Mid-Atlantic Regional Reports

Healthy Soil Is at the Heart of a Thriving Garden  

This spring, take some time to protect and support this life-giving natural resource 

clay soil
Whether your soil is sandy and free-draining or heavy with clay, an abundance of organic matter will help it support plant growth more successfully. Photo: Carol Collins

Soil is a complex structure made up of mineral solids and organic matter interwoven with aggregates and open pore spaces. The open spaces between soil particles are just as important as the solids; pores allow air, water, and dissolved nutrients to travel through the soil, nourishing beneficial microorganisms and plant roots. As you begin your spring planting, keep soil health at the top of your mind with these practical tips. 

relative soil particle size
The relative proportions of sand, silt, and clay particles will determine how well your soil drains and how much water it can hold. Illustration: Kate Gosselin

3 Tips for Healthy Soil

Get to know your soil’s solids 

As most gardeners know, the minerals that are in your soil play a large role in how it functions. Your soil’s texture is determined by the mix of sand, silt, and clay particles that it contains; it is fixed by your region’s geology and climate, and it is not easily changed. To learn more about the makeup of your local soil, visit the USDA Web Soil Survey.

garden soil
Examining a sample of the author’s garden soil reveals a healthy matrix with many crumbly, granular clumps and an extensive network of growing roots.  Photo: Thomas J. Mrazik

You can also learn quite a bit about your soil from simple observation. Dig up a sizable soil clump and examine it. Good soil structure feels crumbly or granular. You should see visible clumps, loose pieces of soil mingled with clinging plant roots, and decaying organic matter. Soils with adequate organic matter, around 5%, tend to be less compacted, with a good, open structure.  

On the topic of soil compaction, it is important to wait until garden soil is relatively dry in spring before digging, tilling, planting, or stepping on it. Soil is especially susceptible to compaction when it is wet or saturated. Compacted soil has fewer of the vital pores that allow plant roots to grow freely and find water, air, and nutrients.   

soil amendments
A blend of plant compost, aged animal manure, and soil minerals (left), and compost from spent mushroom substrate (right) are both excellent sources of organic matter that can be added to your soil.  Photo: Thomas J. Mrazik

Feed your soil a natural diet   

One of the most important components of healthy soil is organic matter, which is largely made of carbon from decomposed plant residues. Amending your soil with organic matter is easily done by top-dressing beds with it or mixing it into the top few inches of garden soil. Amending your soil in fall will allow time for the materials to decompose over the winter months, but you can add fully decomposed matter to your soil at any time. As planting season approaches, consider getting a soil fertility test, which will tell you if your soil has an overabundance or deficiency of macronutrients. Use the test results to determine whether or not to apply fertilizer. If the test results indicate that the soil’s pH should be adjusted, follow the guidelines provided to ensure that you apply the proper amount of lime or sulfur needed. 

Commonly used organic soil amendments include: 

  • shredded leaves 
  • homemade compost 
  • compost from spent mushroom substrate, often called mushroom manure or mushroom soil 
  • peat moss 
  • aged or dried animal manure 
  • humus 

Different types of organic matter have different characteristics. For example, aged compost or dried manure contains many more nutrients than peat moss. Peat moss has an acidic pH and holds more water than compost.   

garden mulch
Mulching with organic materials like shredded natural cedar at a depth of 4 inches (left) or chipped natural pine bark nuggets at a depth of 2 inches will help soil to retain moisture. Photo: Thomas J. Mrazik  

Protect your soil with mulch 

 Properly mulching garden soil with organic materials has many benefits: 

  • Mulch retains soil moisture and rainwater.
  • It moderates seasonal temperature extremes.
  • It suppresses weed growth.
  • As it decomposes, mulch adds nutrients to the soil and improves soil structure.

Suitable organic mulch materials include shredded natural wood or bark, shredded leaves, screened compost, pine needles, chipped pine bark nuggets, and coarse wood chips.  Nonorganic mulches, like stone and landscape fabric, do not benefit soil in the same way that organic materials do. 

Spring is a good time to mulch garden beds.  Apply an even layer of mulch that is 2 to 4 inches on top of the garden bed soil. Consider any remaining mulch from last season as part of this depth measurement to ensure you do not put down too much.  Keep the mulch layer 3 to 5 inches away from the bases of shrubs and trees, since excessive mulch piled up against a wood plant’s base will cause root problems.   


—Thomas J. Mrazik is a horticulturist, a garden writer, and the owner of Goodly Gardens in Worcester, Pennsylvania. 


To read more about soil health and what you can do to support it, check out this article by Bob Schindelbeck from Cornell University’s Department of Soil and Crop Science here: Put the Life Back Into Your Soil 

The second chapter of FG’s Gardening Basics Project Guide is dedicated to soil. You can find it here: All About Soil


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