting

Similar to mulching, composting is another great method to improve your soil in terms of moisture retention but it can do much more. Compost improves the soil’s fertility. Fertilising your soil is good and also necessary not just for soils that are poor on humus. Producing food is no easy task and it takes its toll, so feeding your garden at least once a year will improve its structure.

While there are various specialised fertilisers offered at the store, opting for an organic compost is more affordable and also a way to improve a soil’s quality naturally. You also have a big variety of options when it comes to what to compost. Organic matter in the form of weeds, grass, coffee and eggshells are only a few things you can try.

The only downside is that proper composting requires patience, as this is a process that can take up from a few weeks to 1-2 years. It all depends on the type of method you will choose, but more about the composting techniques you can find in our Compost: The Gardener’s Gold guide.

So, to sum this up, composting can:

  • Improving a soil’s fertility
  • Help soil organisms thrive
  • Keep diseases and pests away

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Aeration

Soil compaction is a real problem that many gardeners face. This normally appears in soils that are rich on clay, but that is not the only factor that contributes to it. Foot traffic also has an impact in causing the soil particles to stick together, not leaving space for air, which the small organisms need to survive. Compaction also deprives the plant’s roots of the needed nutrients and water.

The easy way you can check whether your soil is compacted is to try and stick your finger in it. If that proves hard and the ground looks kind of “worn out”, then you have your answer. This is where aeration comes in. There are two ways you can do it. One involves buying a specialised aerator and the other involves manual labour. Using a sharp gardening tool like a fork you have to put holes in the ground for air and water to enter.

Aeration is a soil improvement method you can try when:

  • You are dealing with heavily compacted soil.
  • You wish to make the soil more resilient.
  • You want to strengthen the root system of the plants.
  • You try to improve your soil’s drainage.

Since clay soils are also well-known for easily getting waterlogged, spiking the ground’s surface can also help improve drainage. Making at least 10 cm deep holes into your garden or lawn will allow for you to add sand or other materials that will help improve the soil’s overall drainage system and prevent the rotting of the plant’s roots.

In addition to aeration, there are some other ways you can fight soil compaction including:

  • Adding a top layer of organic material which will eventually decompose, loosening the soil and enriching it without the need to dig into the compacted soil.
  • Enriching the heavy soil with calcium by adding gypsum. Many gardeners swear by this method, but you have to be careful how and where you apply the gypsum.

Gypsum is mostly used on clay soil, as it can negatively affect other types of soil. If you are not completely sure what the composition of the soil of your garden is, then it is best to check that first before applying gypsum.

Introduce cover crops to the garden

In case you still haven’t heard of groundcover plants, now is a good time to learn what good helpers they can be. Their main purpose is to protect your garden from the harsh elements, minimising the risk of erosion or droughts. They can also keep weeds at bay and make your soil more fertile over time. But to be more specific, adding ground cover crops can be beneficial for:

  • Making the soil’s top layer retain water easily.
  • Eliminating weeds.
  • Expand soil’s organism life.
  • Enrich your garden with nitrogen and make it more fertile.

As the name suggests, these types of plants stay close to the ground and they can both help your garden thrive, as well as make your backyard look more eye-pleasing. So, which groundcover plants can make a nice addition to your garden:

  • Star Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides)
  • Bellflower (Campanula)
  • Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum)
  • Australian violet (Viola hederacea)
  • Moss

There is a big variety of species to choose from, so feel free to research further and select those that you like best.

Neutralise the soil’s pH level

A soil’s pH level is also a very important factor in your plant’s development. The ideal soil’s pH level, so to speak, is around 6.5. While some kinds of plants prefer more acidic (under 6.5) or more alkaline (over 6.5) types of soil, the vast majority that grows in Australia can thrive best in neutral soil.

How to know in which category your soil belongs? Fortunately, there are test kits available both online and in stores that can give you the answer. As for how to make your soil more healthy and neutral, there are a few things you can test:

  • Acidic soil – Since the majority of soils in Australia prove to fall into this category, you can try adding limestone or dolomite powder, which is rich in calcium. Wood ash or poultry manure can also work.
  • Alkaline soil – As for this one, mixing it with peat soil, which has acidic water in its composition, can prove beneficial. Other things that can help are compost and sulphur, as the latter can be found as a powder, too.

These can be added 1-2 times throughout the year, as they need time to decompose and achieve the results you are hoping for. You can repeat the testing of the soil to be sure that it’s neutralised.

Takeaways:

  • Whether it comes to your lawn or garden, it is beneficial to know what kind of soil lays beneath.
  • You can perform an experiment to determine the type of soil you have to use the help of professionals that specialise in the field.
  • Some of the most common soil problems are water drainage and retention, compaction, low fertility and lack of neutral pH level.
  • Determining correctly what the main issue is, will help you choose the right soil improvement method that will bring satisfying results.

Still not sure how to fix the soil?

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  • Last update: January 15, 2021

Posted in All Articles, Gardening Advice

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