|My neighbor Ellie Fisher and her boys with a load of soil.
Question: Hi Lisa! We have a small garden area, maybe 4'x6’, where I can plant vegetables. I do not have a green thumb so haven't had a lot of luck over the years, but want to give it a go again this year. What do you recommend for getting the soil ready to plant? What should we add to it and should we test it in some way first? Thank you :-)
Answer: Hi Ellen! Where to begin? There are a range of approaches to getting the soil ready for a new garden, from not doing much at all to testing the soil you have and amending it if necessary. You can also bring in new soil.
First, I appreciated your use of the word “soil” versus “dirt.” Although it was a long time ago now, I took an agronomy course and one major takeaway was the professor’s insistence that the subject of his class was soil, not dirt. I think he even said that he never wanted to hear us use the "D" word. It was insulting to “the upper layer of earth in which plants grow, a black or dark brown material typically consisting of a mixture of organic remains, clay, and rock particles.” (That’s the dictionary definition of soil.) In contrast, the dictionary describes dirt as “a substance, such as mud or dust, that soils someone or something.”
But I digress.
My husband Phil reminded me of two friends of ours, bachelors in New Hampshire, who dug some holes in their lawn and plopped in a few tomatoes. That was it. Their plants were extremely happy, and produced tons of fruit. Meanwhile, their neighbor spent hours—and money—preparing a small garden about 20 feet away. He, too, planted tomatoes. And although the plants grew huge, they were almost barren of fruit.
Although my guess is that the neighbor over-fertilized, resulting in lots of leaves and a small amount of fruit, the point is that sometimes you can have a successful garden with very little effort.
My husband Phil and I were blessed with a vegetable garden that was already well-established when we took it over. It had been tended by a true Master Gardener who carefully amended the soil every year. At the end of the summer he even grew a crop of winter rye over the whole garden to help “fix” nitrogen into the soil (he tilled the rye into the soil the following spring).
Phil and I have never been that ambitious. Rather, at the beginning of the season we add lots of home-made compost to the garden, often with a sprinkling of 5-10-5 fertilizer that you can pick up at any garden center. We also occasionally dig in some aged horse or chicken manure.
I also started some flower beds “from scratch” by digging up some of the sod across our front lawn. There, too, I simply add some compost around the plants a few times over the growing season. I’m sure the beds would be even nicer if I had thoroughly analyzed and amended the soil before planting, but I didn’t have the patience. And the flowers look just fine to me.
The Full Monty
My neighbor Ellie Fisher started four 4'x8’ raised vegetable beds from scratch. She first had the soil tested, primarily because she wanted to make sure it didn’t contain any lead (the soil had never been used for a garden before). She did so by sending samples for analysis to the Center for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. (I'm guessing that such places exist around the world. Do a Google search for your state or area.)
Results in hand (there was no lead), she could then amend the soil by adding any missing nutrients. Because Ellie needed additional soil to fill the raised beds, she instead went to a local nursery that sold bulk amounts of some six different kinds of soil, including loam, only compost, and a combo of the two. Ellie opted for the latter, which she had delivered to her home. “All told,” she said, “the cost [including delivery] was pretty equal to getting bags from Home Depot, but I didn’t have to lug the bags home from the store.”
Ellie’s raised beds have worked out wonderfully. She’s successfully grown everything from tomatoes to herbs and pole beans.
To my readers: please feel free to comment (see button below) on your approaches to starting a garden and preparing the soil. We're all learning from each other! Gardening With Friends.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published in May 2020 and has been revamped and updated.